By Mike Sula
Jaime Aramburo has three jobs: he's a full-time lab technician at Sacred Heart Hospital and a part-time lab technician at a private clinic, and in the mornings and on weekends he sells international long distance phone cards out of an Albany Park storefront. But he's really a man of ideas. Under his desk at the store (where he's also started renting out Filipino movies) is a two-inch stack of sketches for useful gadgets that don't yet exist. Several of them are designed to make his day job easier: a device that helps locate injectable veins, another that checks blood samples for clotting, a microscope with a single screen in place of the usual two lenses. But Aramburo believes his most bankable idea is one that has nothing to do with lab work: the Toilet Seat Keeper, a spring attached to a four-inch plastic-coated lever that pushes the toilet seat up when no one is sitting on it.
For all its mechanical simplicity, the Toilet Seat Keeper is a revolutionary idea: it requires the abandonment of the principle that men should raise the toilet seat before urinating and lower it when finished. If the seat is always up when not in use, Aramburo explains, men can't accidentally splatter it, and women will remember to put it down before sitting. He is convinced that once people see the logic of leaving it up they'll pay for a simple, inexpensive way to keep it there.
Aramburo, a Filipino immigrant in his mid-40s, thought up the Toilet Seat Keeper nearly a decade ago, but he wasn't sure how to get the word out. He knew no lawyers who could help him navigate the complex process of patenting the Toilet Seat Keeper. He knew no manufacturers who might be interested in mass producing it. He knew no salesmen who could seduce department store buyers into yielding precious shelf space to it. But a year and a half ago he was impressed by a television commercial for a company that promised to help him make all those connections: Advent Product Development of Pawleys Island, South Carolina. He decided the time was right to take a chance on the Toilet Seat Keeper.
"I don't consider myself an inventor yet," he says. "Maybe if this works. Maybe. The problem is the money. Even if you have great ideas, but don't have money, there's no way to pursue those ideas."
Advent isn't the first such service he's tried. Aramburo devours technical manuals for pleasure, and he owns and regularly reads the 28-volume New Illustrated Science and Invention Encyclopedia. He also subscribes to Popular Mechanics, and in 1994 an advertisement in the back of the magazine grabbed his attention: a company in Massachusetts called the American Institute for Research and Development was looking for inventors who wanted to make money on their good ideas.
One of the more tedious tasks required of a lab technician is manually corking or uncorking large numbers of test tubes, and Aramburo had thought of a simple device that could be used to do the job quickly and easily. He called AIRD's toll-free number and a few days later received some pamphlets and forms to fill out. He drew a picture, wrote up a description of his test tube opener, and sent them in.
AIRD told him there was a good chance they could help him patent his idea, but to know for sure they'd need to conduct a patent search to make sure nobody had already thought of it. Then they'd need to study whether the test tube opener would be profitable to market and manufacture. Aramburo paid AIRD about $400, and two months later he received a black binder containing the results of the company's research.
Most of the report's 82 pages contained general information on the U.S. patent system, statistics on the 1993 medical supplies market, and explanations of the various patenting and marketing services offered by AIRD. There were also price estimates for the test tube opener, some information on potential markets, and the opinion of the attorney the company had hired to conduct the patent search: he'd found six existing patents for similar devices, but he believed that none was so close as to spoil Aramburo's chances of patenting his version. That sounded good to Aramburo, but AIRD wanted between $5,500 and $9,500 to apply for the patent and start promoting the test tube opener, and he figured it would take him a few years to scrape together the money. He stowed the binder under his desk with his sketches.
It's probably just as well that he waited. In May 1999 ten people associated with AIRD were indicted in a mail fraud scheme that the federal government says bilked 34,000 inventors out of $60 million in fees paid for worthless patenting and marketing services.
