The Rabbit’s Foot
What is it like to be a real Inventor?
MEETING THE INVENTOR
It’s a blazing hot Summers day in early June in New York City. My weather app tells me it’s 95 degrees, 5% humidity, and we can expect a full twelve hours of perfect sunshine.
It’s the best kind of day, the kind of day that kept me going through the dark dreary winter. This is the kind of day I craved, longed for and fantasized about when stuck under layers of fleece, down, faux fur and whatever other materials I needed to stay warm enough to keep the Manhattan chill from setting up permanent residence in my bones.
On days like this, I wake up with a broad, broad smile. I feel like a kid again, eager to go outside and play until the sun goes down. Who can help but keep a permanent grin on their face as you’re blasted with vitamin D, you finally get to strip off and strut your stuff through the Manhattan streets, and, if you’re lucky, you get to enjoy the best rooftops the city has to offer? It’s summertime, and the living is eassssy….
Enjoying one of the city’s best rooftops is exactly what I intended to do on that day, as I rocked up to the exclusive, super-sexy Manhattan private members club I belong to. It’s a place that’s hard to get into, although many try. For starters, becoming a member requires that you work in a creative industry. It’s the one time I get to mock my lawyer and banker friends who desperately want to become members, but are simply unable to no matter how many hours they bill or much money they bank in bonuses each year. Then there’s the secretive selection process — you put in your application, have two other members write (hopefully glowing) recommendations, and then just hope and pray that you’re one of the lucky ones that gets chosen.
Spending my days on the club’s rooftop writing while doused in the brightest sunlight, the rays bouncing off the perfectly sized pool, sipping whatever refreshing (usually alcoholic) drink is to hand and watching people who’ve clearly spent the winter doing daily sessions at Barry’s Bootcamp is my idea of heaven …
I arrive at the club, and promptly work on finding myself a place to sit. Immediately I’m faced with some (very first world) decisions: I need a little shade, but not too much. I don’t want to fry but I definitely need the sun. But so does everyone else. Needless to say, it’s busy. But, over in the corner I spot a friend of mine who also comes to the club on days like this for his own spot of Manhattan paradise. This is my friend M — a cute, brown haired digital sales guy with a dirty sense of humor and a wicked laugh. He beckons me over and, as I sit down next to him in the lounge chair, he introduces me to his friend, J. They have already started on the refreshments, and from what I can see, it looks like rose is the order of the day.
J, he tells me, is an Inventor. From the Midwest actually. Kansas of all places. The Inventor has an air of cool mystery around him and a sparkle in his eye. There are all sorts of characters in this club — from fashionistas, to singers, artists and serial entrepreneurs (it is New York after all!) but I’ve never met an inventor before. I’ve always imagined inventors to be either wizard-like in appearance — you know, an old guy with a long white beard — or super nerdy, with thick rimmed glasses and poor social skills after all those thousands of hours spent holed up in a garage somewhere working on some kind of futuristic flying device. But, The Inventor doesn’t fit into either of my stereotypes. He actually seems kinda….cool? I’m intrigued. I look forward to speaking to this interesting inventor guy some more.
Fast forward to 2019. The scorching Summer rooftop days are a hazy and distant memory. This time around, it’s a January evening at the opposite end of the weather spectrum. It isn’t exactly one of those bone-shivering polar vortex nights that New York winters are well-known for, but it’s chilly enough. I’m with a bunch of people at an equally exclusive spot in New York — the upscale Asian restaurant, Mr Chow, the famed Tribeca hangout for stars and celebs. I’m with The Inventor and his crew.
About ten of us are seated on a long table; the drinks are in full flow, as is the conversation. The white-jacketed waiters are out in force, busily going back and forth between the kitchen and the table bringing us what seems like a never-ending amount of food which looks and smells tantalizingly delicious. We’ve ordered a selection of dishes, which soon fill up the table: Ma Mignon, the restaurant’s signature filet mignon dish which has been popular since the late 70s, Gamblers Duck, lobster, prawns, Mr Chow Noodles and so much more. Yum.
As we drink wine, cocktails and champagne (and later, of course, shots), there’s a palpable buzz at our table. Everyone is in high spirits, in a mood that I can only really describe as celebratory. In fact, there is a lot to celebrate because The Inventor’s company has just had a major business win.
