23 SEPTEMBER 1995, Page 21



Reginald Potterton reveals how American companies fleece British inventors. He knows. He did it

Florida I AM, or was, a crook. My field was the inventions business and my job was to encourage people to believe that the American company I represented in Lon- don not only could but would make them rich. All they had to do was to invent something. We would then present the idea to manufacturers in the United States — the biggest consumer market on the planet, as we so often reminded our clients.

Our advertisement appeared first in the Exchange and Mart. Response was poor, so we turned to the quality press, weekdays and Sundays. The advertisement read: `Got any ideas? Call this number.'

The phone rang all day.

Solar-powered sock-warmers. A vomit- ing garden gnome. A miniature central heating boiler that runs on non-fissionable plutonium. Disposable trousers. A stilt for people with one leg. Shoes for dogs. Square Frisbees. Big pencils.

'It sounds perfectly wonderful to us,' we'd tell every caller. 'We'll pop a disclo- sure form in the post, you sign it and send it back. It's your guarantee of confidential- ity, so that nobody steals the idea. Make a rough drawing if you like.'

`Then what?' they would ask.

`We'll look over the details and if we think head office in Washington might be interested we'll send it over there. No promises they will like it, mind, it's up to them to make the final decision. But what- ever they decide, this is a free service, absolutely no charge to you.'

It was the words 'Washington' and 'free' that did the trick. Both were true. Head office was in Washington DC, in a building staffed economically by disabled people whose function was to send and receive faxes, open envelopes, take things out, put other things in new envelopes and send them somewhere.

The word 'free' had greater flexibility and, as a concept, a brief lifespan. Certain- ly it cost the client nothing other than phone calls and postage to send the form. As soon as we received that, we'd give the invention a two- or three-word title, write it on our daily list and fax it to head office. Their reply came within 24 hours, acknowledging each item, though with varying and sometimes puzzling degrees of accuracy, so that 'stilt' came back as 'smilt' and 'shoes for dogs' as 'shoes for frogs'. Who cared?

What mattered was that the client's name had been entered into a computer that never forgot to write. Over the next few months or years, it would send big envelopes to people who hadn't yet taken the bait.

This was not what the client was told. As far as he was concerned — and the vast majority of clients were men — we had submitted his idea to Washington and now we were waiting for the official verdict. There was never any verdict but yes.

Once that came in, it was time to call with the good news. `Just as we guessed, the people in Wash- ington went crazy over your goldfish ham- mer. I think we've got something here.'

'So what do I do now?'

`Well, there are lots of options. You'll need a patent lawyer to make a search at the Patent Office in Washington. He'll go through the files to make sure there's no infringement. You'll want a technical description of the product and a summary written by the engineer. That's important. Professional drawings, of course, under acetate overlays, naturally. Construction methods and potential modifications. Inter- national patent search, you'll need one of those.'

`But that'll cost a fortune!'

'No question, but that's the right way to go.'

Indeed it was, and, having said so, we had met the legal requirements enshrined in the small print that kept the company's officers out of the slammer. But it was not what people wanted to hear. What they wanted was something that would enlarge their capacity for wishful thinking.

Our company's continuing faith in the merits of a given idea was an enormous help in that respect — timely, too, because it was now that the inventor found himself in an unfamiliar predicament. Someone was taking him and his invention seriously. After years of tinkering in the shed, scorned by friends and family, he was at last talking to someone who believed in him. What to do, what to do?

For us this was the moment to take the plunge and go for the cash, a procedure Do you have a shampoo for damaged hair?' known as wallet mining, or, as one of the salesmen at the Miami branch put it, per- forming a walletectomy.

Step one: 'Of course, there is a less expensive way of doing this. Washington can provide a comprehensive report for, ooh, around £300. We call it a New Prod- uct Review and it includes every detail I've just mentioned.'

'With patent search? Draughtsman's drawings, under acetate?'

'The lot.'

A saleslady in the Miami office devel- oped a technique that proved highly effec- tive in closing deals with Florida crackers — suspicious rural types who insisted on driving into town from the swamps and farms of the South Florida outback before making out any goddam cheque to some city slicker. A voluptuous, long-haired Latin beauty who habitually wore revealing dresses, the saleslady would lean over the client while he scrutinised the details on the forms. This could often take half an hour, at the end of which resistance had usually broken down. If that didn't work she would lie back in her chair, lift the hem of her dress and fan her face with it, sighing, 'Is it hot or what?' She called this ploy 'the old skirt over the head cracker closer'.

The company issued a sales script of 110 pages which was supposed to be followed verbatim, although the London office modified the syntax as necessary. The script was divided into 19 sections, each of which covered potential problems in the categories of Objections, Sceptical, Nega- tive Publicity (about the inventions busi- ness) etc. One section was called Lowering the Price. This came in two parts and was known informally as 'It's the Money'. I still have it in front of me as I write this. As written and punctuated in the original American, the script reads: 'Hello, John. How ya doin'?' 'Fine, Toni, how are you?'

'John, I've been watching your file for a cou- ple of weeks now and it doesn't look like we're making too much progress on this what's holding us up?'

'Well, Tom, like I told you before, it's the money.'

'Oh — you mean the money is the main thing holding us up right now? I didn't realise that. So — it's the money.'

'Well, that's it. It's only the money.'

