Good idea, but a bad business: You need help to go from invention to manufacture. Paul Forster ended up disillusioned

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I AM, or would dearly like to be, an inventor. My regular employers - newspaper travel editors and picture editors mainly - would no doubt be surprised to learn this; and so was I when a friend (a scientist who describes herself as 'a theorist') pronounced me as such.

My inventions - if that is what they are - have little of the technical in them. Instead, failing to find solutions to everyday problems in the shops or in specialist catalogues, I reach for my drawing board and tools.

Thus what I call 'electric skirting board' - a clip-on/clip-off system to trunk unsightly cables around domestic rooms - was born. The problems of condensation led me to devise a simple system of nets and pulleys to lift and hold insulation against my roof. I'd also like a cordless computer mouse, a telephone meter that delivers a cash-register style print out, and bin bags with integral draw-cords.

I'm sure some of these gadgets would be welcome in homes other than mine. Some probably exist, but others might just deserve to slip into a quiet commercial dawn. I could certainly do with some butter on my professional crust, and it is not overly romantic to envision jobs and wages for others as well.

So I decided to manufacture. Used to dealing with words and the vagaries of shifting light, the idea had a concrete attraction. Aware of my lack of experience, I planned to start with my most simple idea, and one certainly not worthy to be called an invention, but . . . Photographs, slides and artwork must not be bent in transit. Packing tapes marked 'Fragile', 'Urgent' and so on are plentiful and sell steadily, but nowhere in Italy, Germany or Britain could I find one printed 'Do not bend'.

The DTI's product sourcing unit got back to me within minutes with a list of polypropylene tape producers and printers. A Huntingdon firm gave me a good quotation, and all of the three dozen shops and studios I called by way of market research were keen either to stock or buy. The Royal Mail quoted reasonable rates (and 30 days credit) to deliver.

Fatally, however, I hesitated. Faced with the prospect of 15,000 coils of stencilled polypropylene tape on my doorstep - together with a bill for around pounds 12,000 - I already felt like the proverbial babe in the bankruptcy court. I needed advice and encouragement. A partner (with a little capital) would have been nice, too.

I phoned one of my local Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) and made an appointment. It did not go well. In my brief preamble I mentioned I had a university degree. 'Ha,' joked the friendly local businessman, 'by rights, you should be sitting in my seat and I should be sitting in yours.' We then got bogged down in quite how many sticky-backed 'Do not bend' labels could be pruned from a roll by a penny-pinching photographer. If it had not been for the skip outside the rather smart new offices from which I salvaged a decent Anglepoise light and a couple of expensive presentation files, I would have gone home disgruntled.

I made an appointment at another TEC where the friendly retired businessman was - in a way - more useful (I didn't tell him I had a degree). Regarding finance I had to talk to my bank manager; most people, apparently, find partners from among their social acquaintances; and for a warehouse I should look in the Yellow Pages. We then moved on to the nitty-gritty. 'Business isn't easy,' I was told. 'Every silver lining has a cloud.' This sort of generalisation was the last thing I needed to learn. My figures added up. My market research was sound. My producers were reliable. I had covered all the angles. That much was admitted.

I now suspect that my advisor was jealously guarding his professional patch. I do the same when people suggest to me that they write a newspaper report about their holidays. But it was my bank's Small Business Advisor who was, however, the ultimate executioner of my aspirations.

Again there was a sharp tug of breath through the teeth and then, 'No, I think not. Not with the recession as it is.' (This was in November 1992.) Gawd help us, I thought, this is not how a nation tugs itself out of one.

Absurdly, we then had to go through the motions of discussing business in Europe and the frontierless opportunities of 1993. There was no acknowledgment of the fact that if I failed to get something going in the UK, I'd hardly be in a position to export. I left with a sheaf of glossy paper to clutter my files and a determination to emigrate.

That I will do next summer, but I am still concerned, on behalf of Britain, to find out what went wrong. If I can't get such a simple manufacturing/trading venture off the ground, there must be hundreds - if not thousands - more just as viable that will never fly.

It could be a personal problem, of course: am I just a dreamer left bobbing in Margaret Thatcher's unsavoury wash? But, generally, I move in the physical world with aplomb. I take risks. I show a profit. If someone wants a picture of Pol Pot in his underpants, say, I draw up a budget and, if it looks viable, go and do it.

The problem seems to lie more with the system that, in my case at least, failed abjectly to provide what I needed. The TECs seem geared more to people with no experience of business than to those who already have a workable cash-flow forecast in hand. They are probably much happier if someone comes along wanting to set up as a window cleaner, say, than if someone comes along with an innovative way of cleaning windows. If they say that it is not their role to foster ideas, some organisation should be established in order to do so.

Furthermore, the TECs should be prepared either to take a longer-term view or to act more as clearing houses, putting people together and providing a network of expertise.

They should be less dismissive, too, of people with ideas but no experience, and they should know more about their local patch. When I asked about warehousing I wanted to be put in touch with a local operation with a bit of spare capacity, not someone on the other side of the county waving a long-term contract. The 'advisors' should be better selected or trained. The ones I met were certainly well-intentioned (and should be applauded for volunteering their time), but their cultural background was, I felt, intensely conservative and profoundly suspicious of ideas.

Something also has to be done to provide sources of venture capital other than the high street banks. Again, the TECs - or similar bodies - could act as clearing houses for people with modest amounts of capital that they want to see used.

I don't say that it is necessarily a government's (either national or local) obligation to provide such services, but if they are going to do so, they ought to establish a far more effective system than the one we currently have. As far as I'm concerned, it's all window-dressing, a vacuous PR exercise. Obviously the world will now have to live without my biodegradable ballpoint pen. And I've learnt that theory is more fun than practice.

(Photograph omitted)