Innovation factory — An inside look at how John Spirk and John Nottingham take ideas from mind to market

You may have heard of writer’s block — when the words just won’t come to mind. There’s also inventor’s block — common barriers to creative thinking that make it challenging to think of an innovative idea. What’s an inventor to do?

“Innovation needs to be constant and relentless,” says John Nottingham, co-founder and co-president of the open innovation and product development firm Nottingham Spirk. “That’s why we created our complete ‘vertical innovation’ system to provide a consistent flow and to break down barriers all along the development process.”

Nottingham, along with John Spirk, co-founder and co-president, keep the organization flat and organic to drive consistent communication throughout.

Nottingham says the company has group creative sessions between the company’s teams and client partners, and the ground rules are unambiguous.

“First, there are no bad ideas and everyone builds on the concepts generated,” he says.

In this structural model, employee interactions are mostly horizontal across the organization, rather than vertical between layers of managers and their direct reports. Since interactions within a flat reporting structure are mostly among employees, decisions are often made by consensus among groups of employees, rather than by individual managers.

“Our process typically takes around 12 months and nearly 90 percent of the projects using this system have been successfully commercialized,” Nottingham says.

“If you have the right process, and I really do feel we have the right process, you can be successful in almost any venture you want to pursue if you have the commitment and the right team.”

A transformative product

One of Nottingham Spirk’s creations that made it to the big time was the Crest (now Arm & Hammer) Spinbrush. While it was an example of an idea that was a good value at the right price (about $5), it turned out to be more than that — and Spirk is quite proud of its impact.

“Five dollars was the magic price point,” Spirk says. “Now it could have been $10 but we tested sales at $10, and they dropped like a rock after that. It still would’ve been successful but it would never have been the super product that it was.

“We had to manufacture it for $1.25 — batteries, motors, gearboxes, housings, packaging, shipping, displays. That was a challenge, but we knew it had to be $1.25 because we wanted a 50 percent margin. You’ve got to do that. You can go into a store and say, ‘This is a great product but you have to get a certain percent markup.’ It doesn’t work that way, so you have to have your numbers right.

“We made power toothbrushes affordable for the country,” he says. “Before we developed the Spinbrush, power toothbrushes were $50 to $100 retail. So we challenged our engineers and designers to come up with a product that would deliver on the performance and still be inexpensive from a manufacturing standpoint.”

Before the Spinbrush was launched, power toothbrushes accounted for 1 percent of the market, Spirk says. He estimates the figure to be 40 percent now.

“What makes you the proudest of the products that you have done? It’s very simple. It’s not because it was a great commercial success; it was because it really lowered the cost of power brushing — and we really changed the way children can brush in America. It put a power toothbrush potentially in the hands of all children and improved oral care in America.”

Some other creations, which could arguably rank up there with the Spinbrush are the Swiffer SweeperVac, Dutch Boy Twist & Pour containers, the Dirt Devil, Scotts Snap System and HealthSpot, a kind of “doc in a box.”

“This is a telemedicine kiosk at which you swipe your credit card or health care card,” Spirk says. “You go into the HealthSpot kiosk, and there are various digital instruments to gauge blood pressure, temperature, pulse and others. And on the screen, a doctor will pop up, perhaps from the clinic if you are in that system.

“It is changing health care. We have had CEOs and heads of medical centers in and outside the country visiting and testing it. It is on its way to changing health care.”

Nottingham says two other recent innovations stand above the crowd:

“We co-developed the Cardioinsight ECVUE vest which gives the cardiologist a digital map of the heart and is noninvasive to the patient,” he says. “This technology originated at Case Western Reserve University and was acquired by Medtronic in June for $93 million plus an earn-out. We need more of this kind of homegrown Cleveland innovation.”

The ECVUE system uses a single-use, proprietary, disposable vest with multiple sensors to capture body surface electrical signals and sophisticated software to compute and visualize 3-D images of the heart.

“We also co-developed the new Troy-Bilt FLEX, the first modular yard care system featuring one engine with multiple attachments. This is a gamechanger in year-round lawn care.”

With the FLEX system, a lawn mower, snow thrower, leaf blower and power washer are “attachments” that operate from the same power base.

But once in a while …

While Nottingham Spirk has developed hundreds of patented products that have generated tens of billions in sales for businesses, there was a big one that got away. Spirk says the firm hasn’t declined many ideas that went on to become successes but about 25 years ago, a young man presented his idea for a coffee maker. It was a bit off-the-wall, but Nottingham Spirk had a history of working with successes such as Little Tikes, Invacare, Dirt Devil and the Crest Spinbrush, so it looked intriguing. The inventor brought a prototype with him and demonstrated how it worked.