'Well — OK — I didn't have this written down on the file — I didn't really under- stand why this project was going slowly but now I understand. On the other hand if the money is the only thing holding us up — that is really not a good reason as far as we're concerned. I mean it's a good reason

if you don't have it — but in our book it doesn't make sense to hold up this entire project over a few hundred dollars.'

'That's about it.'

'OK — well, this is what I'm going to do. Tomorrow I'm going to speak to my people over here. I'm basically going to tell them what you just told me. It's definitely worth a shot — maybe they'll have some suggestions. Now I can't promise anything, but I'll do my best — so, that's what I'm going to do. Bye now.'

This cheery gibberish wasn't so much a gradual retreat from reality so much as a full gallop. There were no 'people' other than myself and the office manager, a man who could sell people the clothes they were wearing for twice the original cost. The reality was that the punter's file would be shoved into a drawer with a note to call him next week. If he was still short of money he would be offered an instalment plan.

But that wasn't what hooked him. It was the fantasy that teams of experts in London and Washington were standing by, clip- boards poised, ready to get to work on his 35-ton roof-mounted bird-feeder. More to the point, the bird-feeder had turned into a 'project'.

It is only fair to say that a New Project Review, when it arrived from Washington, was a masterpiece of richly detailed boiler- plate. Some of them — it depended on how much the client paid; there was no fixed price, it was a case of finding out what the market would bear and bearing down on it — were the size of telephone directories. The client was duly astounded. Then, once the euphoria had worn off, he had another question: Now what?

`OK — now, there are all kinds of possi- bilities, and this is when things could get a lot more interesting and the product really starts to move forward! The first possibility will be to stop the project and do nothing at all . . . Now, this isn't a very productive thing to do, but I want to spell out all of the different alternatives . . . '

These included employing a model maker, a blueprint draughtsman, a con- tract manufacturer, and one other essen- tial: 'a good lawyer to make sure you're protecting yourself properly. You could be looking at thirty grand here. So, that's one way to do it. Extremely risky, since you're doing this for the first time.'

However, 'the third possibility — and this is obviously the plan we'd like to pur- sue — will be for you to continue working with us.'

And so it would go, through the hun- dreds of pounds and on into the thou- sands. Plan A, the New Product Review phase, there's a quick three or six hundred, then plan B, a few grand there, then onwards and upwards to Plan C, the pay- load. Each plan raised new challenges, new expectations, new revenue. Given enough credulity and money, the plans could exhaust the alphabet. It was, as my succes- sor said, 'much easier than knocking down old ladies and stealing their handbags'. Money for old rope, sometimes literally, as in the case of the man who wanted to con- vert discarded fishing nets into cowboy hats.

Before joining the London office, I went to head office and the branches in Toronto and Chicago to watch the veterans at work. (There are many offices in the United States, but not in Wisconsin, where the inventions business is banned.) The sales- men were middle-aged men in suits and ties. They were sober, reflective, attentive. They worked in high-rent buildings in sub- urban industrial parks, expensively furnished, with conference-rooms, waiting- salons and private offices overlooking landscaped grounds. The London office, the company's first overseas branch, is equally dignified.

The image conceals the premise on which this house of cards rests: that some- one who invents things, like most of us perhaps, craves acknowledgment. Wealth and fame, too, if that can be arranged. To reach these goals an inventor needs reas- surance that his idea deserves respect. That's what he gets from the salesman. To get it, he will pay what he can afford, and more.

He may be unaware that in the inven- tions business companies come and go with some frequency. 'Know the Competi- tion' was the title of an appendix to the sales script; it included the names of defunct rivals under the heading 'Inven- tion Company Graveyard'. Survivors change their names and addresses, regroup elsewhere, print new stationery and carry on.

When things get sticky, as they some- times do, they remind the client that they never promised to make him rich in the first place — much less find a manufactur- er who would actually make the product — and that the company's only contractu- al obligation was `to work with' him on product research, preparation and devel- opment. Which can mean anything you want it to mean.

It says as much about my own capacity for wishful thinking as it says about the clients that my tour of the company's branches gave no obvious clue as to the true nature of the business. Suspicions, yes, but nothing solid. That penny didn't drop until I'd worked in London for a few weeks, when it became clear that what I was doing was selling dreams to dreamers and prolonging the dream for as long as possible, at their expense.

In my month on the job I failed to sell a single New Product Review, the first hur- dle of salesmanship. Perhaps the failure came from dawning enlightenment. A London bus driver had sent in a proposal for making lifeboats out of recycled gum- boots. I called him at home to tell him that Washington loved the idea and wanted to get moving. He excused himself to go away and cough. His wife picked up the receiver. `Asthma,' she explained. 'He's all worked up. Hasn't been this happy for years. We definitely want to get the New Product Review, if it's everything you say it is.'

Well, it wasn't, and if I committed an act of corporate disloyalty by telling her so I'm terribly sorry.

I met our founder and president when he flew in to inspect the London branch. He was known as the Great Who, possibly because his name never appeared in com- pany correspondence. He was about 40, looked younger, slim, respectable in a grey suit, and he had the pallid, waxy skin and soft hands of a man who didn't get out much. His clergyman's manner may explain his other nickname, the Holy Ghost. No doubt my suspicions were hardening, because just before he left I asked him if the inventions business was on the level.

'We don't promise them a thing we can't deliver,' he said. 'It's all there in black and white if they care to look.'

In the London office, the phones still ring all day. There's even a freephone num- ber for those who live further away.

Got any ideas? That's good, but it might be wise to remember that what the big print giveth, the small print taketh away.