QUESTION: Did you ever get close to losing  your invention because you did not make enough sales?

ANSWER: We sold over 2 million kits and Better Blocks had a nine-year life span. That’s because the person I sold the patents to, Kelvin, was very good at direct marketing on TV, but, to make a long term success of BetterBlocks we needed to have a presence in retail stores. Although we did sell in the Toys R Us stores and other retail chains, BetterBlocks never sold in the quantities we hoped for. So, after about 9 years, Better Blocks had run its life by direct response selling and that’s the way that it was.

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QUESTION: You said, “After the success of Better Blocks you had a bit of self doubt. Am I a one hit wonder?” How did you get out of that sort of thinking? Selling yourself short. Was there something in your head that just went snap?

ANSWER: Actually, it didn’t quite go snap. It was an evolution for me. I was beginning to be asked by schools to speak to their students about inventing. What I found was that the kids would not only ask questions about inventing, but start asking questions about entrepreneurship, finances and money. I began to realise that there was not a lot of good information available that would teach kids about inventing, entrepreneurship or how money worked in the real world. That was really the seed from which my next product grew. To share with kids what I had learnt about inventing, entrepreneurship and money. What had worked for my and what hadn’t.

My problem was, I had an engineering background, not an educational background.  Give  me a building block to physically design and make…I can do that. Give me an education program to build, and I have to be honest, I had no idea how to do that! So I spent the next 15 years, researching  educational products, researching the most effective ways to teach kids. I came up with some surprising and highly valuable information on how to effectively teach kids, in fact anyone of any age!

But the bottom line for me was; kids learn best from other kids. If the learning’s fun and entertaining, they’ll learn. If you can get those two ingredients in, then you can build a program that will be great for teaching kids.

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QUESTION: There was “stuff” you weren’t comfortable doing, like asking for what you want. To overcome this you actually took matters in your own hands and took on some personal development?

ANSWER: Yeah, thanks for bringing that up because there is lot of “stuff” i needed to do to be successful that I certainly wasn’t comfortable in doing. I’m 55 now. When I was 28 I had quite a bit of success in motor racing but I was an introverted loner who ran an engineering business, by myself, from my backyard shed!

There was a big chunk of my life that sucked. Because I was an introvert, I found it very hard to go out and meet people. This wasn’t the way that I wanted to live the rest of my life so I started to do programs that brought me “out” as a person. Meeting people, particularly people I don’t know, was, and still is, one of the most challenging things I can do, but I also know that that’s what I need to do to lead a happy successful life.

With my kids entrepreneurial program I’m developing, I’m involved with some people who have enough faith in me and the product I’m developing that they have invested money. If I didn’t challenge myself to meet people I would never have met or attracted these investors. What I’ve found with inventors is, people don’t necessarily invest money in their ideas, but their money in the person. Can this person make their idea work? If people invest money in me and my ideas it’s up to me to do the best I can to make the project successful. If that means I have to get out of my comfort zone and speak up and do things I don’t really want to do then that’s what I’ve got to do! I’m not saying I always do it, but at least I can ask myself, ‘What’s the best thing i can do in the interest of everybody involved? That’s how it works for me. It involves stepping out of my comfort zone sometimes.

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QUESTION: Did you feel at any stage that you were chasing your tail, chasing false leads? Do you tap into and trust, your intuition, your gut feelings? How do you chose which is the right path to go or the path that’s just wasting your time? How do you make that judgment call? When your friend John said “Go ring my mate, this kiwi guy lives in the States, and it will all be sweet?”… and it definitely turned out that way…how did you know to follow this lead?

ANSWER: My gut feeling said, ring him up! Because my attitude is, I have everything to gain and nothing to lose. To be honest, I find it really challenging to phone people. Even doing this RadioTV interview I don’t find easy, but it’s part of what I do that seems to work for me. When look at the decisions I make, intuition does play a part. I have a sense of which choice is going to work for me and the other people involved. Of course experience plays a part in my decisions. That’s how my kids entrepreneurial program came about. It was an idea that I thought had major benefits to a lot of kids, parents and teachers which just felt right! It hasn’t always been an easy road, because experience is gained by making a lot of mistakes. But for me it comes down to deciding “Okay I think this project is a good thing”, and off I go and do it.

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QUESTION: Is successful inventing more about who you know, than what you know?