Jaime--who pronounces his name "Jamie" because the Spanish pronunciation sounds too much like "hymen"--grew up on his family's coconut farm outside Manila. He's the middle child of 11 and says he's the only one who's handy. As a kid he liked to do repair work. "When I see something that's not working, I want to find out what's wrong," he says. "Take things apart and put it together and try to see if I can make it work. I like it even now."
When he was a teenager his family moved into the city, where he designed a contraption that could strip hemp fibers to make rope and built a shredding machine for a friend who ran a carpet-recycling business. But he didn't see his tinkering as a career path.
In the mid-80s health-care workers were in demand, both at home and abroad. It seemed like a good way to make a living and it fed his interests in science and technology, so after graduating from Far Eastern University he got a job as a lab tech in Manila.
He got married in 1991, bought a house, and began renting out rooms. The place was large enough to accommodate ten people from three different families, but everyone shared two washrooms. "I got a lot of female boarders there," he says. "Sometimes when they gotta use, they see some wet on the seat." Figuring the toilet bowl would make an easier target for the men if the seat were out of the way, he welded a small piece of metal to a spring and attached it to the underside of the ring, and the Toilet Seat Keeper was born. He says the members of that crowded household are still using it today. "Women usually like this idea, if you're living together," he says. "By yourself, maybe no. By yourself, just leave it that way. She doesn't care. Most of them like this idea, especially if they have kids."
A year after his wedding, a research lab in Chicago offered to sponsor him to come work in the U.S. He seized the opportunity--wages were much higher than at home, and his sister Jane, also a lab technician, had done the same thing three years earlier. He visits his wife, Nelly, and their four-year-old daughter often, and hopes they'll be joining him here by the end of the year.
Jaime is not using a Toilet Seat Keeper in the apartment he shares with Jane. He always puts the seat up, and he's persuaded her to do the same.
While Aramburo was saving the money to pay AIRD, he had time to consider the wisdom of spending it on the test tube opener. It was a good idea--the report said so. But its potential market, labs and hospitals, seemed limited. Maybe he'd be wiser to concentrate on an idea that would appeal to a wider group of consumers. The profits from such a success would make it easier to develop his more specialized designs.
The Toilet Seat Keeper could theoretically be marketed to any and every coed household. "Let's say in Kmart, Walgreens, they may sell this for 15 bucks," Aramburo says. "So it's very affordable. Why would you not try this thing for 15 bucks? What is 15 bucks? For household harmony?" And that would be just the beginning. Those electric boxes that run a sanitized sock of plastic over the seat in public men's rooms are clumsy, unreliable, and expensive, he says. The Toilet Seat Keeper could attain the same end result at a fraction of the cost.
In early 1999, when he saw the commercial for Advent, Aramburo was unaware of the charges against AIRD, though they'd been filed four years before. But he decided to go with Advent for the Toilet Seat Keeper because he liked the company's pitch. "If you got small ideas or big ideas, they are interested in them," he recalls. "Even if you got very small ideas you can call. No idea is too small. No idea is too big." He called Advent's toll-free number and set up an appointment at the local branch office, on Mannheim Road in Westchester.
Aramburo met with Advent marketing consultant Blake Yager and told him about the Toilet Seat Keeper. Yager expressed interest, and the next day Aramburo submitted a drawing, a description, and a down payment toward Advent's fee to produce a "product profile." The report cost more than $800, twice as much as the one he'd gotten from AIRD.
The black binder Aramburo picked up about two months later was slicker than AIRD's. Its cover bore the company's name and its logo--a silhouette of a man stretching upward for a string hanging from a light. The sections were marked by plastic tabs for quick reference and a blue legal pad and pen were attached to the back panel.
Like the AIRD binder, it contained a surfeit of general economic information about pricing strategies and industry trends, as well as a number of broad statements you'd think would be obvious to an inventor who's already put some thought into selling his idea: "A concept is a vision of how an invention would look and perform; a product invention is a tangible thing. In order to sell new products, it is important that the concept and invention be merged," the report advised. Elsewhere it noted that "in addition to being an inventive nation, the United States is also an entrepreneurial nation."
