Tucked away in a Short North alley, the creative minds at Trident Design are working hard on the next new gadget or product that you just can’t live without (even if you don’t know it yet). Founded by Chris Hawker in 2000, Trident is a one-stop invention shop that can help take anyone’s idea for an invention from sketch to store shelves with assistance on every step of the way. Hawker has also found success with some of his own inventions, and uses his experience with the process to help guide others.
We spoke with Chris recently to find out more about the services that Trident offers local entrepreneurs. Our full Q&A interview can be found below:
Q: First, can you tell us a bit about your personal/professional backgrounds as it relates to Trident Design?
A: Trident evolved out of a business I started in high school (in Perrysburg, Ohio near Toledo) in 1991 designing and maintaining reef aquariums with live corals for offices. I began my inventing career creating bespoke filtration systems for my clients, and then moved on to other aquarium related products, selling direct and through mail order. Driven by my nerdy passion for fish, I learned through trial and error and by asking questions of anyone I could find willing to talk to me about the business of manufacturing products. I moved to Columbus to go to OSU and shortly after I graduated (in 1999 with a degree in Comparative Religion) I launched my first mass-produced product, a professional-grade algae scraper. Much to my surprise, that product immediately took off in a relatively big way and started earning me a decent income, saving me from ever having to go looking for a job. Subsequently I hired a designer and started trying to build a company to develop inventions. Before long, I had branched out into guitar accessories, then cooking gadgets, and then everything. It was not an easy nut to crack, but now we have brought over 70 products to market in a variety of industries.
Abe Alexander is our director of operations and joined the company in 2010. He was actually my landlord when I rented my first office outside of my home after I hired my first employee, and we had known each other casually since then. A Westerville native, Abe and a partner built a successful retail store on High Street near campus while going to OSU, and it was extra space upstairs from his store that I moved into. Later he became a real estate broker and property developer, building a successful brokerage with another partner, including helping me buy my first house. During the real estate crisis, his business actually improved as they had presciently developed a specialty in foreclosure homes. It was also during this time that the two of us hatched the idea to transform my company by developing services to offer inventors. In 2009, Abe fulfilled a lifelong dream, sold his share of the brokerage to his partner and spent 13 months traveling around the world. Upon returning home, I asked him to join the team at Trident in order to help grow the inventor service business I had launched while he was gone.
Q: What was the impetus to transform your business into something that assists other entrepreneurs and business owners with their inventions?
A: Trident Design was originally founded, in 2000, as a product development firm focused on developing and commercializing internally generated ideas, as well as offering traditional industrial design services for companies. As time went on and our company and our products started to receive press, many inventors started contacting us for advice and assistance with their ideas and inventions. After talking to dozens of inventors over the years we realized most people did not have any idea what to do with their inventions or how to actually commercialize them.
Most companies in the invention industry, we learned, lacked credibility. Meanwhile, most design firms’ budgets exceeded the means of most independent inventors. Abe and I started discussing how there was really no reliable or proven solution for independent inventors and entrepreneurs looking to design, prototype or make money from their inventions. This was an area where we had developed quite a bit of expertise. We decided to create an efficient and affordable system based on the methods we had developed for our own products, to give inventors and entrepreneurs access to our design skills, as well as utilize our rolodex and licensing know-how to get their ideas commercialized. We launched this service in 2010 and it has catalyzed our company.
Q: What specific types of services do you provide entrepreneurs and inventors?
A: Trident Design provides a broad range of services related to designing and commercializing products. We offer patent research, market research, user research, product design, 3D CAD modeling, 3D printing/prototyping, naming, branding, graphic design, video production, animation, manufacturing assistance, consulting, intellectual property strategy, and product licensing. We can help people at any stage in the invention development process, from napkin sketch to store shelves, whether they intend to manufacture or license their product. We can help with every aspect of Kickstarter campaigns and help execute on the backend. We can also arrange Asian or domestic manufacturing.
It’s not what we do that makes us successful, however, it’s how we do it. Our specialty is combining clever innovation with emotionally engaging design to create breakthrough products. We have gotten really good at this through lots of practice and by paying close attention to the results. There are lots of ways to execute any idea, some more likely to succeed than others. We have honed an approach to maximize a product’s chance of success by tapping into consumer’s emotions. Furthermore, we love the products we work on and become friends with all of our clients.
Q: Can you give us an example or two about a product that you’ve assisted with that has had success?