ANSWER: Very good question. Thank you. Let me tell you a little story. Part of being successful is certainly about who you know. With Better Blocks, there was a pivotal point when Better Blocks quite clearly was on the road to success… even though I didn’t realise it at the time. I’d written a business plan, spent two years travelling around Australia asking for venture capital in all traditional channels of raising finance, but I was unsuccessful. I realised that a part of the problem was the way I approached raising venture capital and the other part was, I just hadn’t spoken to the “right” person yet.

One day I was talking to my sister’s boyfriend, John Wilkie. He was a carpenter. He built and installed beautiful kitchen cupboards. Not the kind of guy you’d expect financial expertise from, right? So, while I was talking to John about BetterBlocks he casually said “Why don’t you ring up my mate in America? He’s a New Zealander living in the US and he’s doing very well in direct marketing.” I rang up Kelvin and the end result of that call was a $45 million business. Now, you can’t write that into a business plan!

Certainly, it is who you know and what you know, but it’s also speaking to people, listening to them, being very aware of what they are saying. People will always offer you advice or opportunities. Just follow these opportunities and see where they go, because, my greatest successes and new inventions have come out of doing just that. You need your business plans to give you a guide to where you are going and how you can “probably” get there, but always be aware of what’s in left field because, like I said, who would have ever thought a carpenter would be the key to Better Blocks becoming a successful business. So I thank John Wilkie from the bottom of my heart for that comment.

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QUESTION: What was the time frame between having the idea to you selling the patent?

ANSWER: It took me about 35 seconds to think of the idea for BetterBlocks, then to develop it and get it into the marketplace, about another 3½ years. I was $100,000 in debt and struggling to financially survive…let alone develop a new product. I built the prototypes myself but I couldn’t manufacture it. I wasn’t a marketing person. In fact, there was a long list of skills and resources that I didn’t have. So I had to find them. Then, assemble and lead the team of people who had all of the skills that I didn’t have, but were necessary for BetterBlocks to be successful.  

Invest in your team as well as your product. With BetterBlocks, I not only invested in my invention, but I realised there was a whole lot of business skills and resources I did not have. A team effort was required to make BetterBlocks successful. The people in my team may not have been as inventive as me, but were far better at manufacturing, sourcing venture capitalist, marketing, drafting contracts and many more things I was not so good at but knew were important.

To be honest, I don’t know exactly how I attract the people I need in my projects, but I seem to be able to do it. It’s like my new kids entrepreneurial project. I had an idea that I wanted to teach kids about inventing, money and entrepreneurship, because, from experience, they seemed to be interested in these subjects. I knew whatever we created needed to be entertaining, because kids like to be entertained. And that was about all I really knew. Then off I went and told people I’ve got this idea, and now I’m beginning to assemble a team of really excellent people. Not only people who can produce great products, but also internet marketing people, but encouragement from people in general. Again, I’m assembling a team of people around me who are far more skilled in their areas than I am and that’s ultimately what will make my kids entrepreneurial project a successful product and a successful business.

QUESTION: Is successful inventing really as easy as trying something else when your idea doesn’t work?

ANSWER: To be honest.. No! When I was developing Better Blocks I was $100,000 in debt, people were ringing me up asking to be paid the money that I owed them. I had to renegotiate payment plans with them. There wasn’t a day went by that I didn’t think “Gee, what am I going to do now?” And, I knew I knew I was not going to “make it” by doing the same old thing.’ (Just a note here, ‘Gee’ is a polite word I have written here to replace the real word I used!)  

However, I always believed in my invention and my end goal, which was that millions of kids around the world would be playing with my invention, Better Blocks. Happy kids and happy parents having fun. Visualising this end result is what kept me going. When times were really tough, I just recalled what I was really trying to achieve and I would say to myself “Okay, Warren, just put in one more effort.” It was really like that. Knowing where I wanted to go and just putting in a little more effort. Sometimes I would “score a goal” and many a time I felt like I wasn’t even in “the game.’ However life’s like that. It was during these “low times” times I would have to regroup and start again. But really, the success of BetterBlocks was all about persistence. That was one thing I really learned from Better Blocks.

Better Blocks was an okay idea. It was a building block like Lego, but my blocks moved when clipped together. I’m just an average guy that never graduated past secondary school. On my BetterBlocks journey I saw far better ideas than mine and met far more intelligent inventors than me, but many of them didn’t succeed, which made me start to think…”what did I do that worked?”   Really, it was just about being persistent! The only sure way to fail is to stop trying. I was probably a bit “pig headed” sometimes but I just keep going, and eventually, my invention Better Blocks was successful. During the tough times, that was the skill I needed to keep going…just being persistent!