Nonetheless, Aramburo thought the report was worth the extra money. Advent's feasibility study seemed more detailed and comprehensive than AIRD's, and he felt that the company truly understood the Toilet Seat Keeper's potential. "Households that include male and female inhabitants are prevalent throughout the world," the report read. "Because of the differences between the two sexes, conflicts on some issues are inevitable. One common argument which takes place in many households concerns the toilet seat position. Men may innocently forget to put the seat upright when using the toilet, which can result in drops of urine on the seat. The messy seat is inevitably encountered by another individual, who must sit on the seat. Cleaning the seat, as well as manually manipulating the toilet seat, is considered a disgusting chore. Even when cleaning the bathroom, raising the seat to clean the toilet bowl is not appealing. Jaime Aramburo has addressed these issues and conceived an idea for a system which would offer a convenient and sanitary method of keeping the seat in an upright position, when not in use."
"I spent almost a thousand dollars to make this," says Aramburo. But "before they accept your ideas at least you have to pass this. It should be feasible. Because if they say no, you don't proceed. You have to pass this first. Once you pass this then you go on with the patenting. That's more expensive. The last step is this marketing. Then if nobody is interested then you lose all your money."
But Advent's opinion of the Toilet Seat Keeper's chances in the marketplace seemed positive. Though they didn't specifically explain how they reached these numbers, they figured the product would cost $5 to manufacture, sell for $10 wholesale, and retail for $20.
Based on their reading of the U.S. Standard Industrial Classification System (a breakdown of U.S. manufacturers by industry), Advent determined that there were a couple hundred manufacturers of plastic plumbing fixtures that "would most likely be capable of" making the Toilet Seat Keeper. If none of them bit, there'd be a few thousand more miscellaneous hardware producers to try. (Manufacturers, the report explained, often review "new product ideas with a view toward purchasing or licensing" them.)
In April 1997, about two years before Aramburo called Advent, the government began phasing out the Standard Industrial Classification system, which was accessible in many public libraries, in favor of the North American Industry Classification System, which covers Canada and Mexico as well as the States. It doesn't cost anything to access NAICS in libraries or on the Internet.
The U.S. Census Bureau also makes its economic data public, and Advent uses its statistics to determine the number of potential sales outlets for a given product. In Aramburo's case it found that there were 2,473 purveyors of bathroom fixtures and accessories, 6,089 home centers, and 32,174 department stores in the United States. Advent also picked out about a dozen magazines, including Better Homes and Gardens and Building Products Digest, where the Toilet Seat Keeper could be "effectively advertised."
Advent's report also included the results of a patent search. The search is a crucial step in the research process: if patents for ideas similar to the inventor's already exist, it may not be worth the time and money to go forward with the application process. It's considered smart for an inventor to have an objective party undertake the search and provide an opinion about whether the idea is patentable, because an attorney who can expect to make between $4,000 and $7,000 dollars working on an inventor's application might be biased.
So might a representative of an invention promotion company, which is why Advent promises to hire out its patent searches to private law firms and include a written legal opinion about the idea's patentability in every product profile. In Aramburo's binder there are photocopies of three drawings of patented products similar in function, if not design, to the Toilet Seat Keeper: the Commode Seat Lift Apparatus, the Automatic Toilet Seat Mechanism, and the Toilet Bracket. But Aramburo doesn't know who conducted his patent search, and there is no written opinion in the binder. He says he doesn't remember receiving one, but that it's possible he misplaced it. In any event, he says, Blake Yager assured him that the Toilet Seat Keeper was patentable when he handed him the binder.