A: One of my favorite stories of a big product success we scored for an inventor is the Hot Dog Slic’r. The inventor, a retired grandpa, came to Trident Design with the idea to invent an easier way to cut hot dogs for his grandchildren. He had identified a problem that he would like to solve but had no idea what to do next. He hired us to do the research, the industrial design, prototyping and branding for the product. Once the product was developed we went out and found a manufacturing/distribution partner to bring the product to market in exchange for a royalty. The product has been a homerun for both the inventor and Trident and is currently being sold at every Walmart and CVS in America. The product will sell millions of units and will provide a nice income for the inventor and his wife in their golden years.
Another of our great successes is the Onion Goggles (so you don’t cry from chopping onions J). This item was suggested to us by the owner of a small company who sells kitchen gadgets, but almost all stainless steel items. He had no idea where to begin. We went to work figuring out what the product needed to be in order to work effectively, and how they wanted to be in order to be attractive to the consumer. We delivered to the client a turnkey design along with a factory to produce them. This product has now been on the market for seven years, each year selling more than the last, and is one of their best selling items ever. It is also by far the most famous, having appeared on dozens of TV shows, such as the Today Show, Martha Stewart, Consumer Reports, and even The Modern Family.
Our most successful product to date is the PowerSquid, which was my own invention. It is a power strip with the outlets at the end of short extension cords (about six inches), so that it is always easy to access the outlets. We licensed this product to a company called Power Sentry who was bought by Philips and the product sold millions of units and won lots of awards. It also provided the capital that has allowed us to scale the company. It is now out under the Stanley and Enercell brands. PowerSquid is a perfect example of how clever innovation and emotionally engaging design can transform a product.
Q: What types of these products would you say that you specialize in, or are there specific types of products that you get most excited about being involved with?
A: We have primarily worked on consumer products, including housewares, hardware, pet products, gardening products, baby, toys, and consumer electronics. We have also worked on medical devices and industrial supplies. We get excited about any types of product that solves a problem, fills a hole in the marketplace or utilizes a new technology. Currently we are working on a camp chair, gun holster, a bra storage device, a stylus, an iPad case, a urinal screen, a medical device, a humidity sensor, a flash light, a swim goggle, a baby bib and quite a few others. We also work with technology companies with tech they want to find markets for, helping them to locate partners in industry.
Q: Do you feel that Columbus is a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity, or are there challenges to launching a business here?
A: Columbus is an absolute hotbed for entrepreneurial activity, full of incredibly creative and talented people making things happen. Columbus is experiencing a wonderful renaissance period and is a wonderful place to do business. More than any other city I have experienced, it is accessible and accepting to new business. Also, there are tons of cool companies to collaborate with, many that hardly anyone is aware of. For example, we recently started working with an amazing technology company here in town, called Zyvex, that develops cutting edge nano-tech carbon fiber materials. This is some next-level stuff that we get to play with, right here in Columbus.
Truthfully, I don’t feel that there are a lot special of challenges to launching a business here, other than those challenges endemic to starting any business. Perhaps the most difficult challenge we face right now is that there are a limited number of affordable commercial spaces for rent in the Downtown, Short North, German Village and Grandview areas. I guess that’s a sign things are doing well here, though!
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your own business growth and your next steps with looking to expand into a new office space?
A: Our business is on a great trajectory and we have many new products hitting the market in the next year. Over the last three years, the inventor-based business has our spurred our growth from 5 to 15 people. We have already licensed seven products so far this year, exceeding last years total of six. Meanwhile, we continue to work with a growing number of companies large and small to help them develop game-changing products through a variety of services, including our core industrial design service, guided innovation brainstorms, and technology brokering. Furthermore, we still work a lot on internal projects, which really energize the team.
Currently, we are diligently looking for a new space, as we have 12 people working out of a 1200 square foot space in the heart of the Short North. While cozy, we are absolutely bursting at the seams. We are looking to triple our office space size, expand our services and are committed to staying the in the downtown area.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers, or new projects in the works?
A: Inventing is a form of investment that is potentially very rewarding financially, and can be very exciting. Everyone has ideas, and some of them can actually pay off very well if you know what you are doing. Inventing is also full of potential pitfalls and ways to waste tons of money. We love sharing our experience with inventors and informing them about the realities of commercializing products. Inventors are always welcome to contact us for free advice and to discuss their ideas confidentially. We offer free product evaluations so please don’t hesitate to drop us a line.
As for new projects, Abe and I just completed and released a free education video series at www.ideasintoproducts.com which will give anyone with an interest the basics of the invention business. Educating inventors is a huge part of what we do, so we are excited to have this great resource to offer people so they can learn on their own.
For more information about Trident Design, visit www.trident-design.com.