Necessity is the mother of invention

As a young dad dealing with an infant, I was well outside what I was used to. My wife and I split our babycare job; she fed the baby, and I cleaned up and changed her diaper. When the baby got diaper-rash for the first time, it was hard to watch to see her suffer. I usually got yelled at for not changing on time.

As an engineer, when you analyze the problem, it was clear that the exposure time to wet diaper is the prime issue. When to change a diaper is controllable, but when the child wets is not clear. So if there was a way to detect when it is wet, then I could change and keep the exposure very short.

To test this out, I put two safety pins on the baby’s diaper and connected it to a microcontroller board running on a button cell. When the resistance between the pins dropped, it would play the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle little star.” It worked. Then I designed that into a small assembly that could be clipped on like an old pager. Over time I made several prototypes for friends who had little kids. Someone suggested that I should make this into a real product. So I started ThinkAMagic, a company that created gadgets for better living. I invested a lot of my own money to injection-mold the plastic parts, produce circuit board, create packaging, and design marketing materials. I created several units and tried to sell them for $50 each to new mothers. I thought it may be worth $50 if you could save a doctor’s visit and avoid the child from suffering from a rash. I could not sell one piece to any moms. Maybe, I was not an excellent salesman. But it was much later that someone asked if I tried selling to dads, after all, it was created by a dad. In hindsight, the moms may have felt that I was questioning their understanding of their child’s needs through this product. I don’t know, really. But it was a great lesson in understanding the stakeholders and their mental models, so that your approach may not conflict with their beliefs, ideology, or understanding of a problem.

While my baby was growing up, I collected data on her daily wetting schedules for six months to look for any predictable patterns. My nanny was not happy entering data several times a day. The idea was that if there is a clear pattern, we could use it to toilet train the baby by seating on her potty when she needs to go. I filed and received a US patent for this concept in 1994 (Self-learning diaper wetness detector and toilet trainer, US5568128A).

ThinkAMagic was shut down in a year, and I took an enormous personal financial loss. However, I consider the loss as my tuition fee for learning to do a start-up, what to do, and, equally important, what not to do.