John Nottingham and TEDxAsburyPark founder Brian Smiga talk about “Getting to Wow”, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019.
The following is an excerpt from the interview. To read and hear the full interview, CLICK HERE
Brian Smiga: This is Brian Smiga, and I am hosting ExpertOpen. We are the podcast for TEDxAsburyPark, coming to you May 18, 2019, at the Paramount Theatre on the boardwalk in Asbury Park. With me here today is John Nottingham of Nottingham-Spirk. John is a prolific lifelong inventor. He’s going to share with us his big idea on what powered his career, and it may surprise you.
So John, you’re going to give a talk about the power of ambiguity in life and in invention. Let’s start at the beginning. You’re a working class guy from western Pennsylvania. Where did it all get started?
John Nottingham: Growing up in western Pennsylvania, my dad worked in a steel mill, but I always liked drawing things. I always liked building things. I’d be thrilled when the toaster broke, so I could take it apart to figure out how it worked. And so, I always wondered what that was. What could I do to incorporate drawing and building things, and I discovered a field called industrial design, and I read up on it, and I said, “Boy, that’s something I’d really like to do.” At the time, the obvious choice as a career path was, if you’re going to be an industrial designer, you want to go to the biggest corporation possible, and at the time the biggest corporation was General Motors. At a young age, maybe, 12 or 13, I wrote to General Motors and I said this is what I want to do; where should I go to school and all that, and they wrote back to me. They said, well, you’re in Pennsylvania. Why don’t you go to the Design School at the Cleveland Institute of Art? It’s one of the best schools in the country for automotive design. So, I had a career path way back when.
Brian Smiga: And you followed that path?
John Nottingham: Well, not exactly!
Brian Smiga: Okay, well get us from the 13-year-old John Nottingham, to the one who’s now at registration at Design School.
John Nottingham: So, I thought it was a straight line, and I’ve learned something in the process about ambiguity. I did go to the Cleveland School of Art and registered, and the first day of registration I met my future business partner, John Spirk. We were both competing against each other all along until about midway through our five-year program. We said, “Look, we’re killing each other. Let’s work together. Two heads are better than one.” So, we worked some side jobs, designed furniture, logos, and some other things during school. Then when it came time to graduate, I still thought, you know what? Go for the automotive career, go for the big corporate career. But, interestingly enough, I had the chance to be an intern at General Motors between my fourth and fifth year in the General Motors Technical Center. When I was there, one of the VPs came up to me and said, “You know, General Motors started a Technical Center.” At the time, it was the most advanced R&D center in the world, and I was like, wow, I’ve arrived. When I graduate I’m gonna work here. This is gonna be great. And then he said, “You know what? Every major idea, every good invention, comes from the outside from little companies, inventors from the outside of this place.” And it stopped me in my tracks! I said, “What?” And that started me to thinking maybe that straight line isn’t the way to go. So when I graduated, I did get the offer. I turned it down. John Spirk got an offer. He turned his down. We found a garage, and we literally started a company with no money, no clients, no nothing. We just started!
Brian Smiga: Wow! So, this garage, picture it for us… real quick.
John Nottingham: Well, it was a two-car garage. It was actually a carriage house. It was in back of a large home, and it had a second floor, and we put our art studio, our design studio, on the first floor, and we had a conference room and a little office upstairs. It was kinda cool, but it was small. It was literally a garage.
Brian Smiga: Fast forward to today in Cleveland. You essentially have an innovation center. Describe where you work today.
John Nottingham: Well, we moved out of the garage into a pretty cool brownstone, and that served us for several years, but then we heard of a historic landmark church that was available. It was a Christian Science Church. The thing is amazing, and we looked at it, and we said, “Oh my gosh! This would be great! It would fit our philosophy of vertical innovation,” and 60,000 square feet. So, to give you perspective, it’s a little bigger than the White House and it’s got a tower next to it about the size of the statue part of the Statue of Liberty. It’s a grand, a wonderful historical landmark. But, more importantly, we turned it into a 24/7 state-of-the-art innovation center. It has design and focus group facilities and insights and a huge prototyping facility.
Brian Smiga: Is Nottingham-Spirk ever open to the public, John?
John Nottingham: Well, we have people coming all the time. I mean there’s so much interest in the building itself. It’s quite remarkable. The most important thing I would say, is if you ever do an innovation company, you want to create an inspiring space. You don’t want the typical warehouse or chrome and glass building or industrial park. You want something innovative and unique, and churches were designed for inspiration, to think beyond yourself. And so we have this. It’s got a rotunda, and everything is stacked around it. I had a chance to go through Pixar Studios in the San Francisco area when they built it. It was built and designed by Steve Jobs. It’s called the Steve Jobs Building, and it was designed with an atrium in the center, and stacked floors around to encourage vertical innovation. That made an impression on me, and when I saw this church, even though it’s a historical thing, it really reminded me of Pixar.
Brian Smiga: Are there hours where the public can come visit without disturbing the work that’s going on there?
John Nottingham: If somebody wants to come to Cleveland and give me a call, I’d be happy to show ’em around.
Brian Smiga: Wow, well you are certainly open. So, John, can you share your method and the role of ambiguity and uncertainty in it? Can you begin to share that big idea?
John Nottingham: Remember back when I was doing the obvious thing for a blue-collar kid? If they could get a job, an offer from GM or some other big company, that’s the one you…that’s the obvious choice! I chose the ambiguous choice, and it turns out the entrepreneurial choice, but at the time I didn’t even know what the word entrepreneurial meant. We started inventing and getting patents. I found out quickly that there’s only one criteria to get a patent. Of all 10 million patents that have been issued by the Federal Government, there’s only one criteria, and that criteria is… it has to be not obvious. If you’re inventing a product and it’s the obvious thing that you should do, it will not get a patent. But if you do something unobvious, and you can prove that you’re the first one to think of it, you will get that patent, and that’s the only criteria they use. So, even the Federal Government is sort of embracing ambiguity. And so, we’ve got over 1,200 patents, and we’ve commercialized 95% of them.
