Stephen Key is a self-made entrepreneur who, throughout the course of his career, has successfully invented and licensed over 25 different products. Additionally, he’s published two books regarding this topic, has been featured countless times in Entrepreneur Magazine, and is the co-founder of InventRight, a company whose sole purpose is to mentor and guide aspiring inventors through the appropriate steps towards their ultimate goal: seeing their product on retail store shelves.
I have been fortunate to enough to speak to Stephen via telephone on multiple occasions, so I am speaking from experience when I say that he truly is one of the most intelligent and among the most genuinely helpful ‘celebrities’ that I have reached out to. As passionate as he is about inventing and licensing, he is equally, if not more, passionate about encouraging and helping others realize their dreams and achieve their goals.
Recently, Stephen was kind enough to answer a few questions of mine regarding his tremendous licensing successes, his inspiring company, and offer advice to anyone interested in the licensing and invention processes.
His answers are thoughtful, smart, and sincere and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did!
Elaine: What inspired you to create your first invention and pursue licensing it?
Stephen: In my senior year in college I started to think about making a living. I was majoring in fine arts, and I knew jobs would be scarce after I graduated. I wanted my career to foster my creative side, so I created my own job. I began designing and hand producing soft sculpture to sell at arts and crafts fairs. All I needed was a sewing machine and fabric. I loved every minute of it, but at the end of the day, I wanted my creations to be sold in retail stores. I went to the mall and started looking at all the products being sold. I soon realized I could come up with better ideas. And for some reason I thought if I showed my ideas to companies they would pay me. It was as simple as that.
Elaine: What was the most surprising thing you learned through the patenting process?
Stephen: First of all, most of my ideas that I have licensed to companies did not have any patents. The toy and novelty gift industry is a fashion industry. This means products move in and out of the market quickly, therefore, they typically do not require any intellectual property. This fact tends to surprise people.
But one of my ideas was in the packaging industry which requires perceived ownership, otherwise known as patents. I thought patents were hard to get, and that the USPTO worked against inventors. Patents are expensive, so you need to make sure there’s a market for your invention. I quickly learned the USPTO is in the business of granting patents. For this reason, they are your best friend.
Elaine: What was your greatest obstacle in attempting to get your first invention licensed?
Stephen: Self-doubt. Overthinking it. Why would a company listen to me? The greatest obstacle is self-doubt. The first step, picking up the phone and building a relationship with the company, is the hardest. When you’re starting out in anything where you have no experience, self-doubt is huge! The reality is, no matter what we do, when we do it for the first time, it is a new experience. I learned to be enthusiastic and persistent.
Elaine: Do you have a professional idol/mentor?
Stephen: Yes, his name is Steve Askin. I met Steve in my early 20s. Everyone thought I was the biggest loser on the planet, but not Steve. He gave me courage to move forward. Steve had a showroom called “What’s New in the LA Mart” which was a novelty gift showroom. He became my rep for my products throughout United States.
Thirty years later, we still talk. Steve is an amazing person, and the only person then that told me I wasn’t crazy! He had faith in me that I could create products and license them. He is 72 years old, going on 13, and is one of the most amazing people I know!
Elaine: What do you enjoy most about inventing?
Stephen: That moment when you create something new. Even today, it still mystifies me. It’s just a magical moment – an “aha” moment. Seeing your idea on a store shelf is the icing on the cake.
Elaine: What has been the most rewarding moment you’ve experience with your business InventRight?
Stephen: The moment of realization when our students say to themselves, “I can do this!” Realizing they can license their ideas gives them a feeling of empowerment. They understand the process, and they can open any door and submit their ideas. It is an amazing feeling to know we have students all around the world who are licensing their ideas.
Elaine: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring inventors and/or entrepreneurs?
Stephen: Read and learn from others, and then stop reading. You can only truly learn by doing. In order to succeed, you must fail. Don’t be afraid to fail. You won’t have all the answers, which is perfectly fine. Ask a lot of questions.
Elaine: If you could spend a week on a deserted island with one person, who would it be?
Stephen: Very simple, my wife Janice. After 25 years, she is still the most interesting person I know.