“Everything sounded great except he had no money to start the business,” Spirk says. “He wanted us to be partners and go through the whole development process. We get at least 10 of those presentations a week; we see a lot of interesting things, but we just decided to pass on that.”

Turn the clock ahead some five to seven years.

“All of a sudden, this thing started getting traction, it was interesting and then it got more traction,” Spirk says. “Are you familiar with Keurig coffeemakers?

“There are so many of those ideas, and I stopped beating myself up many years ago. There are so many challenges. Most ideas fail; I mean, they do.”

From whence the idea

If you ask what is the inspiration for great ideas, Nottingham puts the focus on the customer.

“We always start by identifying the customer and anticipating what the customer will want and need,” he says. “We then provide visualizations of ‘mild to wild’ concepts and prototypes, then continually return to the customer to gain progressively advancing insight throughout the development.”

Spirk has a rather simple answer as well: inspiration comes from anywhere. Ideas come to mind while driving to work, or in the shower — or the classic source: necessity.

“We get a lot of concepts and really good ideas from problems not being solved, and issues not being fixed,” he says.

“All of us have those ideas. We all have those creative sparks; anytime and anywhere. But getting them from that idea to the retail shelf is the real challenge. And that’s partly what we do.

“Opportunities come from bad experiences or disappointments and things we buy or use in everyday life.”

It may not always be the product itself but sometimes the cost of the product. A product may be expensive, and while it may be a great product, it is priced out of the market for most people.

“So you start asking yourself, well, what if we could deliver this product at a value for the similar quality,” Spirk says. “Is that an opportunity? In most cases it is. But the key is you have to deliver a good product.

“With most of the things you buy dramatically discounted or less expensive, you’re pretty much getting what you pay for. They’re not good quality products and they disappoint. The key is to get good value at the right price.”

Barriers to innovation

One of the frequent comments Nottingham Spirk has heard involving larger companies is the fear of failing.

“We didn’t think of that because that was never an issue of ours,” Spirk says. “You cannot punish people for failing. That’s the way you kill innovation and inspiration. Why would I want to volunteer something and then have it fail?”

On the reverse side, you have to reward success.

“We have a great bonus structure within our organization, and people feel empowered to succeed,” he says.

In addition to the fear of failure, a company needs to break free from the “that’s the way it’s always been” mentality.

“The company may tend to have a culture — that is pretty understandable — of ‘the way we have always done it. It’s worked in the past, why wouldn’t it work in the future?’” Spirk says. “That’s not to say it won’t work, but you really want to have the ability to offer change or the option to because if you don’t, more often than not your competitors will.

“You have to break down these barriers and make sure that everyone is contributing as well within the company itself, not just a top few.” To get people just to think differently in an organization, however, it takes variety.

“It is one of the values we have being a consulting organization where every day is different,” Spirk says. “Nothing really kills innovation or inspiration than to be doing the same thing over and over again. We try very hard to make every day an exciting day.” Spirk also says his firm works hard to make its clients successful and not make a name for itself.

“It amazes me sometimes with national firms far bigger than we are,” he says. “The paint isn’t dry on the prototype and the company is out there talking to The Wall Street Journal about how successful they have made this company. That has never worked in our mind, and I don’t know how that would ever work. As far as we are concerned, the company is king.” ●

How to reach: Nottingham Spirk, (216) 231-7830 or www.nottinghamspirk.com

 

The Nottingham Spirk File

How it all began

John Nottingham and John Spirk first met as students in the Industrial Design Department of the Cleveland Institute of Art. They quickly became the star pupils of Viktor Schreckengost, founder of industrial design education in the U.S. After graduation, the pair turned down lucrative job offers from Fortune 500 companies to start their own product design firm.

A distinctive location

First located in a mustard yellow carriage house in 1972, Nottingham Spirk began to renovate the landmark First Church of Christ Scientist, built in 1931 in the University Circle neighborhood, in 2003. The church building was the original prototype for the iconic Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra. By 2005, and with the help of historical tax credits, Nottingham Spirk repurposed the facility as the new Nottingham Spirk Innovation Center.

An early customer

One of Nottingham Spirk’s first clients was RotaDyne, which primarily manufactured bedpans but also used its molding process to make toys. Nottingham Spirk focused on innovating industry-changing children’s products and designed the logo for the new company name, Little Tikes. RotaDyne at the time was doing $600,000 in annual sales. At its peak, when Nottingham Spirk stopped working with the company, annual sales were $600 million.

Memorable focus group takeaway

Spirk tells the story of a focus group studying a plastic paint can for Sherwin-Williams. A woman took the prototype in her hands and held it up. She said, “Oh my God, this is wonderful.” She was asked what was wonderful about it, and replied, “If I had to open a gallon of milk with a screwdriver and close it with a hammer, my children would never have gotten milk.” The lesson was to make your product easy for the customer — make it a good experience.

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