acm - an acm publication
Articles

What's New?
talking with inventor Bob Olodort

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue August, August 1 - August 31, 2000 | BY John Gehl 

|

Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


Bob Olodort, founder and CEO of Think Outside Inc. (http://thinkoutside.com), is a successful private inventor with numerous patents and over 20 years of experience in creating and developing consumer and professional products in the fields of computing, consumer electronics, optics, photography, and motion pictures. He invented the popular Seiko "Smart Label Printer" and a line of full-size keyboards that fold to pocket size and are used with Palm, Handspring Visor, and other handheld wireless computers.



UBIQUITY: It's 11:30 on a Monday morning. What are you up to today?

BOB OLODORT: Well, I'm downloading patents and talking to people who want to invest in my company, Think Outside, and negotiating a new deal with Palm. It's a busy day.

UBIQUITY: Tell us about some of your inventions.

OLODORT: One of the most recent successes has been the folding keyboard, but my label printers are something that I've been especially proud of because they've been such a continued success for so long. The Seiko Smart Label Printer I invented has been out about 13 years now, and every year it sells more. It's a $35 million business now, including the aftermarket label supplies. So that's an invention I'm very proud of.

UBIQUITY: What was the secret of its success?

OLODORT: Well, it was a combination of things each of which, by itself, was kind of prosaic, but the system was a total solution to the need to quickly and easily create simple things such as address labels, labels for file folders, bar codes, and so forth. Before that you typically had to take a lot of time to set up your computer to print labels, and that makes sense only if you're going to print a lot of labels, but when you want to print one label it's another story. So I had to create a total solution, which was a combination of software and hardware and the labels.

UBIQUITY: Describe it.

OLODORT: It's a dedicated printer that plugs into a computer, and because it's just an accessory it never gets outmoded. The software is designed for simple printing jobs, and I used thermal materials for the labels, because I wanted to keep the printer inexpensive yet high in quality. At the time, there weren't high-quality thermal labels, so I had to work on developing that technology as well.

UBIQUITY: Do you happen to remember where you were when you got the moment of "ah ha!" and the thought that you needed to invent something like this?

OLODORT: No, because there are so many "ah ha" moments along the process of invention. The kinds of things I invent are complex. They're not like Velcro or something like that, where one really gets this overwhelming insight all at once, though I wouldn't be surprised if the story of Velcro's creation turned out to be apocryphal. So, no, I can't remember many particular "ah hah" moments, but I carry a pocket tape recorder with me -- I get a lot of ideas when I'm driving -- maybe because I'm an L.A. person. I'm also constantly writing notes in the middle of the night or when I'm going for a walk or riding my bike.

UBIQUITY: At what point in your life did you begin to think of yourself as an inventor?

OLODORT: I kind of knew it all along, and was always inventing and building things as a child, but I didn't take inventing seriously as a career, and was never around inventors or even engineers or people in the business of new technology. I just happened to be insulated from that. So in college, for example, I was a liberal arts student.

UBIQUITY: What was your major?

OLODORT: I didn't have one, though they finally harassed me to the point where I declared psychology because I was interested in a couple of professors at the time. But what I was really in was photography and then, later, filmmaking. At the same time I was always building stuff for things that interested me in photography and films.

UBIQUITY: What kind of stuff?

OLODORT: When I finally went to film school at UCLA as a graduate student, I was invariably building optical printing machines to do special effects for films and time-lapse cameras. And eventually that led to my first real invention, my first commercial invention, which was a film-editing machine. In those days, when you bought a film-editing machine, your choice was between what I called bicycles or Mercedes, so I set about building a Volvo -- something that filmmakers could afford to buy yet would still be a real ergonomic tool to allow them to edit film.

UBIQUITY: You said that as you were growing up you didn't know any inventors. Did anyone encourage your interest in inventing things?

