After serving as a security specialist in the Air Force, Mark Burginger retired and decided to go to school to pursue his passion for architecture. He took all the right steps – he graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree and moved to San Diego, Calif., to find work with a prestigious firm. But timing is everything, and in the midst of the 1990 recession, Burginger had difficulty landing architectural jobs.
For the next 10 years, Burginger worked closely with his father-in-law, Stan Einhorn, to develop successful entrepreneurial businesses—one distributing snack foods to conveniece stores in Southern California under the name Lunch Break, and another carving out a niche as a balloon distribution company called Incredible Balloon. He eventually found work as an architect. But in the back of his mind, Burginger always had the hope of one day realizing a dream that was with him since he was 17 years old. He wanted to be an inventor.
While in high school, Burginger developed a geometric, modular shape for an advanced, college-level class. The modular design was something that could fit together in several different ways to create three-dimensional structures. “I kept the model in my portfolio,” says Burginger. “I knew that someday, I’d like to make it into a toy.”
In 2005, Burginger began to put some serious thought into developing and producing a modular, science-based construction toy for children. He used his skills and experience as an architect to come up with different prototypes until he found one that worked. “I had a really strong background in computer modeling and three – dimensional design,” he says. “I used my architecture program to model it in three dimensions until I got it to the shape that I thought worked.”
Burginger branded his building toy as Qubits, and marketed the flexible rubberized pieces that fit together with plastic connectors as the “construction toy of the future.” The toy caught the attention of renowned inventor Elwood Norris, winner of the Lemelson-MIT Prize for Invention. Through his charitable foundation, geared at helping up-and-coming inventors, Norris awarded Burginger and Qubits a $10,000 grant to help launch the business.
Over the next few years, Burginger experienced mild success. He partnered with Discovery Toys, a distribution company that brought his product to market, and in 2009, he appeared on the hit ABC show “Shark Tank.”Although he received national attention and Qubits experienced a retail run totaling approximately $300,000, Burginger knew the product could be better. “I didn’t like the connectors, so I completely redesigned the toy in 2012,” he says. Burginger explains that moving to Oveido, Fla., has given him access to plastic and injection companies, which have helped recreate the toy without the previous version’s cumbersome connectors.
This time around, as Burginger brings Qubits 2.0 to market, he is doing things a little differently. He’s maintaining full control over distribution and focusing on gaining entry into science-museum gift shops and boutique toy stores.
Burginger says that he hopes someday to compete with a company like LEGO, but ultimately, seeing children take interest in Qubits is the real pay-off. “It’s exciting to see your own invention and product being sold and being accepted by parents and their children,” he says. “It allows kids to explore unusual shapes and start thinking about structure.”
As Matt Butler scanned the barren, desert landscapes of Iraq and Afghanistan from the air during missions for the U.S. Air Force, he became homesick for the green grass and the outdoor activities of his home state of Michigan. “I thought about where I’d like to be if I wasn’t in the Middle East,” he says. “I immediately recalled memories about being with my family and friends, playing lawn games. It was a family tradition.”
Those memories sparked the idea for Rollors, an outdoor game that combines aspects of bowling, bocce ball and horseshoes. When Butler returned to the U.S. after one of his deployments, he began developing a prototype for the game and was encouraged by reactions when he brought it out at barbecues and parties.
A few months later, in Destin, Fla., Butler noticed that the recession had taken its toll on veterans in the region. He connected with a group of veteran woodworkers that couldn’t find work and had them craft parts and pieces for Rollors. Butler says the company started small, primarily distributing games through church and local craft fairs. But after moving a sizable amount of inventory, and struggling to keep up with orders, Butler connected with a gaming company that took over development, manufacturing and distribution. The arrangement freed up time so he could focus on his active-duty military career. Rollors can now be found in retail outlets such as Target, Walmart and Sears, as well as online at Amazon.com. To date, Butler has sold approximately 45,000 games.
Butler explains that to achieve his level of success with retailers, business owners have to start with realistic expectations about getting their products on shelves. He suggests finding a few local specialty shops, then branching out to regional chains before attempting to take an invention to the national level. “Retailers are very smart,” says Butler. “They don’t just look at a product and say ‘Hey you’re brand new, and I like you, I’m going to put you in every store nationwide.’ It doesn’t work like that. You have to have a history, proof of concept, proof of sales, and sell-through.”
To keep his creative juices flowing, Butler frequently connects with inventor clubs to network with like-minded people and share ideas. As for ideas—Butler has plenty. He carries around a notebook filled with potential products and designs. “The inventing process is really fun,” he says. “Once you get your product out there, especially when you see it on retail shelves, it really just blows your mind.”
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Tom Ludlam’s life changed in late 2005 when his son was killed in Iraq. Without anything tying him down, Ludlam and his family moved to a farm in McLean County, Ill. He got a job working as an auditor for the IRS, but his real calling came when the town of McLean bought an old, neglected train depot on Route 66.
Ludlam became involved with the project when the town asked him to help with historic research. He discovered that the building, which was built in 1853, was the oldest wooden depot in the state of Illinois. Since the town didn’t have specific plans for the structure, Ludlam proposed that he would clean it up and open a model train shop.
“They thought I was crazy,” says Ludlam. “To most people it just didn’t make sense. But the location is sitting between five major towns in central Illinois. It was the right place at the right time.”
Ludlam connected with distributors at the National Model Railroad Association’s annual convention to get leads and advice about stocking the right type of inventory. Ludlam opened the shop in November 2010 and is already seeing substantial growth.
“We were profitable after two years, and I’m already up about 50 percent over the second year,” he says. “I don’t expect to see those kind of increases all the time, but I think the shop will really be a self-supporting business.”
During the holiday season, McLean Depot experiences an uptick in people coming through the door to buy model trains for gifts and decorative displays. Hobbies are becoming more high tech, says Ludlam, and customers like to come in and see items in person before they spend a few hundred dollars on kits and parts. But the hustle and bustle fits the train shop owner just fine. “I don’t care what the stats say. I’m bucking the trend of small businesses failing,” he says. “I’m having fun and doing well.”
NaVOBA Member Since 2012
U.S. Air Force (1983-1987)
Highest Rank: Sergeant
AFSC: Security Police
NaVOBA Member Since 2012
U.S. Air Force (1998-Present)
Highest Rank: Lt. Col.
Designation: Staff Officer
Owner, McLean Depot
McLean County, Ill.
NaVOBA Member Since 2013
U.S. Army (1976-1996)
Highest Rank: Sgt. First Class
Designation: 98 Charlie