I’m sitting next to Sarah and Adrian, an English couple who I immediately gel with. Sarah is a wonderful woman, sandy blonde, attractive, very funny, bubbly and down to earth. Adrian, her husband of 35 years, is a 60-something year old English man with a happy face and a rambunctious nature. As I talk to them, about all sorts of things — from the state of British and American politics, to the dreary English weather which none of us miss — I start to uncover a lot more about the intriguing world of invention that I have found myself in.
The Inventor is smart: he’s invited me to this dinner, but he has not told me anything about who else will be there, so I have no preconceived ideas about who I’m talking to, nor what they really do or how it all really works. All I know is that I’m fascinated by grown folk who spend their lives building toys, games and robots and I want to know everything about it!!!
Adrian tells me he’s been in the toy business for over 20 years and, as we talk, it becomes apparent that he is an industry veteran. I might not know much about toys or invention, but anyone who has ever been a child and played with any kind of toy is aware of the names of the biggest and most high profile brands. Hasbro. Fisher-Price. Mattel. Adrian has worked at all of them in very senior roles, bringing some of the world’s most beloved toys to life (and to market). He now specializes in helping international firms gain access to the North American and Latin America markets through his own consulting firm. Needless to say he knows his stuff and he knows what he’s talking about.
He has been working with The Inventor closely on this new business venture, and confides in me that he sees him as a true visionary, even comparing him to Steve Jobs. This is high praise indeed of course, but the more I get to know The Inventor, the more I see that this is definitely not an exaggeration.
Over the course of the evening, as I get to know more people, it becomes clear to me that The Inventor rolls with the best in the business. These are definitely major players, people at the top of their game. They understand their industry inside and out and have risen up the ranks, through passion, grit, talent, hard work and a love for what they do. It’s an impressive bunch. It’s always a wonderful thing to spend time with talented and interesting people, especially those that also have great personalities and a lot to talk about not just work-wise but in terms of how they see the world and society in general. Any assumptions I’d had about inventors and toy makers are being totally overturned.
After dinner, we head to Koreatown for a post-prandial spot of karaoke!!! We enter our karaoke room, a group of animated, bubbly, fun-loving people, preparing to launch into our own unique (and at times very hilarious) renditions of our favorite songs. Just in case you don’t know, karaoke bars are the heartbeat of Koreatown at night, where you will find the sidewalks jam packed with excited revelers, looking forward to drinking some beers, downing some limoncellos and shrieking their hearts out to Bon Jovi, Beyoncé or whatever else takes their fancy. After singing (well, perhaps screaming, yelling and shouting might be more apt descriptions) for a few hours, a few of us then decide to head to a rooftop bar in Midtown. I’m tired, but I had a great night with some really great people! Never let it be said that these people don’t like to party. This is definitely a work hard-play hard bunch!
The Brains behind the Business
One of the obsessions of our current digital generation is attempting to delve into the psyches of successful people in order to understand exactly what makes them tick, how they work and how they got to be where they are today.
The internet is replete with articles listing the first five things Warren Buffett does when he wakes up in the morning, or the last thing Richard Branson does before he goes to bed, or the last ten books Bill Gates read, as well as their words of wisdom, quotes and soundbites — all, of course, designed to help us become more like our visionary business and creative idols. That’s all well and good, but truth be told, there is only so much you can find out without actually meeting or getting to knowing those people.
Being the inquisitive soul that I am, as well as someone with an unnatural interest in getting to the bottom of things, I realized that in order to find out more about The Inventor, I would have to do some more background research. It’s probably the journalist in me. Or maybe I’m just nosy. Either way, I’m never really satisfied until I’ve figured out all the pieces of a person’s personality puzzle. Personally, I couldn’t care less what inventors and innovators eat for breakfast or what time they wake up — I’m much more interested in the foundations and characteristics of the world’s most successful and visionary people. I want to know about their upbringings, their early years and childhoods, the kinds of families they come from, what kinds of friendships they have and what their most deeply held values and principles are. As the saying goes: If you want to understand the fruit, you first have to understand the root.
Going to the root is exactly what I decided to do: I figured that if I really wanted to get to know The Inventor, I would do well to speak to those closest to him — family members, good friends and even an old teacher. Oh yes, I went way back in time! It really isn’t often that one gets the inside scoop on the inner workings of such brilliant people, and I was determined to discover as much as I could. (Like I said, I’m nosy, although I really do prefer the word curious.)
One of the most fascinating things about The Inventor is that he’s an identical twin, his brother being two minutes older than him. The Inventor had often spoken about his twin — who is not, incidentally, an inventor, but a private investigator — and now I was going to get the chance to actually ask a twin about his twin.
