The five rules of inventing, from the man who reinvented the frisbee and single-serve coffee

April 29, 2014
April 29, 2014

Many inventors would be happy if one of their inventions makes it out of their workshop. The Stanford lecturer and engineer Alan Adler struck gold twice—in completely different fields. He invented both an incredibly popular and far-flying version of the frisbee in the 1980s, the Aerobie Pro; and, more recently, the hit Aeropress single-cup coffee maker, which has developed a devoted following of coffee lovers since its introduction in 2005.

The story of how both inventions came to be is detailed in a profile of Adler at Priceonomics. Adler shared his five rules of the trade, which he said he has passed along to the aspiring inventors at a local junior high:

1. Learn all you can about the science behind your invention.

2. Scrupulously study the existing state of your idea by looking at current products and patents.

3. Be willing to try things, even if you aren’t too confident they’ll work. Sometimes you’ll get lucky.

4. Try to be objective about the value of your invention. People get carried away with the thrill of inventing, and waste good money pursuing something that doesn’t work any better than what’s already out there.

5. You don’t need a patent in order to sell an invention. A patent is not a business license; it’s a permission to be the sole maker of product (even this is limited to 20 years).

Those insights were hard-earned, Adler told Priceonomics, as was his success. In the late 70s, Adler designed a flying disk called the Skyro, which he sold to Parker Brothers.

It sold decently, but not well enough, and the rights were returned to him. After a few years back in the workshop, all the while consulting and teaching, Adler realized that he needed to build an aerofoil around the rim of the frisbee. The resulting disk became a huge hit, and could fly over 1,000 feet. A marketing stunt saw one thrown across the Niagara Falls.

The Aeropress coffee maker, which has now supplanted the disk as Adler’s company’s best seller, wasn’t an immediate slam-dunk either. The idea came to Adler after a conversation at a dinner party about the difficulty of making a single serving of coffee. Adler figured out a prototype with a plunger that quickly pressed flavor out of the grounds for a single cup.

His contraption didn’t catch on for years, but it eventually took hold in the coffee community (with Adler’s active support and his availability on coffee-nerd message boards); then it spread well beyond.

Both of Adler’s major inventions had slow starts. It took years of effort and patience to get them right, and then to get them into the right hands. Adler was a professor, tinkering away in his free time in his garage. But he owes a lot of his success to not conforming to the absentminded inventor stereotype.

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