Brian Smiga: Wow!
John Nottingham: They’re all out there doing some work, and if you look at the average of all US patents from the very beginning, only 5% have ever been commercialized.
Brian Smiga: Okay, so how do young people or people of any age in the audience embrace the non-obvious? Because our tendencies as human beings is to go to where it’s safe, to go to what we understand, to go to what’s understood and obvious. Is there a trick, especially for people who want to pursue an inventive, creative path, to build in an attitude towards embracing the non-obvious?
John Nottingham: When you’re looking at creating something, and inventing something, the first thing that will come to mind is the obvious thing. But it’s probably going to be an incremental little improvement. And so, what I say is, go ahead and write it down and do a drawing or description, whatever. Now that you have it written down, play a little game with yourself. Now think of the most bizarre, out-of-the-box idea for that same thing. Forget whether it’s practical. Forget whether you can do it. Just what is it? Is it levitating? Forget whether it’s even possible. Put it down.
And I have a word for that. I call it mild to wild. In other words, you do mild, but then you do wild. What’s the wildest thing you can do? Then you have the book ends. Now let’s take wild and mild and put ’em together and you have something in the middle.
Brian Smiga: Can you give an example of one of your inventions, maybe it’s a common product that we all use and enjoy, and maybe illustrate the mild and the wild, and then the incremental in between that you discovered.
John Nottingham: Let’s take the world of vacuum cleaners. What’s the mild approach to vacuum cleaners? Well, you look at that vacuum cleaner, and you say, you know I can make it a little more compact. I can make it a different color. I can put a little feature on it. That’s mild, and people do that now every day. That’s what corporations do.
Now, what’s the wild thing you can do? Well, then you say, okay, well I’m not really doing a vacuum cleaner. I’m doing something to clean up my floor. Okay well, what are other ways to clean up the floor? Well, I can have a broom, I can have a Swiffer, I can have a vacuum cleaner. There’s a lot of ways I can clean a room. Okay, then you start to think about it, that’s brainstorming! Now let’s go wild! When I vacuum or when I Swiffer, it’ll pick up the dust, but it doesn’t pick up the Cheerios or the dog food. I got a Swiffer, and then for all the chunks I gotta go grab my vacuum cleaner and I vacuum that up. Well, here’s a wild idea. Let’s put ’em together. Let’s combine a Swiffer and a vacuum and call it the Swiffer Sweep+Vac.
Well that’s what we did, and we took it to Procter & Gamble, and Procter & Gamble said, that’s cool, but we’re not really in the vacuum cleaner business, but we do do Swiffers and we’ll give you the name and some things, but you guys do it on your own, so we did. We did a separate venture, and it did so well that Procter & Gamble acquired it, and then we designed it to go in grocery stores. Now, vacuum cleaners have never been sold in grocery stores.
So that’s a wild idea that we’re saying, “Okay, well why not?” Well, they’re too expensive! Well, then we go to a consumer and say, well, would you buy a vacuum cleaner at a grocery store? “Nah, it’s too expensive.” Well, wait a second! What if it wasn’t too expensive? What would you pay? Well we found out if there was a price wall of between $29.00 and $39.00, maybe they would. Boom! We started with that price point, worked backwards to a factory cost, and we put it into a grocery store, and it’s the only vacuum cleaner you can buy in a grocery store. All of a sudden you open up 40,000 doors that you didn’t have beyond a Walmart and Target. Now you can go into Fort, you can go into Kroger and Safeway and all the rest. That’s a wild idea, and it’s doing real well.
Brian Smiga: Now, would you say in your thousand patents that got commercialized, was this ‘mild to wild’ process used most of the time in those inventions?
John Nottingham: Almost all the time. When we start to brainstorm,, I call that the “diverging approach.” So, we diverge, and go mild, wild, do a hundred different ideas, yet you can’t commercialize a hundred different ideas. Then you have to converge to one or two that really make sense, but you’ve got a lot of choices, and we have a methodology where we converge to get in that one choice, and that’s really the thing that makes us…
Brian Smiga: John, you’re giving away your trade secrets here…
John Nottingham: I know. It’s okay. I’ll share it with anybody because I really think that we really need to encourage that whole ambiguity idea.
Brian Smiga: Besides your TEDx Talk which you’re going to give, which will be a playbook in greater length on how to do invention and embrace the non-obvious, are you going to write a book? Have you written a book? Do you teach this? Where else could people learn more?
John Nottingham: I’ve never written a book. I might at some point, but what we do is we teach it to our five partners, about how to do this stuff. It’s really a process that we’ve evolved over 50 years and it’s really effective.
Brian Smiga: If there was one thing you would tell young people about embracing the non- obvious and maybe starting the practice of mild to wild, what is that one thing?
John Nottingham: I would say follow your passion. If you’re a young person starting out in a career, there are your stakeholders around you, your parents, your guidance counselors, your teachers, and they’re saying you should go in this direction, but what’s your passion? And if that passion is different than what they’re saying, follow the passion. Don’t follow what people expect you to do.
Brian Smiga: There we have it! This has been Brian Smiga, ExpertOpen. We’re the producers of TEDxAsburyPark which is happening on May 18, 2019, on the Asbury Park boardwalk at the Paramount Theatre, and will be featuring John Nottingham who has invented, with his team Nottingham-Spirk, 1,200 patents. Nine out of ten have been commercialized. John, we’re going to welcome you from your innovation temple in Cleveland to the Jersey shore. I hope you’ll all join us!
Graphic Created by Kel Grant.