As we know, twin studies are some of the most interesting for psychologists because, due to their genetic sameness, you should theoretically be able to extrapolate which elements of a twins personality are innate and which are more environmentally driven. I also had a personal reason for wanting to hear from his Twin: for some reason, although it’s a bit late in the day now, I always wanted to be a twin myself. I’ve never really understood why. Perhaps it’s because I’m of Nigerian heritage. Not many people know this, but Nigeria has one of the highest rates of twins in the world. Apparently it’s to do with what we eat, especially yams, which apparently contains some protein which is responsible for splitting the zygote. But I digress! Would The Inventor and his twin be alike, I wondered? If so, how alike? And, when did this invention thing start? Was The Inventor one of those kids who was building skyscrapers out of Knex in his crib?
As it turns out, the answer is pretty much yes. The Inventor’s twin, who sounds eerily similar, says he cannot recall a time when The Inventor was not coming up with something. “He’s been like that ever since we were babies,” he told me in a candid phone call. By the way, they both live in Kansas City, a seven minute drive from each other, and see each other nearly every day. “He was very inquisitive…” The Twin then went on to explain that their Mom had recently told him that even when they were in the bath as babies, The Inventor would always be trying to maneuver the faucet knobs, an image which I found very funny as well as totally adorable! “He was always taking things apart, putting things back together…. And then [when we got a bit older] he would make working prototypes and models of his ideas. And they worked! I can’t remember when he wasn’t doing that.” In fact, inspired by the first person to receive the artificial heart, The Inventor actually built a working model of an artificial heart himself with his own supplies. He was 13 years old.
I started to wonder about the nature versus nurture debate. What role nature and nature play in ability and success is a question that many people ask every single day. I asked The Twin if this invention thing was — in his opinion — an innate trait of some kind? “Right,” he answered, affirmatively. “He always wanted to be an inventor. Always. There wasn’t anything else that he wanted to do. We had menial jobs growing up, but he always wanted to be an inventor. And he went after it. He really applied himself our entire lives to be like that.” Wow. So, this is someone who was born with an inventor itch to scratch, displayed a keen gift for invention from very early on, and who has dedicated his life to it. Very interesting. Obviously, I wanted to know even more.
So yes, there was an innate leaning there, but what about how they were brought up? Surely, it takes a certain kind of parent to not only recognize these special gifts and abilities in their child but to nurture them? Another parent could have found The Inventor’s need to twist the knobs during baby bathtime more annoying than ingenious: there are probably countless parents around the world discouraging their babies from doing that very thing as I type. “We had an interesting childhood,” the Twin explained. “Our Mom let us get dirty. She would let us play outside and do things, which a lot of helicopter parents don’t.” Their Mom not only let her boys explore the external world, but also allowed them to play with ‘toys’ which supported building and making. “The Inventor had a tool set; he had electronics packs that he would buy and make things with…,” his twin recalled, proud of his brother and all he has achieved since then.
There’s no doubt that their mother’s support was instrumental in providing The Inventor with the confidence to develop his innate passion and abilities and turn his early ideas into real-world inventions. “Our Mom is behind everything and encouraged my brother’s creativity. She was involved in our education because even in elementary school The Inventor won every single science fair — and when I say every, I mean every. He won all of them with his ideas,” explained The Twin.
As I said earlier, the Twin is an investigator, with his own business (the entrepreneurial gene runs through the family), but before going into private practice, he worked in law enforcement. I wondered about the similarities between the twins’ investigative and inventive minds, since both types of work require an ability to not only accurately recognize problems but to solve them. Putting this question to the Twin, he made some interesting observations, showing a real depth of understanding of how his brother’s mind works. “On the investigations side,” he said, “you’re going back to an event in the past in order to what happened from the past forward. The difference is that inventors [like my brother] are futurists. They have to know the past, present and the future. So The Inventor really has to prepare for the future. My brother is probably 10–15 years in the future in terms of the way he thinks.”
As our conversation comes to a close, he is keen to emphasize the importance of their special relationship: “We were both raised the same way. We’re not momma’s boys and we’re not daddy’s boys either. We always had each other.” In other words, they really are two peas in a pod, different expressions of a core character of curiosity. I finished my phone conversation with The Inventor’s brother feeling deeply inspired by the palpable and heart-warming high regard and striking love which he obviously feels for his sibling. “I consider my friendship with my brother a treasure,” he said warmly towards the end of chat.