The final pages of Advent's report are "a suggested 'road map' for your product's future." Advent recommended that Aramburo enter the next phase of its product development process, a two-year "representation agreement." The company would hire a patent attorney to file the application and create drawings of the Toilet Seat Keeper for use in a brochure to be mailed to firms selected from its "vast and extensive library of manufacturing companies." A licensing agent would be assigned to coordinate additional mailings several times a year, and Advent's public relations department would promote the Toilet Seat Keeper in the media "to obtain crucial newspaper, television, and radio exposure." The customer service department would provide Aramburo with quarterly updates on their progress. All this would cost him $8,490.
"I said, 'OK, let me think,'" Aramburo says. "'I need some time.' Because it's a lot of money. You cannot decide right away. It's hard. Once in a while they called me: 'What's your decision?'"
He chewed on it for a few months and decided to go for it, taking out a loan through Triad Resources, a financing company that appears to be owned by Advent. With his MasterCard he put down $3,000 and started paying monthly installments of $277.83. This March he paid off the balance, again with a credit card, to avoid the 18 percent interest Triad would begin charging the following month, then paid off his credit card debt with a bank loan at 13 percent interest. He reckons he'll have that settled in a year or so. "It's like every month I play the casino," he says. "It's like losing at the casino for two years."
Not long after Aramburo paid up, Advent notified him that the Toilet Seat Keeper had been awarded its provisional patent, which is good for a year and allows Advent to begin promoting the idea without fear of someone stealing it. Assuming that Aramburo's application is not rejected by the U.S. Patent Office, he'll be liable for an issuance fee of up to $655, bringing his total to just under ten grand.
In late April, Advent sent 88 publications, including this one, a press release about the Toilet Seat Keeper titled "No Oops With This One." The opening paragraph read: "Have you ever used the toilet at night without bothering to turn on the light when entering the bathroom? If so, we hope you have found the toilet seat up and not down! This can be a problem and it seems to be a bone of contention between the males and females of every household. The Toilet Seat Keeper would relieve the males from having to remember to reposition the seat manually and the seat would no longer be a source of tension between the two household genders. A seat that stays in the upright position will make every occupant happy and no longer will there be 'potty discussions about whose fault it was for leaving it down' that can turn into an argument."
Publicist Donna Hardiman works at Advent's corporate headquarters in Pawleys Island, a resort town about 25 miles down the shore from Myrtle Beach whose most celebrated industry is the production of handwoven hammocks. Hardiman says she writes six press releases for recently patented or patent-pending products every week. She says she spoke to Aramburo over the phone before starting. "It was a very easy news release," she says. "And when I wrote it I could just envision it. I wish we had it in my household. My husband and I have three bathrooms in our town house. When we don't have company he uses the guest bathroom and I use the one off the master bedroom. But we just had company over Easter and so he shared my bathroom. I remember going in there one night and--whomp!--and I thought, 'I'd be the first one to buy it.'"
I ask her if the seat being up all the time would prevent her from falling into the toilet bowl in the dark.
"Right. Well, keep it up so that you knew it was always going to be in one spot. Instead of that up or down." Hardiman pauses to recover from an appealing, throaty laugh. "And I'm sure the men will like it too."
Advent also wanted to sell Aramburo a spot on its Web site, www.adventproduct.net, where anyone can look at descriptions and drawings of more than 200 clients' ideas. There's the Anderson Dish, a paper cup to be placed on restaurant tables to act as a laborsaving receptacle for soiled napkins, cracker wrappers, spent sugar packets, and other dining flotsam. The Pumpkin to Turkey Converter consists of cutouts of a turkey head and tail to be inserted into opposite ends of leftover Halloween pumpkins and enjoyed through Thanksgiving in the provident spirit of the Pilgrims. The inventor of a truss called the Fountain of Youth Bra for Men maintains that it can prevent impotence, hemorrhoids, urinary incontinence, colon and prostate cancer, and divorce by helping men exercise their sphincter muscles. Advent also represents the creators of the Lotion Caddy Clock/Pen, the Back Lotion Applicator, the Lotion Warmer, and the Lotioneer; Edible Candles; Personalized Caskets, Coffins, & Urns; and mysterious-sounding items like Ice Thoads, Clevis With Lubricating Access, Wish Balls, and the Lapp 'n' Munch.