OLODORT: Well, my father is not at all mechanical or anything, but my uncle would take me to tradeshows and we built computers together when I was about 10, so he was very encouraging. Nobody discouraged me but, on the other hand, I don't think people took it seriously as a way of making a living. I speak at schools and particularly with young kids, at the Invent America program that goes around the schools every year, because it's great if young people have role models and see successes, so that they don't get discouraged.

UBIQUITY: If you visited a typical playground or school, what are the chances you would find kids who had a particular knack for invention? Would you think you'd find them?

OLODORT: Oh yeah. I know that just from talking with third graders. Their questions and answers and insights are really quite amazing. They come up with lots of ideas very quickly.

UBIQUITY: Can you give us an example or two?

OLODORT: Sure. I was stuck on a name for a device, and I asked a third grade class, and got two or three really great names. And then one class sent me a kind of scrapbook of what they got out of a talk I gave, and I was just amazed at some of their ideas. So, yeah, I think definitely you can always find kids that really have a knack for invention. But that, of course, doesn't mean that they're going to succeed or even want to go into inventing as a profession. It's one thing to get people who just respond to a problem quickly with new ideas, but they need to appreciate the famous slogan of Edison, who said that invention is about 99 percent perspiration. So I encourage kids to be creative, but don't really don't encourage them to be inventors, and I make a point of letting them in on how much hard work it is and how difficult it is.

UBIQUITY: Working up an age-line, from kids in a playground to adults in an organization, is the percentage of creative individuals the same?

OLODORT: No, the percentage drops precipitously, and that has less to do with people's talent or inclination than it has to do with their confidence and experience and ability to be truly playful. A lot of the adults think it's inappropriate to play once they're grown up.

UBIQUITY: How do you get started on a new invention? Do you stare at the ceiling?

OLODORT: I wish. As a matter of fact, someone sent me a cartoon showing this nebbishy-looking guy sitting at the kitchen table with a pad and paper and asking his wife to tell him something he should invent. But it's ridiculous and impossible to invent things in a vacuum. For me, it's projects. Typically, I come across something that I'm frustrated with personally as an end-user, and then I think, Oh, gee, why does it have to be so much trouble to do this! And then if I really think that it's something important, then I'll do a whole lot of research, and if the improvement I'm looking for hasn't been made then I go for it -- but only after that.

UBIQUITY: Have you ever thought of a good way to quantify your success as an inventor? If you were a baseball player, your success would be judged on the statistics of such things as times-at-bat and singles and strike outs and homeruns and so forth. Have you ever thought of inventions in terms like that?

OLODORT: Oh, I have, but I've always tried to put the thought behind me very quickly, because the statistics would be very depressing. They wouldn't be pretty, and there would be many zeros after the decimal point. The number of ideas I've had divided by the number that have turned into successful commercial inventions would yield an incredibly low percentage. But the success rate doesn't have to be high, because what's important is that you feel successful in your own mind, so that you can keep up your confidence that you can do it. So, no, I really don't keep statistics -- except that I often note that someone has developed something along the lines of an idea I once had, and I naturally have mixed feelings when that happens.

UBIQUITY: Think back to last week. Was it a good week for invention?

OLODORT: Actually, yes, last week was a very fertile week. While I was working on something, I got a call from one of our engineers, and together I think we came up with three really interesting products that will come out of what I'm working on now. And so that was a good week. But those kinds of weeks happen no more often than maybe once every six weeks.

UBIQUITY: Do you use any kind of trick to get yourself thinking? How do you usually get started?

OLODORT: I use an outliner. I use Grandview, which is an old DOS program that's been defunct now for a decade perhaps, a long time anyway. I find an outliner to be really the best way to work on projects, to brainstorm, or just to keep track of things. I can just put ideas into the outliner and very quickly, just from keyboard, organize the extensive tree structures of ideas and projects and how I'm going to work on the patent or the various other aspects of it. And rather than take the time to make the computer happy I just sort of just stick stuff into Grandview and then anytime after that I can move things around very quickly and reorganize it. That's very important to me. I always have pads of paper everywhere, and I just write on paper and then eventually transfer it into the outline. But I've never kept an inventor's logbook or anything like that. Lawyers used to tell inventors to keep bound composition type of notebooks but that's not really required. On the other hand, I do keep absolutely everything, and if it's on paper it goes into the filing cabinet but usually it goes into my outliner and that's where it remains.