I decided that it was time to dig even deeper, because even though I loved everything The Twin said, I wondered how objective he could be about someone with whom he had shared a womb. So, off I went, like the good journalist that I am, in search of more people who could shed even more light on what I could see was turning out to be a very, very interesting human being with a very, very interesting set of abilities, as well as a fascinating life story. I was becoming ever more curious. They say it takes a village to raise a child and now I wanted to know more about what kind of “village” had raised this particular one.
I compiled a list of people who might be able to give me more information and, based on conversations I had had with The Inventor came up with a strong — and fascinating — list. Not only would I speak to his high school Physics teacher — a woman he counts as an important influence in his life — and another close friend who is also an inventor turned professional meta-story-teller, but also to a mind-mapper who has spent the past few months doing live drawings at The Inventor’s business meetings. Even cooler, the same guy is also actually mind-mapping The Inventor’s mind, so that he can have a visual representation of his methods and thought processes. How cool is that?!
It soon became obvious to me that beyond giftedness, passion and drive, The Inventor had some other extraordinary people-centric abilities and traits, soft skills if you will, which make a significantly positive difference in his life and business. One of these is the ability to inspire and to develop strong, long-lasting bonds with others. As a result, he is surrounded by a whole host of like-minded, unusually intelligent, polymathically creative types. The Inventor and his crew were all pretty damn genius with complimentary, focused, and force multiplying powers. Can anyone say ‘squad goals’?!
The conversation about the education system’s role in nurturing creativity — or not — is one that has received a lot more attention in the public domain recent years. Furthermore, the question as to whether or not there are multiple intelligences which might be more important than just academic intelligence is increasingly acknowledged and widely discussed. I wanted to know what The Inventor was like at school and what kind of student he was.
I also reasoned that a teacher who has taught many thousands of students over a multi-year teaching career would have a profound insight into what makes a particular student stand out and what capabilities that student would have had that made them different from others. So, I got on the phone to The Inventor’s high school physics teacher (they are still in contact and meet for coffee or lunch every few years), who vividly remembers his unique abilities to this day.
“He was just an extremely creative individual,” The Teacher says, noting that it was not his academic performance that stood out to her, but something else. “This was not an A student by any means,” she goes on to recount, “but he was always looking at things just slightly different. Just thinking out of the box. If I would present a principle, he would immediately start thinking about how to use it or what could be done with that idea. He was just an extremely, extremely creative individual and somebody I thought would be extremely successful in any kind of entrepreneurial engagement.”
Corroborating what The Inventor’s Twin had said about his early inventiveness, she went into even more detail as she remembered a special after-school research group she used to run for students with an interest in independent study. Although The Inventor wasn’t with the independent research group, he was working independently on his own projects. “I was working with him anyway because I could just recognize the talent…,” explained The Teacher. “During high school, he would be thinking about things, or inventing things or coming up with ideas and because I recognized that he was so creative, we just started talking about things outside of the regular class. By the time he was a junior or senior, he was actually creating things, building things, mostly electronic type things. We would look at them and I then encouraged him to enter them in some competitions that were for students for entrepreneurial type things. He’s exactly the type of person I like to work with. Somebody who’s going to think a little differently, take some chances, be creative. And he also had the personal characteristics I thought was going to take him very far. He makes a good impression, he’s very personable and charismatic”
The conversation with The Teacher was fascinating, not only because she identified The Inventor’s early talent, but because she genuinely believed that he — then her student — would go onto achieve great things in life, on a major level. Furthermore, she encouraged him to do exactly that. What a joy to have a teacher who had that kind of foresight and belief in his creative mind and abilities: “I just really believed that he could do something…and it wouldn’t necessarily be something that would show up as an A grade…I’m not at all surprised by the success that he has had.” We also talked about the relationship between a supportive and encouraging teacher and a bright and/or creative student: “I think that the student needs someone — whether teacher or whoever — who believes in them, who believes they can succeed,” she told me.
