Inspiration can come from anywhere, even the most unexpected places and people. One idea may pop into your brain when you see a cloud that looks like a kangaroo or overhear two ladies chat on the bus about the dearth of good dog brushes. Some of us ponder the thought for a moment, maybe as little more than a joke, and then move on, but others turn it into a new product or business. We gathered 10 tales of successful entrepreneurs and their unconventional inspirations.
Inspiration #1: The cat
Eight years ago, Rebecca Rescate, President and Founder of CitiKitty Inc., moved to a small New York City apartment with her husband and her cat. As she squeezed everything into the tiny abode, Rescate realized she had no place to put her cat’s litter box—so she decided to toilet train her cat. “I read countless toilet training success stories, mostly using homemade devices, but could not find an easy-to-use cost-effective toilet training kit. I knew the process could be simplified,” says Rescate. To save other cat owners time, she developed CitiKitty, the first complete cat toilet training kit. Available in more than 1,000 stores, her business has reached over $1 million in annual sales.
Inspiration #2: Your college study break hangout
Lee Zalben, Founder and President of Peanut Butter & Co., came up with the idea for his business in college…but not sitting in any classroom. As Lee and his friends studied for finals, they developed a fun competition to hold during those much-needed study breaks: who could create the “craziest but best-tasting peanut butter sandwich.” Fast-forward to post-graduation when Lee saw an empty storefront in the Greenwich Village area of New York City and thought it would be an ideal locale for a peanut butter sandwich shop. In 1998, The Peanut Butter & Co. Sandwich shop opened. Offering gourmet peanut butter sandwiches as well as desserts, milkshakes, and smoothies, the company has grown quickly, selling its varieties of all-natural peanut butter in more than 15,000 supermarkets and specialty food stores.
Inspiration #3: Slippery seating
A nurse for 35 years, Barb Przybylowicz, President of SafetyBunns LLC, saw first-hand how some patients, especially those she worked with in independent and assisted-living homes, often need a more secure way of sitting in chairs. “The day came when a resident kept ‘slip-sliding’ from her chair,” says Przybylowicz. That is when she came up with her idea: pants designed with a non-slip area on the buttocks to keep people safe from slipping or sliding regardless of where they sit. No longer in the nursing field, Przybylowicz continues to help others with her invention.
Inspiration #4: Sloppy kids
“My kids are slobs and when they come home, they throw their backpacks against the foyer wall, kick off their shoes into my white moldings, and generally destroy the place,” says Debbie Wiener of Slobproof! PaintPen. “My oldest son Sam came home from college for Thanksgiving and saw me on my hands and knees, filling in the dings and dents on my baseboard molding with crusty cans of white paint. Without moving an inch from the TV, he asked, ‘Hey Mom, isn't there a better way for you to do that?’” From that one statement, Wiener developed the Slobproof! PaintPen, a vacuum-sealed paint pen that can be filled with any color paint for touch-ups.
Big Hot Dog was the brainstorm of Dan Abbate, “da Boss” of Big Hot Dog, during a family BBQ. His dad, Denny, got annoyed when “regular” hot dogs would roll onto the ground – which gave Dan the idea to create a hot dog that wouldn’t roll. Square hot dogs were too costly to manufacture, so the idea of a huge hot dog that could be sliced into patties was born. Not only do they not roll, the slices from a Big Hot Dog fit perfectly on hamburger buns. Abbate’s Big Hot Dog was featured on The History Channel’s “Modern Marvels: Supersized Foods” and was recently named by 2013 Guinness World Records as the “largest commercially available hot dog.”
Inspiration #6: A broken foot
“My product line resulted from me jumping off a boat on the dock, landing on a metal cleat and breaking a bone in my foot,” reveals Christina Daves, Founder of CastMedic Designs. “The doctor walked in with the ugly big, black walking medical boot and told me I had to wear it for the next eight weeks. I was going to New York City, Fashion Capital of the World, the next day,” says Daves. She scoured the Internet for something to make that boot fashionable and couldn’t find anything. “With nothing on the market and my research showing a market of close to four-million people wearing these boots annually, I designed and manufactured MediFashions,” says Daves. Winning awards and competitions, her boot socks and wraps have been donned by celebrities including Diana Ross and Olympic Gold Medalist Jordyn Wieber.
Inspiration #7: A date at Yankee Stadium
“The home stretch food carrier was inspired by a trip to Yankee Stadium on a date,” says Bill Weber, inventor of The Home Stretch, a portable, reusable food carrier. “It was really frustrating to carry two gigantic sodas and a couple of hot dogs back to the bleachers, having to bob and weave through the crowds in the food court. The only alternative food carriers were small cardboard boxes (which are tricky to balance and can't handle giant drinks) or paper bags (dangerous when wet).” Weber met with a buddy who was a package engineer. “We sketched out a comfortable, strong, easy-to-carry reusable plastic "basket" that cradled drinks of any size and had plenty of room for plates of food and bags of french fries,” says Weber. Now, with the patent pending, the product is about to be licensed.
Inspiration #8: Watching a friend pick up a girl
Lori Cheek, Founder & CEO of Cheek'd, the reverse-engineered dating site, had her zany inspiration while watching her dinner companion pick up a girl. “A few years ago, I was out to dinner with a friend, and I had excused myself from the table. When I returned, my handsome dinner date had scribbled on the back of his business card, ‘Want to have dinner?’ As we were leaving the restaurant, he slid that card to an attractive woman at a nearby table,” recalls Cheek. This gesture made her realize how many folks want to connect with someone they see in real life, but don’t necessarily want to hand over a business card—with so much personal information—to a stranger. In May 2010, she launched Cheekd.com, combining the use of real cards and the technology to safely connect with each other online. “Cheek’d bridges the gap between online dating and real-world romance by providing members with physical cards that they can use to entice people from the real world to flirt with them in the virtual world,” says Cheek.
Inspiration #9: Need for a Father’s Day gift
“On Father's Day, I always give my husband homemade gifts: the kids' feet imprinted on a t-shirt, a matching game using their photos, ceramic pieces with my kids' artwork, a laminated keepsake box with their photos on it,” says Tina Nelson, CEO of Professional Games, Inc. “When my children were two, four and five years old, I thought [a great Father’s Day gift] would be a game to teach them what Dad did after he left for work each day. He's a lawyer, and I found no game fitting that description.” So, she created her own game—Lawsuit!—and it has won “Game of the Year” by Creative Child magazine five years in a row.
Inspiration #10: The love of very specific slice of brownie
“One day I was eating a corner brownie, and realized that I loved the corner the best...but never really talked about it. Then I realized that was probably true for lots of people,” says Matthew Griffin, President and CEO of Baker's Edge. Griffin decided to invent a pan that only made edge pieces, resulting in the Edge Brownie Pan, which won the Grand Champion prize for the Visa/MSN “Ideas Happen” contest. Along with their other products, the Edge Brownie Pan is sold online at their web site and Amazon.com, as well as retailers like Sur La Table and Solutions.