Advent's report on the Toilet Seat Keeper says that "100 million people having access to your product via the Internet should further enhance your product's chances for success." But that costs an extra $750, so Aramburo's decided to wait and see if the Toilet Seat Keeper catches on off-line. At press time the site had received about 3,300 hits, according to the counter on the home page.
Looking for some insight into how he recognized the Toilet Seat Keeper's market potential, I called Blake Yager at Advent's office in Westchester. He answered, excused himself quickly, and didn't call me back. His boss, district manager John Alberts, did, but he didn't seem to know who Aramburo was.
"She already has patent pending or people wouldn't be seeing this product," he said at one point.
I asked him who he was talking about.
"Is Jamie a girl or a guy?" he asked.
Alberts had very little to say about the Toilet Seat Keeper, citing reasons of confidentiality, but he agreed to give me a general description of how Advent decides to accept an inventor's idea, and invited me to meet him in Westchester.
The office was on the second floor of a plain brown brick building next to an International House of Pancakes. When I showed up for my 2:30 appointment, the glass doors to the reception area were locked and no one answered my knock. Through the glass, to which Better Business Bureau, Discover, and Novus decals were affixed, I could see framed patent certificates for 11 inventions hanging on the wall, including Resilient Tension Exercise Apparatus, Fragrance Dispensing Toilet Paper Spool, and Remotely Activated Location Identifying Arrow Attachment.
I waited for an hour, then left. The next day Alberts phoned to apologize, saying he'd been unexpectedly called out of the office, and we scheduled another meeting for the following week. But by then I had talked with Russ Thieman, Advent's senior marketing consultant, who works in South Carolina. He told me that branch personnel weren't allowed to talk to the press because "our fourth estate doesn't have the highest degree of integrity. I mean, let's be blunt."
Thieman says there are about 20 Advent consultants nationwide who evaluate thousands of new ideas every month from people responding to the ads. He estimates that 20 to 25 percent of them are offered the opportunity to become clients by purchasing Advent's initial report, which can cost as much as $1,200. About 80 percent of those reports include positive opinions about the patentability of the product. Thieman attributes the high approval rate to the effectiveness of the initial screening process. A client who decides to go forward from there can expect to pay between $8,000 and $11,000 more.
"But we also tell them right up front that there are no guarantees, that there is a definite risk factor in this," says Thieman. "New product introduction is not a sure thing. It's a very risky venture. Probably one in 60, 70 new products that gets introduced makes any money at all. The chances of a product making literally millions and millions of dollars are one in about four or five thousand." Advent gets about $9,000 per client either way, but Thieman says the company's incentive is that "our way of making the vast majority of our money is getting 20 percent of whatever the inventor approves from the royalties or the sale."
So how many of its clients' ideas has Advent sold to manufacturers? Thieman says that in its first year and half Advent--a company with about four dozen employees total--has licensed 16 or 17 products. He mentions a game called Safety First, which he claims "you can see in almost any department store, like Wal-Mart, Kmart," but says Advent does not give out references from its successful clients. "We won't even release their phone numbers or names if we don't have their permission to do so," he says. "We've done that a couple of times. We've gotten some clients who said, 'Sure, I don't mind.' And when a week and half went by, when they've received in excess of 300 telephone calls, they say, 'Whoa, whoa, enough!' So it's just something we don't do anymore."
Lauren Glassman, the inventor of Safety First, says her board game, which is intended to help small children deal with dangerous situations, is sold out of more than 100 boutiques and catalogs--but no big chain stores. She also says she originally contracted not with Advent but with a New Jersey-based company called National Invention Services Inc., or NISI, to help her apply for a patent. "In the middle they turned into Advent," she says, and Advent later used her as a reference. "I did well by them," she told the callers. "They did what they said they were going to do. I never complained." But Glassman says the company merely secured the patent, and that she found her own manufacturer and did all her own marketing. She started by touting the game at a toy fair, where she quickly sold several hundred cases. Advent can't take credit for that, she says, and they're not sharing her profits. "I hope they're not telling people that," she says. "That's not true. That's a lie. I've done 100 percent of the marketing myself."