I had to ask again where she thought these abilities had come from. “I think it’s pretty much innate,” she answered. “I think it’s something that he’s always had. I think every child starts out with a certain amount of creativity and we probably get rid of a lot of it through the education system, but that didn’t happen with The Inventor. He was always questioning. I would present something that would be a basic scientific principle and he would immediately take it to the next step. Something outside of the box, something that even the very bright students would not have come up with. You do not find that many students with the type of creativity that The Inventor has. He’s innovative, he looks at things just slightly different than other people…”
Telling The Story
As I’ve previously mentioned, The Inventor moves in a very interesting circle. He surrounds himself with like-minds: other equally dynamic, brilliant and polymathic individuals who are all supremely insightful and great to talk to. K — a professional storyteller who has known The Inventor for about five years and has worked with him on various innovation projects — is one of these people. The Story-Teller is an important person for me to speak to because he knows the world of invention and toys as well as The Inventor does and he knows The Inventor on both a personal and professional level.
To give you some business background, The Storyteller runs a fascinating meta-storytelling business, which involves researching trends and meta-stories using real-time social media conversations. The insights then allow companies and brands to tailor their messaging to consumers in a way they previously have not been able to. “What we find is that you can actually see a little bit into the future because things show up in people’s stories, long before they show up in their behaviors…,” The Story-Teller explains about his business. “Human storytelling is foundational to how we create change. It is the way we create change. We tell the story of it first and then we weave in bits and pieces of stories that inspire us, and then we inspire others, and then we align and then change occurs. We change our own habits, we change others’ habits and then it becomes something larger. What is incredible is social media actually lets us see that. We can actually see the stories and how they’re moving, who they are connecting to and what are the themes in real time. It’s like if you could magically open up the top of a computer and actually see the information passing back and forth. It’s the equivalent of that”.
As our exchange progresses, he moves into some other enthralling topics, which leave me thinking deeply for a few days! We get into a conversation about something The Story-Teller calls ‘distributed thinking’, a phrase I’ve never heard of yet which, on explanation, makes complete sense for the times in which we live. I ask The Storyteller to tell me more about this phenomenon, particularly in relation to the current top-secret AI-related innovation The Inventor is working on, an invention he considers to be his most significant to date. “What’s interesting about his project is we’ve been following this phenomenon called ‘distributed thinking’ that’s been happening with human beings — especially with younger human beings — because we’re all so connected now. The Inventor’s project is distributed thinking but it’s distributed thinking of a different sort. If you think about the mobile phone as being common-man distributed thinking, this project is almost a genius-level version of that because it incorporates AI. It’s a constant re-contextualizing of the discoveries we’re making that then allow us to make more discoveries. And that’s brilliant. That’s a change — a step change — in the idea of what it means to think. It’s not just your thought and my thought because we’re in the room, it’s also the thought of an AI… I think this is the next level evolution of how to think.”
Going even deeper, The Storyteller explains that The Inventor has a distinct advantage when it comes to distributed thinking due to the fact that he’s a twin. “Think about it,” he muses. “He’s one of two, he’s a twin. This is actually a man who grew up with the most intimate form of distributed thinking you can do without a device in your hand! And you meet his brother and they finish each other’s sentences, and they ping pong ideas back and forth, and they have special dance moves and they celebrate that they both arrived at the same conclusion and they did it together. And it’s like wow! Distributed thinking without a device!” This put a whole new spin on the nature of the twin relationship! How incredible! And as The Story-Teller puts it: “Long before Mobile and search and the internet, The Inventor and his twin brother were already experiencing distributed thinking the way twins do so this innovation was almost inevitable coming from him!”
Given that The Story-Teller understands the toy business and the world of inventing, I ask him to explain what makes The Inventor’s approach and personality different from others within his industry. “The Inventor is obviously a very unique individual,” The Storyteller tells me. “You not only have to see the opportunity but you have to invent the idea that didn’t exist, and then the hard part starts. And the hard part is you have to convince others. You have to do enough work so that you can get others to say ‘This is amazing! I want this, I need it and I will buy it from you or I will participate in it’. And The Inventor is that guy who goes from the A to the Z, from literally something that didn’t exist to something he creates a community of belief around and then makes it happen.”
One thing I notice as a common theme running through all the conversations I’ve had with The Inventor and people around him is that have unusual backgrounds and have a lot of breadth when it comes to their interests. The Storyteller is a trained industrial designer, product developer, writer, artist and a trained strategist. He ran all of Hasbro’s Worldwide R&D for a while, also founded their entire entertainment division and relaunched Transformers and My Little Pony and a host of other big, big stories, and now runs his meta storytelling business. “If it wasn’t for my career, I think you could accuse me of being ADD”, he jokes. The point here is that it’s clear that everyone around The Inventor has a wealth of knowledge and ideas, garnered from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds, which added together makes for a very strong and powerful whole. I come away from the conversation feeling like my brain has been exponentially expanded.