QUESTION: Are inventors born wearing an inventor’s hat?

ANSWER: I wasn’t born an inventor, but my parents were very creative people, so I had great role models. My dad was involved in engineering and my mum was a dressmaker. As a kid, I just used to like making “stuff,” although, looking back, it was more pulling “stuff” apart…then trying to figure out where the leftover parts belonged after I had finished putting it back together! I would pull apart electronic gadgetry, old bikes, and machines, anything I could get my hands on. My parents encouraged this inquisitive side of me. From making “stuff’ like Billy carts out of junk I found lying around and testing them, I learnt that…. some ideas worked. But many didn’t.  

As I got older I became involved in motor bike racing, I enjoyed developing faster and faster bikes that would break the next record and then off I would go chasing the next record. This is where one of the lessons I learnt as a kid came in very valuable. Some of the engines I made were very fast but other’s weren’t as successful and just blew apart! So I had to go back to the drawing board and start over again, just like when I was a kid when I was testing my Billy cart.  One of the reasons BetterBlocks became successful was because of one lesson I learnt as a kid. Some ideas worked and some didn’t and perseverance is the key. I had to keep going to get to the end….to where I wanted to go. This is simple persistence and I’ve applied it to all of my inventions, my race bikes, my business and my relationships.

QUESTION: What were the unexpected results of my invention?

ANSWER: My highest values are to make kids and parents happy. The business part is in the brain, the motivational mission comes from the heart. It was when parts of my business truly touched my heart that made all the hard times worthwhile. Of all the highlights of having a successful invention let me share with you a story of what truly made the sacrifices I experienced for BetterBlocks all worthwhile.

Kelvin, the NZ marketer who bought the BetterBlocks patents from me, was running an event in a community hall in Florida. Kids and their parents brought in their Better Block models to enter a competition to see who had the best model in the different classes we had set up. During the event a father came up to Kelvin, and really thanked him for bringing Better Blocks into the marketplace. Kelvin could see by the emotion behind his voice that this was more than just a simple “thanks mate”! So he asked him why he was thanking him. The proud father said, “I bought Better Blocks and it was the first time in 4 years that I’d sat down and play with my son. I sat down and played with him for half a day building these models.”

To touch someone’s life like that, unexpectedly, that was what made the challenge of seeing my idea, my invention, thru to the end. Never giving up even when I really wanted to. It’s what made all the tough times worthwhile. I thought “Wow, I really can make a positive difference in people’s lives.” That was the beginning of my quest… “How can I create products which touch peoples lives?”

I never really know if I’m going to make a difference to someone’s life or how or when. When I was developing Better Blocks, my motivation was to bring smiles on a few kids’ faces and to get out of debt, but there was a bigger picture than just bringing a smile to a few kids faces and earning some money which I never knew at the time. BetterBlocks brought a father and son closer together. That’s what makes inventing exciting for me…..the unexpected results that no business plan can include!

The Bigger Picture

I started with an idea, and was a 100 grand in hock. I desperately needed get out of hock. That was what I thought was the bigger picture! But there was actually a bigger than this. I could positively affect a relationship, a father and his son. I have no idea how many other people’s lives I may have touched with a simple plastic block, but I know I’ve touched one, and that makes all the effort worth it.

We sold over 2 million kits and manufactured more than 600 million blocks, so there are a lot of BetterBlocks out there that kids were playing with. I simply followed something that I enjoyed doing; creating and making toys and learning new skills. So really I just followed my heart and did what I loved doing. The unexpected results were really out of my control!

David v’s Goliath!

When I did my market research, I found Lego was like the big giant in the toy plastic building block industry. Lego was a $2 billion a year company. I’d go into a toy shop and it was filled with Lego and Lego and more Lego … there was no competition! For me to enter the marketplace be the new kids on the block, (no pun intended!) was a bit of a challenge.

What I realized is that I couldn’t take Lego on head-on as a company because I didn’t have any where near the resources Lego had. But, I could develop a block that was different from theirs. It was like a David and Goliath type of relationship. I thought, ‘Lego may be big, but if I invent a block that is different from theirs, I could carve out my own niche in the marketplace” And that I did, with my BetterBlocks invention!