Along with writing the next Great American Novel, most people harbor a dream of inventing that one unique product or gadget that brings them fabulous riches along with a good dose of fame. The reality, of course, is that most of those supposedly groundbreaking ideas never get past a notebook or a cocktail napkin. That is, unless you're Chris Hawker, a serial inventor and founder of the Columbus, Ohio-based product design firm, Trident Design. Unlike the rest of us, Hawker did invent a gadget -- the PowerSquid, the now ubiquitous multi-tentacled surge protector that provides juice for millions of gadget-users around the world.
The truth is that Hawker may have had a built-in advantage, since he has always had a thing for design -- or at least how things fit together. As a kid, he would stop by the neighborhood tag sales in his hometown of Perrysburg, Ohio, and buy up old gadgets like typewriters, "just so I could take them apart and admire how each part was designed for a specific function," he says.
At the ripe old age of 13, Hawker started selling birds like quails and finches to local pet shops out of the aviary he had built in his room. Soon after taking a job at an aquarium store, he launched his own aquarium maintenance company called "The Fishman." That helped inspire him to invent his first product, a protein skimmer. In coming up with a name for his new enterprise, he chose Trident, named for a three-pronged fishing spear, because "it represents the three-components of my business philosophy -- fun, impact, and profit," he says.
His first commercial success as an inventor came while as a student at Ohio State University. He developed an algae scraper, which he designed so it could have replaceable blades. After securing a supply deal with a premium aquarium product distributor, Hawker figured he might sell 4,000 of his scrapers a year. First year sales, however, topped 30,000 -- a sales volume that continues to this day.
It was a few years later, however, in 2000, after a stint in guitar-building school and starting his own design firm, that Hawker came up with the idea for his masterpiece. One sleepless night, he was sitting on his coach and drawing, when he looked over at his stereo and the jumble of audio and power cords beneath it. In an eureka moment, Hawker says he saw things in reverse, "with the cords coming out of the power strip instead of into it." With pencil in hand, he quickly drew what he saw in his mind's eye, writing the name "Power Blossom" beneath it. After showing his designs to his team the next day, and doing some research to make sure no one had beat him to the punch, he began the process of securing a patent for his design under its new name: the PowerSquid. And the more he researched, the more he realized that every other power strip on the market was the same -- just a rectangular box with outlets. When he compared that with his design, which, with five outlet extensions, looked like an actual squid, Hawker says, "I immediately knew I was onto something big."
After securing a patent on the final design, Hawker licensed his design to a manufacturing company, Power Sentry (which is now owned by Philips), and he then waited two long years for that design to become a reality. But when it did, in 2006 at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, wow, did it take off.
The success of the PowerSquid established Hawker's credibility, which has helped him with the launch of subsequent product launches such as the ThirstyLight, which blinks when a plant needs water, and Onion Goggles, which has become a celebrity favorite. Today, Hawker's company has six employees, and the firm not only works on new products, such as a revolutionary new pizza cutter coming to a store near you, but also in consulting with other inventors to help them navigate the maze of becoming a successful inventor and make money doing it. "I now have a job that, when I was growing up, I would have been jealous of," Hawker says. "Not only do I get to talk and work with cool and creative people, I can walk into a Wal-Mart and Target and see someone pick up a PowerSquid and say, yes, I just made 35 cents!"
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 5/1//10.