Next up I knew it was time to speak to the guy who would give me the low down on The Inventor’s mental processes. So, I was massively intrigued by what The Mind-Mapper would say. First of all, who wouldn’t want someone their own mind, creative process and methods ‘mapped’?! Secondly, the person doing the mapping would have a level of understanding of how The Inventor’s mind works that could be simply incredible.
Before we got started, I wanted to understand the whole nature of this mind mapping work and how one even gets into something like that. The Mind-Mapper told me that this line of work — which has become increasingly popular in the business world over the past decade — is not one that’s really taught anywhere. It’s something you learn by doing. The official term for this kind of work is apparently “graphic recording” and he has been working with The Inventor since early this year.
“I’m a trained illustrator but also a designer,” says. “So I can create pictures of complexity. With The Inventor, I’ve worked a couple of different ways. One of these is live drawing at the white board while he’s running a meeting. I will draw while the conversation unfolds. It could unfold over an hour and I fill up a white board with drawings and words.”
Surely though, the graphic recorder must have a special skill for reading in between the lines as well? The Mind-Mapper tells me more about how he works while mapping conversations and ideas: “We’re not stenographers, we don’t promise 100% capture. What I’m listening for are concepts….” He then goes onto to describe a meeting with a group in China which lasted one hour which he drew in real time: “Sometimes the conversation wouldn’t relate and I would take notes off to the side, and then sometimes I would come back to it. Sometimes the metaphors are literal. For example, we talked about a chain from the United States to China and I literally drew a chain between the two countries. Sometimes I come up with the metaphor, but a lot of times there’s no reason for me to add any more to the drawing than I need to. At the end, it’s really taking somebody who is brilliant and incredibly intuitive and turning that into more of a repeatable process that others can learn it and do.”
He then starts to get into what he has come to see about the inner workings of The Inventor’s mind: “The Inventor has an ability to connect technologies and ideas that aren’t very obvious. He thinks very fast. He thinks many times faster than his audience. I can draw pretty fast, but when I was drawing him, I was probably at my top speed. What I’ve noticed about the way The Inventor thinks is that he’s really familiar with a lot of the technologies that he brings up and he does it in a very enthusiastic way. I think it really energizes everybody in the room and gets the client excited.”
“I hate to use a business cliché,” The Mind-Mapper continues, “but what I really like about The Inventor is that he can go from the business angle of why is an invention is brilliant to [the details of the invention] in the weeds. That’s technical. It’s unique. From someone going from ‘Hey, I wanna get my soldering iron and help you build it’ to ‘Hey, I wanna pitch this to investors and tell them how they’re going to make millions of dollars’. He can spin on a dime on that and make the switch incredibly quickly.”
“What’s fun about watching him work is that he seems to be attracted to really fun aspects of technology, even in really boring and technical areas. One day it seems to be something sold to children for them to play with and then the next day it might be an invention that only some scientific company that might use. Nobody’s ever going to see this thing, but it makes this dry process a pleasure to do. I find that pretty interesting. He has the business skill to notice something like that.”
One thing about that came through in everyone I’ve spoken to is that The Inventor has an interesting and unusual character, containing a combination of traits which most people would ordinarily consider to be in opposition or conflicting. For example, he is both imaginative yet technical, can combine creativity with commerce, is playful as well as serious, highly intuitive but also very detailed, and can switch easily from a birds-eye view to getting deep into specifics. Is this, I wonder, the essence of the truly creative personality? A way of thinking which is not either/or, but is combinatorial?
There’s no doubt in my mind that soft-skills part of The Inventor also plays a very important part of his success. Character is the bedrock, the foundation, of all successful endeavors and indeed successful lives, the intangible aspect of human life that sets apart the good from the great across the board. In this day and age, a cursory glance at the news will reveal the absence of some core values in business and the detrimental effect that has on relationships, morale and business itself.
The Inventor’s integrity came up a number during my conversations with those who knew him: “If he gives you his word that he’s going to do something, he does it,” pointed out his brother. I also asked him what he considered his brother’s top five strengths. He gave me the following rundown:
1) “If I was stuck in the North Pole with a flat tire, he would be there to help me.”
2) “He’s firm but fair with people — and he expects the same”
3) He isn’t intimidated by how much money someone has, or how many material possessions they have”
4) “He’s a very kind person as well, a very loving person”
5) “But also — I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side either. He’s fierce! He’s a fierce competitor in what he’s doing”.