As it turns out, at least three of the gizmos displayed on the wall of Advent's Westchester office were patented in the mid-90s, before Advent even opened. I was able to track down two of the patent holders, both of whom confirmed that they too had contracted with NISI.
Thieman, who's from Chicago, has worked out of Pawleys Island for almost two years. Before that, he worked for three years for NISI at what's now Advent's Westchester office. In July 1997 the Federal Trade Commission filed fraud charges against NISI as part of Project Mousetrap, the same joint state and federal investigation of invention promotion firms that had resulted in the charges against AIRD. The feds claimed NISI led its clients to believe they were likely to make money by purchasing the company's services when in fact, out of more than 1,000 clients, not one ever had. A year later NISI settled, paying $445,000 in refunds and promising to have each new prospective client sign a disclosure statement revealing how many clients earned back more money than they paid to the company for its work.
Thieman says he was considering handing in his resignation at the time. "Put it this way," he says. "It wasn't anything that they were doing overtly wrong. It was things that they were doing by omission." But in September 1998, a South Carolina businessman named Philip Farinacci bought the "physical assets" of NISI and started his own company, Advent. "The new owners, they had talked to me when they came in to buy the company and had said that they'd definitely like me to stay. And I had some great conversations with them as far as what was gonna be done. And they are some of the greatest people I've ever worked for. They have integrity, honor, and there just is an excellent environment. And I think that if there's any inventor out there that wants this kind of assistance--I'm not just trying to put a plug in for my company, but speaking from the heart--Advent Product Development is probably the most moral company that exists today in this whole process or in this whole business. Great deal of integrity."
But Advent hasn't persuaded everyone. A number of consumer advocates and patent lawyers maintain Web sites to educate independent inventors on the hazards of invention promotion. Advent shows up on a few of them, on lists of companies inventors should be careful about dealing with. Last year Ronald Riley, a Michigan inventor who runs InventorEd.org, gave Advent its own page after he received a letter from a New York law firm representing the company. The letter threatened to sue him for defamation unless he removed statements saying that Advent was "either affiliated with or a successor of National Invention Services, Incorporated." Riley maintains that as he understands it, Advent acquired significant assets from NISI, uses or in the past has used the same telephone numbers as NISI, markets the same type of services as NISI, has hired former NISI employees, and services former NISI clients. He posted the lawyers' letter, which is dated February 23, 1999, and challenged the company to refute his statements. So far nothing more has happened.
Riley and his colleague Bob Lougher, a former employee of an invention promotion firm who started the United Inventor's Association, collect stories from inventors about their dealings with these companies. They've heard from a number of people about Advent. (Advent's vice president, who spoke on condition her name not be used, declined to respond to customer comments.)
Maurice Harding went to an Advent office outside Seattle with an idea for an under-car device that catches leaking motor oil before it can spill onto the roadway. He paid $595 for a product profile when the company was having a special. The patent search, conducted by Matthew J. Peirce--the same lawyer who handled Aramburo's patent application--turned up only four similar concepts, and Peirce recommended in a written opinion that he go forward. (Peirce, who practices in Las Vegas, did not return phone calls for this story.) Harding was considering signing Advent's contract when an acquaintance warned him about invention promotion companies. He became suspicious and contacted another patent attorney, who showed him how to conduct his own search. He found more than a dozen patents for ideas similar to his. He began calling Advent's Seattle branch, hoping to get his money back, but never reached a human being. His voice mail messages went unreturned, and before long he learned that the office had closed.
