Brian Smiga interviews John Nottingham on his TEDxAsburyPark talk, “Getting to Wow”.
Brian Smiga: This is Brian Smiga, and I am hosting ExpertOpen, and we are the podcast for TEDxAsburyPark, coming to you May 18, 2019, at Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park on the boardwalk. I have with me here today, John Nottingham of Nottingham-Spirk. John is a prolific lifelong inventor. He's gonna share with us his big idea on what powered his career, and it may surprise you.
John Nottingham: Thank you Brian.
Brian Smiga: Welcome! So John, you're gonna 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: In growing up in, 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 gonna be an industrial designer, you wanna go to the biggest corporation possible, and at the time the biggest corporation was General Motors. So, boy, that's what I wanted to do. At a young age, maybe, maybe, 12 or 13, I wrote to General Motors, and I said “this is what I wanna do; where should I go to school?” and all that, and they wrote back to me. I think I still have the letter somewhere. 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, and, boy, that's what I wanted to do. So, I had a career path way back when.
Brian Smiga: How old were you then ?
John Nottingham: I was actually I think 13 or 14 when I wrote that letter.
Brian Smiga: Oh my God, and you followed that path?
John Nottingham: I did. Well, not exactly! And I’ll tell you why a little bit later..
Brian Smiga: Okay, it wasn’t is a straight line.
John Nottingham: It was not!
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, and that's why we're gonna talk about it. 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 ... the first day. We both were competing against each other all along until about midway through our five-year program, and we said, “Look, we're killing each other. Let's work together, two heads are better than one.” So, we kind of worked some things, side jobs, and designed furniture and some logos and some other things during school, and when it came to graduate, I still thought, you know what? Go the automotive career, go to 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 I learned that one of the.. long story short, one of the VPs came up to me and said, "You know, this, 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. I’m gonna, 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 I, 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 in front of it, 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, a little office and things upstairs.
Brian Smiga: Wow!
John Nottingham: 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... 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. It was a Christian Science Church. The thing is amazing, and it was for sale because the congregation couldn't keep it up, and it was quietly on the market, and there were only two bidders on the property. One was a real estate developer who wanted to tear it down, and put up condos. 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 that wasn't smokestack because it was on the side of a hill. It's the size of the statue part of the Statue of Liberty, so it's a grand, a wonderful historical landmark. But, more importantly, we turned it from a building being used, you know, on Sunday for an hour a week to a 24/7 state-of-the-art innovation center that has design and focus group facilities and insights and a, and a huge prototyping facility and commercialization so we can…
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, but the most important thing is, it's ... I would say, if you ever do an innovation company, you wanna 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. They actually... it was built and it was 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: All right, well, but you have 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, and so, John, now you wanna be open about your method and the role of ambiguity and uncertainty in it. Can you begin to share that big idea?
John Nottingham: Yeah! 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. And when we started inventing things, from day one, we started doing inventions and getting patents. I found out real quickly that there's only one criteria to get a patent. Of all the 10 million patents that have been issued by the Federal Government, there's only one criteria, and that criteria ... it has to be not obvious. If, 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 1200 patents, and we've, 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 now there's two, two things going on here, and I want you to tease them apart. The first is, 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, 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: Yeah, so 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 that, go ahead and write that down, really, 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.
Brian Smiga: Right!
John Nottingham: 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 most wild 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: I see.
John Nottingham: Now you have choices. You see?
Brian Smiga: Yeah, now can you give, give an example of one of your inventions, maybe it's a common product that we all use and enjoy, but any of them.
John Nottingham: Okay.
Brian Smiga: And maybe illustrate the mild and the wild and then the incremental in between that you discovered.
John Nottingham: Okay, well let's take the world of vacuum cleaners. I've got a vacuum cleaner. Let's say I work at the vacuum cleaner company, or who knows, and they're in the vacuum cleaner business. 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 every day. That's what corporations do.
Brian Smiga: Right!
John Nottingham: 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 ... What's the work I'm doing? Forget that it's a vacuum cleaner. I, I'm cleaning 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 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.
John Nottingham: 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 … This is 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 now, and then we designed it to go in grocery stores. Now, vacuum cleaners have never been sold in grocery stores.
Brian Smiga: I see!
John Nottingham: Now, 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, more than that, right?
John Nottingham: Yeah!
Brian Smiga: Was there this process mild to wild used most of the times, in, in those inventions?
John Nottingham: Almost all the time.
Brian Smiga: Really?
John Nottingham: When we start to brainstorm, everybody brainstorms, okay, but here's the problem. So, 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 lotta 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. It's fine. I don't care! I'll share it with anybody because I really think that we really need to encourage that whole ambiguity idea.
Brian Smiga: Besides your TED Talk, which you're gonna give, which will be a playbook in greater length on how to do invention and embrace the non obvious, are you gonna 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, over 50 years and, boy, I'll tell you, it's really effective.
Brian Smiga: If there was one thing you tell young people about embracing the non obvious and maybe starting the practice of mild to wild, what is that one thing?
John Nottingham: You know what I would do? 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, your this, 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 happening on May 18th, 2019, on the Asbury Park boardwalk at the Paramount Theatre, and will be featuring John Nottingham who has invented, with his team Nottingham-Spirk, 1200 patents. Nine out of ten have been commercialized. John, we're gonna welcome you from your innovation temple in Cleveland, coming to the Jersey shore. I hope you'll all join us!