A fun approach also featured as a core part of The Inventor’s personality. The Mind-Mapper said the following: “What makes The Inventor unique is his limitless enthusiasm, ability to combine seemingly separate technologies and how he likes to delight others with possibilities. He likes to solve at the intersection of fun and practicality; he creates the dots and simultaneously he connects the dots. He comes up with ideas where it’s like they’re not even doing customer research, they are just saying ‘well that would be fun, why don’t we just do that?!’ So one on hand, there’s all this fun stuff that’s immersive and entertaining, but on the other hand maybe, for example, he’s talking to a waste management company [and giving solutions to their problems]”.
The Inventor himself pointed me to a list of critical traits he uses to guide his own life, sending me a thorough document which was so good that I printed off and stuck on the wall in my own apartment. Interestingly enough, these traits are centered around the notion of Menschkeit, the Yiddish philosophy of being a Mensch, a man of upright character. Some of these traits include honor, integrity, loyalty, fairness, stoicism, awareness, quality, and about 30 others. Menschkeit, in addition to a strong sense of faith, is one of the guiding principles around which The Inventor has built his life and career.
The Inventor Himself
After a whole bunch of conversations in which I had some profound discussions, spoke to some wonderful people and accessed a whole of lot of important information and insights, it was time for me to speak to the The Inventor himself. I’d heard from everyone else, but it was now time to hear directly from the horse’s mouth. I have to admit: speaking to The Inventor about his life and career was even more compelling than it had been when speaking to those who knew him.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we! In addition to being a precocious baby (remember twiddling with the bath faucets?), The Inventor’s relationships with his grandfathers — one of whom were also inventors — are what he personally counts as being the catalyst for who he is today. “I specifically remember sitting with my grandfather — well, both grandfathers — but one in particular, Grandpa V, who would explain how things would work,” he recalls. “Sometimes people don’t care about that but I’ve always been super inquisitive about how things work. The ability to disassemble something that i was working and put it back together again and then having it work again after you took it apart was something I tried to master my whole life and that has flowed through my career path.” So, while The Inventor’s gift for invention is clearly in his blood, it was also his grandfathers’ explicit teaching and nurturing — and, you could argue, their desire to pass on their own gifts and abilities — which made a huge impact on him, enough to motivate him to want to follow in their footsteps. As The Inventor himself pointed out in our 45 minute long conversation: “From a young age I was exposed to a group of people that could make something from nothing.” This very early introduction to being a maker set him in good stead. And here’s a fun fact: a patent that Grandpa V filed in 1953 for a machine which pull roots out of the ground has pride of place outside The Inventor’s office where it hangs on the wall in a frame, a constant reminder of his heritage as well as a remembrance of his early experiences.
The role played by The Inventor’s family in both nature and nurture was further explained, providing even more enlightenment as to how one ends up being so ingenious. Creativity is not just one of The Inventor’s core traits, but is a distinctive theme that runs through his entire family, close as well as extended. As well as being inventors and entrepreneurs, many of his family members are also musicians: his mother sings, his sister was a professional opera singer, his father plays the guitar and can also play pretty much any songs he hears on the piano. Although neither The Inventor nor The Twin are musical, what The Inventor definitely, and undeniably, has is his own significant creative ability as well as a gift for risk-taking. “My career is about taking risks,” he tells me. It stands to reason: having grown up seeing people taking risks all the time, and making careers out of doing so, his tolerance and appetite for risk is much more than the average person’s. Rather than shy away from risk, and indeed from failure, he fully and openly embraces it. His relationship with fear is also different than most people’s. “Fear is manufactured,” he states, matter of factly. “It’s not real. I suppose I’m still fearful about a lot of things: I’m fearful of the good Lord. You gotta understand where your power comes from. But fear is manufactured. You feel fear but the most important thing is to conquer it…”
As The Inventor told me more about his life path, I realized just how important formative life experiences can be in shaping a person’s future. He told me how, at the age of 16, his father had made him and his twin brother have summer jobs. These were not just your average summer job though. No, Dad wanted the boys to learn as they earned. So, rather than work at a car wash, or maybe at the local country club, Dad had his boys learning how to sell. They sold World Book encyclopedias, going door to door in Kansas City, learning how to speak to people, how to persuade, how to make a good impression, and ultimately how to get people to buy what they were offering. The Inventor’s father encouraged them to wear suits so that they were ‘dressed for success’, wanting them to know — in their teens — just what it took to excel in business. “It’s those types of experiences that makes me a bit unique,” concurs The Inventor. “Everyone is unique, not just me, but that really taught me a lot of things. All of these things really ingrained themselves.”