Hospital accountant Joni Rogers had an idea for a plastic sports bottle, and in August 1998 she took it to a NISI office in Costa Mesa, California. She says that when she asked for references from successful clients, her consultant told her he'd provide her with a list, but never did. Two months later, on the day she signed her contract, she was told the company had been bought by Advent--but not about NISI's legal troubles. "As 'the inventor' I was so excited about my idea and the prospects of all the numbers they were showing me about all my target markets and if I only had ten of each product in each of these stores in the shelves...I just got caught up in the money. I look back on it and I say greed got the best of me."
She says the company did everything it promised, but she began to realize that its marketing efforts weren't aggressive enough to get results. She received regular updates on the mailings the company sent to manufacturers, but when she asked if the mailings were being followed up with phone calls, she was told that Advent had too many clients to do that. "I said, 'Well, then what good does it do for you to send out the material? What they're gonna do is just treat it like junk mail.'" The rep told her, "This is the best we can do." (Aramburo's contract specifies only that Advent will make "initial contact" with the companies.) Rogers paid NISI and Advent a total of $10,980, but after she complained, she couldn't get anyone to return her phone calls or faxes. She's looking forward to the approaching end of her contract; she has a financial backer for her idea and once Advent no longer has a claim on her profits she plans to move ahead with it.
Marc and Terry Goldman of Hartsdale, New York, are on-line marketers and consider themselves pretty savvy businesspeople. Last spring Terry designed a small plush toy insect with a decorative clock face on its abdomen. She called it Mills the Millennium Bug, and the couple hoped to exploit pop culture's infatuation with Y2K by placing it in stores well before New Year's Eve. They hired their own lawyer and got a patent, but they had no clue how to break into the toy industry. Marc called Advent after hearing a radio ad and met with a consultant at the company's office in Edison, New Jersey.
"Their salesman was so slick and really made me feel comfortable that they knew the toy industry and that they had contacts," he says. "I felt like they were going out to lunch with the CEO of Mattel." The Goldmans agreed to pay the company $7,790 to work their contacts.
"They ended up writing this really crappy press release, which my wife and I rewrote," says Marc. The couple faxed the releases themselves to a number of publications and also rewrote the brochure Advent designed. When they discovered that the company was sending mailings to clock manufacturers--thereby risking theft of the idea, since Mills was not a clock and moving parts were not covered by the patent--they did some research on-line and provided Advent with a list of toy manufacturers to focus on. "I also called them up once to see if they were contacting these companies," says Marc. "I'm like, 'Do you believe in follow-up? Because as an aggressive marketer, if you're really on my side you'd be following up.' They were like, 'We don't believe in that because that jeopardizes our position if we were to ever contact them in the future.'"
By last summer the Goldmans had had enough and began asking for their money back. Marc spoke on the phone with Advent president Joseph Ingarra. "He said, 'We did everything we were supposed to,'" he says. "'The only thing we didn't do is build you a Web site.' He's like, 'For the Web site, I'll give you back $1,500 of your money, if you sign a waiver releasing us from any further action.' One of the reasons they weren't going to give me my money back was because I was mean to a secretary." The Goldmans refused the offer and filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, and the attorneys general in New York and South Carolina. They still haven't gotten any money back, and Mills never made it to market. "By the time we found someone who was willing to take a chance on it, he got scared because it was too close to the year 2000," says Marc.
Bret Albert contacted NISI around the same time Joni Rogers did. He had an idea for a ski rack that rolls off the roof and down the side of an SUV, making it easier to load. His patent is pending and he says he's happy so far with how Advent has handled the marketing and promotion, noting that a paper in the Lake Tahoe area, where he lives, responded to a press release by writing an article about him. "If you go on [Advent's] Web site and look at some of their products, you look and go, 'Boy, that's kind of stupid and I don't think that would be very marketable.' But everybody believes that their invention is the best and that they should be marketed. I mean, it was put in our contract that they don't guarantee anything."
