Jerry Barber’s business approach may be unorthodox, but it works – and he’s got a wall full of patents to prove it
A good businessman needs to keep track of which way the wind is blowing, and right now that’s a literal and figurative concern for Jerry Barber.
The founder of Barber Wind Turbines also patented the Free Fall tower ride that’s now common in amusement parks and carnivals around the world. After that he founded and ran the nation’s second-largest amusement park manufacturer for nearly two decades. Branching out, he then founded a company that financed amusement park equipment.
More than half of Barber’s 54 patents have been commercialized. If you ask which is his favorite, he’ll tell you it’s the one he’s working on at the time.
Among other projects, these days Barber is most immediately concerned with his concept for wind turbine design, which has over two dozen patents issued and pending in the United States and other countries. The design differs from the common three-blade-topped white towers; in fact, it’s conspicuously reminiscent of a Ferris wheel, harkening back to Barber’s early work with amusement parks.
Even as he talks about how few people follow through the invention process to a commercial end, his process seems to be as much about play as about perseverance. That’s obvious even in his home. Opposite one of two walls where his framed patents are displayed, a life-sized figure of Yoda from “Star Wars” stands wearing a conical Asian farmer hat. He’s next to a display of miniature Ferris wheels, carousels and other amusements that come to life with the flip of a switch.
Barber tells every new employee point-blank that one of the easiest ways to get fired is to never make any mistakes.
“And they look at me like I’ve lost my mind,” he said. But he explains that he wants them pushing the envelope. “I want you to make mistakes, learn from your mistakes and make this a better – a more fun – company to work in.”
Barber said many of them tell him later how liberating that attitude is, and how it gives them a sense of ownership and freedom – and, yes, it’s a lot more fun. Barber, however, also sees it as a growth strategy. He sat down with UBJ to talk more about his approach to business and inventing.
How do you know when you’ve got a marketable idea?
Here’s my process. I know I’m emotionally involved with my patents like anybody else. So I make it a point to find two different types of people to have lunch or coffee with. I’ve got one who can tell you everything that is wrong. I mean, you could bring the most beautiful female model here in a bikini, and he could tell you everything wrong with her. So I take my idea to negative people.
Then I try to find the same number of people that you could put that Yoda in front of them and they could tell you how sexy that is, all the good things about it. They’ll brag about my idea and come up with good things I never thought about. I listen to both sides, then come up with a non-emotional judgment about the value of the thing. Sometimes that is really tough.
I get the sense that you’re really playful about…
Everything. And the other thing I’ve found is that when you’re looking for people to suggest improvements or tell you what’s right and wrong, you want to forget the idea that you want smart or established people. You want people who have maybe not even gone to school, who can look at it with real-world knowledge. A lot of them can be a lot better at helping you and be honest and tell you really what they think.
Why are so few patents produced?
One of the problems is because you are personally so involved [with the patent], it becomes your baby. And you think that once you get that someone’s going to come knock on the door and give me a bunch of money. Well, of my 54 patents I’m still waiting for the first person to knock on the door.
Nothing happens unless you sell that patent, which isn’t as easy as you think even if it is a great idea. Sometimes I think if you had a patent that could make gold bars you’d really have to work hard to sell that patent to anybody. I know it sounds strange.
A lot of people are really good but just don’t have the self-confidence or perseverance to go do it.
How do you get a company to take a serious look at your idea?
A lot of my graduate work included a lot of psychology courses. I figured out if you take a good idea to a company’s engineering department, what are they going to do? Analyze it and look for everything that’s possibly wrong. If you take it to the sales department, the executives are used to hearing ideas they pass on from their customers, and sometimes they laugh them off. Since you’re not a customer, they have no skin in the game and it dies.
On the Free Fall, I got a few minutes with the CEO of Intamin, a Swedish amusement ride company, and gave him a two-page document about my product at a big trade show. I listed all of the negatives, and only half the positives, leaving out the ones you could figure yourself.
Wasn’t that risky?
Well, it worked. That way when he asks his engineers about the idea, he already knows about the drawbacks and shuts them down. Then he’s figured out some of the benefits I left out, so now they’re his ideas. Do you think anybody on his staff is going to object?
What’s a time when it didn’t work out?
Six Flags once asked me to come up with a ride. I came up with something somewhat like a racetrack-based underground roller coaster. They loved the idea and we were ready to go to Bristol International Speedway so all the key executives could get a sense of how it would feel. That meant modifying a car and even scheduling an ambulance.
But then a wooden fun house at a New Jersey Six Flags caught fire and burned up some teenagers and there were serious threats of criminal charges against the executives. The minute that hit, everything stopped. It never got revived after that. It shows you how something unexpected can kill your idea.
What important lessons have you learned from making mistakes?
One thing I’ve noticed about companies is that, yeah, the product, quality and service make some difference, but the real difference between a really good company and one that’s not so good always boils down to the ability of the owner to find, get and keep good people. That is above everything else.
So you’ve made mistakes in that department?
Oh, of course. Listen, this is how I’ve learned. Push the envelope, make mistakes and move on. I never give up.
I don’t know. If it’s fun, I want to do it. If it’s not fun, I don’t want to get involved. And when I get involved in something, it’s no different than playing sports. You want to win, and you don’t win by giving up halfway through.