After that, The Inventor purposefully put himself in unique working environments in which he could grow, learn and develop the skills he needed to eventually get him to where he is today. Eager to get into the real world and find out all he needed to know to become a successful businessman inventor, he dropped out of college in his last semester. “I said fuck it…I wasn’t so sure if school could teach me anything more,” he confesses, before quickly admitting that this is not advice he says he would not give to his kids now.
Post-college he soon found himself working in a very selective incubator in Kansas City. “That was pivotal,” he explains, “because it gave me the ability to see how companies would start and how they would finance themselves — maybe with debt, maybe it was a mixture of venture and debt, maybe a microloan. Working for that organization was fantastic and that’s when I made up my mind that I wanted to start something where I could perhaps invent something and start a company around it.” He became even more focused and determined than ever before, but realized that he would have to leave his hometown if he was going to take things to the next level.
At the time (this was the mid 90s), although the Midwest had some key technology companies, it was not a start-up hotspot. The Inventor chose to head further West to California for the next stage of his career, so that he could ‘fly, fly, fly’. “The reason why things move faster on the coasts (and I’ve lived on both of them) is because you have access to wisdom and capital and relationships and space to actually build a company and recruit people,” he tells me. “And the mindset — the venture mindset — of people is let’s do it, let’s start something. My thought was that at the time the Midwest was not the place to do something like that. It is today though, that’s why I’m here.”
And indeed, he is back in Kansas City with a vengeance, working on his latest venture, his most significant to date and the one he believes will leave an enduring legacy. Although the details remain top secret, he talks about what he considers to be the most crucial part of the business. It isn’t just about the latest technology, although clearly that plays an integral part, but about bringing together the brightest and the best minds. Taking his cue from the late Stan Lee, with whom he worked closely, he provides some more detail about this pulling together of extraordinary creative talent: “Stan called it the ‘Marvel bullpen’, and they had a method called the Marvel Method, where they would create stories, then create characters and panels and ink and then dialogue… He had a specific way and a method where he was able to combine the best strengths of all of the inventors. I can say, with honor, that when creatives get together and they focus their talents and when you have the right people in the right space with the right tools, with the right strategic advisory and capital, that’s when you can create an amazing company. To build a location and have the technology portfolio and the talent under one roof is exactly what I’m doing. I couldn’t be more honoured.”
There is certainly a sense of destiny about what The Inventor is doing. He is what is referred to as a ‘purple squirrel’, someone with a unique skillset who is uniquely equipped to do a particular thing at a particular moment in time. And, clearly he has come full circle in his extraordinary career, having gone from growing up in Kansas City, going away to expand, to now coming back as one of the Midwest’s leading innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs. He has become a ‘force multiplier’, someone with the ability to exponentially harness and develop not only important present and future technologies but valuable individuals who can form and grow valuable businesses.
As an example of the type of technology this new venture is building, The Inventor explains, somewhat mysteriously: “This space we’re building is the ultimate inventor’s space with the most fantastic tools of the future to use: AI, for example. My next robotics platform is an experiential robotics platform. I’ve done toy robots — really good ones and there are some new ones coming out that are f*** amazing; I’ve done medical robotics — like really high level medical science robotics with the Japanese. I’ve done other types of robotics that have helped sweep up the floor but my next one is not necessarily what you might think it is…” This next one is his baby, the Big Venture.
I’ve seen some of what he has been working on, and obviously I have spoken to some of the people involved. All I can say is that I’m extremely excited. On ending our conversation, The Inventor says something which sticks with me: “People spend their whole life trying to figure out who they are and why they are here, but I knew that real early. I knew I was gonna invent. I knew — very very early what my gifts were.”
So there you have it folks. Own your creativity. Embrace risk. Find what you’re great at. Stick to it. Work your butt off. Surround yourself with like-minds. Find the right people to join you. Do everything you can to build your skillset, expand your talent base and discover what you need to know to become the person you want to be. Oh, and be a Mensch. Maybe, just maybe, you might end up building the next great technology company of the future.
For now, however, I’ll leave that to The Inventor and his purple squirrels.
What is the inventor working on next….?