One thing does bother Albert a little: Matthew J. Peirce wrote an encouraging opinion about the ski rack, but when Albert picked up his binder in Advent's San Francisco office, the consultant removed the written opinion, saying it would eventually be returned to him. Advent has since closed that office, and Albert still hasn't received a copy of the letter.
Michael Neustel, a patent attorney who maintains the National Inventor Fraud Center Web site, says he gets calls from aggrieved inventors every day and knows something about why so many of them get reeled in.
"There's a lot more money in this industry to be dishonest than to be honest," says Neustel, who wouldn't comment specifically on Advent. "The simple reason is that less than 2 percent of inventions are ever marketed successfully. So if you're an invention promotion company, how are you gonna make your money? Are you gonna make money off those 2 percent or that 98 percent? And of course they get greedy. Some companies start out with maybe halfway decent intentions but most of them end up just going down that bad path and they get swayed by the money. It's just too easy. These inventors--regardless of their age or education--are really vulnerable. They just want someone to believe in their idea just like they do. Because a lot of times even their close family and friends will put the ideas down. They'll say 'It looks like a good idea, but can you really sell it? Can you patent it?' They're so hungry to hear somebody say, 'Hey, I think you have a great idea' that when they do talk to these scam companies and their sales rep goes, 'Hey, wonderful idea. Pay me 10,000 bucks. We'll market it,' they're already caught. There's no fishin' here. They're already in the net."
Advent's Russ Thieman says invention promotion is like the used car business: a few scoundrels give everybody else a bad name. He acknowledges that Advent's reputation has suffered because of "the taint that was created by NISI." But he adds, "we adhere to every requirement that the government has filed. Everything. So as a result, our reputation is now, I would say, probably the best in the business. There is nothing that we promised our clients verbally that is not stated in writing and there isn't a client out there that would tell you otherwise."
Jaime Aramburo says he doesn't know how many Advent clients have made back more money than they've paid. He doesn't remember receiving or signing a disclosure statement at any time during his dealings with the company, though he supposes he could have misplaced that too. "They don't let us know that," he says. "But maybe I never asked them....Their office, they showed me, 'We are trying to do all these things hanging on the wall.' They say those are the things that are on the market. Some of them are on the market."
Advent's vice president says the company only started providing disclosure statements to its clients about a year ago. But she wouldn't fax me one or tell me what it said.
Up until a few months ago Aramburo knew nothing about NISI or Project Mousetrap, and he says the news makes him a little more suspicious than he was before. "I am thinking fifty-fifty," he says. "Maybe something's wrong, maybe they're really genuine." But he is reassured by Advent's presentation, in which they've made a noticeable investment compared to some of the other companies he has seen advertised.
"It is a big place," he says. "Nice office. There's a lot of branches. And they are on the TV. They advertise." He also says the fact that Advent operates from a real address instead of a post office box lends them some credibility. "In their case, anytime I want to call, you can talk to somebody," he says. "They are responsive. And every month they give you some update."
Aramburo has received two letters from licensing agent Cindy Skimmyhorn, along with lists of manufacturers Advent has contacted on his behalf. She promises to notify him "immediately" if any of them requests additional information.
That may not be soon enough. Aramburo now thinks he might do better to form his own corporation and pay a manufacturer to produce a run of Toilet Seat Keepers, which he can then market himself. He figures an order of 5,000 will set him back between $25,000 and $30,000. He's already found a friend--a pharmacist at the hospital--willing to grubstake him $10,000, and he's looking around for other investors. "He has the mind like me," says Aramburo. "The mind of entrepreneurship. He likes to gamble. He told me, 'I play in the casino a lot.'"
But Aramburo's not ready to risk everything. Until the first Toilet Seat Keeper rolls off an assembly line, he's putting off the development of any of his other ideas. It just costs too much money to get them across. "Maybe if I make money on this business, maybe," he says. "Because you lose a lot. That could be a down payment for a house here."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.