UBIQUITY: How is your outliner different from project management software?

OLODORT: Project management software is really great if you know what you're doing. That is to say, you know you're building a house and you need to order the concrete, and it has to arrive at a certain date, and so on and so forth. But with an outliner I can just really quickly type ideas out and get them into the system.

UBIQUITY: Tell us about your company.

OLODORT: I think we're up to 23 or 24 right now. I'm usually at Santa Monica, where I work with an assistant in an old aircraft hanger at the Santa Monica airport. Our administrative and marketing headquarters, with about 13 people, is in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. And then the engineers are all in Silicon Valley, and they're still working out of their houses, though we're opening an office up there that will be ready in early September. So we all communicate by phone and by e-mail and have meetings at least once a week in various places.

UBIQUITY: Have you ever been an inventor for hire?

  OLODORT: Several times I've done commissions, and that's fine, but I don't like doing that particularly unless it's something that's very interesting to me. And luckily, for some time now I haven't needed that income so I basically turn things down if they don't really appeal to me.

UBIQUITY: Why don't you like doing work on commission?

OLODORT: Well, inventing is really hard work, and I guess I have the arrogance to think that I can help make it succeed better than most people, and if someone else is in charge, it may not happen.

UBIQUITY: Why not?

OLODORT: Oh, who knows?

UBIQUITY: Bureaucratic reasons?

OLODORT: That and various other things. I did one job for a company and the product came on the market and did fine but the company went bankrupt and so things happen like that.

UBIQUITY: What are the chances that, if you were taken to business that you weren't particularly familiar with -- let's say the online retailing business or online grocery business -- what do you think of the chances that you would be able to walk in and, in short order have new ideas about what the process ought to be?

OLODORT: Well, not bad. I think it's an advantage, quite often, to know not too much about something -- but of course you've really got to make up for that lack of knowledge once you get into the problem. And so I do quite a lot of research in a lot of different ways -- probably much more than most people do. I'm compulsive, in fact, that way. I want to know everything I can about that industry. I'll fly around the world, I'll go to tradeshows, and I'll subscribe to all the magazines. Fortunately, more and more things are online nowadays, so there's a hell of a lot you can do just on the Internet in terms of learning about a subject.

UBIQUITY: Let's spend just a moment on your educational background.

OLODORT: I was in the MFA program at UCLA, and creating a feature film was the equivalent of a master's thesis, but few people at the time I was there in the early 70s could afford to make a feature film, so my friends and I basically drifted off into the industry in Hollywood and never cared much about getting the degree, although I was there for three years.

UBIQUITY: When you showed up at film school, was it your idea to be a successful director?

OLODORT: No, never. I never wanted anything to do with "slick Hollywood." I enjoyed making films. I liked making documentaries and ethnographics and, oddly enough, films that were totally straight cinema verite, no special effects. That's what I really liked doing. And I never thought at that time about what things I would be doing the rest of my life. I was then and still am very project-orientated rather than generally concerned about what my profession is going to be.

UBIQUITY: That having been noted, what are you going to be doing, oh, about a year from now?

OLODORT: Well, that's where I have to be careful because I really can't talk too much about it, but I'm working on handheld wireless hardware. And that's what I'm most excited about. The good news on that point is that the financial community thinks it's a hot area that has a lot of business potential. The bad news is that I'm not the only one working on it, so there's tremendous pressure to work quickly and execute well, and that's what's keeping me up nights these days. But that's okay, because I'm very excited about what I'm doing.

COMMENTS

POST A COMMENT
Leave this field empty