In the fall of 1995, Chris Carter’s father-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Carter and his wife were discussing one morning how terrible it was that her Dad was now disabled, forcing her mother into the workplace to pay the bills. Her mom had always been a homemaker with little other experience, and consequently not much earning power.
Carter remembered an invention he had concocted two years earlier to help keep his rain gutter downspout clear of debris. He mentioned to his wife the idea of patenting it, hoping to sell enough of them to help her parents financially. She was pleased and supportive, which was all Carter needed to pursue the idea.
Carter, an engineer, had earlier resolved to create a permanent solution to his clogged downspout problem. He knew the trick was to design some kind of gutter insert that would allow water to pass through debris and into the downspout without plugging up the opening. He felt the cages and screens available on the market allowed a certain amount of water to pass through. However, all eventually plugged up and ultimately caused gutters to overflow. His design differed in that it filtered leaves and debris in one location and drained the water from another.
Carter glued a cap on one end of a length of PVC plumbing pipe, and an elbow piece on the other. He cut a full-length slot in the bottom for water to flow through. The idea was for leaves and debris to pile up on the top and sides of the insert, which would still let water flow in from the bottom as it rose in the gutter. Carter placed the contraption in his downspout and tested it against leaves, pine needles, even mud. It worked perfectly and solved his problem, and it would have stayed there, had he not run into his parents-in-law’s problem.
He pulled the old “prototype” out of the gutter and performed more extensive tests on it. In doing so, he discovered that not only did it drain off gutter water from under a debris pile, but it worked as an inverted siphon once submerged. This meant it would perform like a flushing toilet in the gutter once under water. With this in mind, Carter performed hydraulic calculations, optimized its size and shape on a computer, and named it “The Gutter Pump.”
The product was ready to go, and now it was time to protect the design. To save money, Carter bought a do-it-yourself patent book and started the process himself. He conducted his own patent search, prepared the required drawings, and filed the application in June of 1996.
At the same time, Carter invited a group of four friends to become partners in developing the project. Carter made a pact with partner and brother-in-law Steve Delk that each would deposit half of any net proceeds from the project in a fund to help out Delk’s parents. Friend John Tillack handled initial product marketing. John’s father Dave Tillack arranged operations and logistics to physically get the Gutter Pump to market. The last team member was Greg Prather, who took on the sales function. Carter continued to handle technical aspects of the project. The group knew each other as fellow Promise Keepers, which gave them a basic comfort level with each other.
They had a professional prototype and “soft mold” made of the first actual Gutter Pump product design. Dave Tillack took some samples of this T-shaped model to the 1996 National Hardware Show in Chicago to do some scouting for competing products and to get a feel for potential interest in the marketplace. He came back with positive results and the name of a new injection mold makers they could afford. They pooled about $20,000 of their own money and ordered their mold. The team accepted delivery of the first injection mold in the fall of 1996.
The group’s next appearance in the market was at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Home Show in early March 1997. Carter built a small display to demonstrate the Gutter Pump in action. It included an acrylic gutter and downspout system full of leaves and water running off the roof. Its thunderclap sound effects went off every five minutes and drew attention to the booth. This show was their first indicator of real public interest. They sold all 500 T-shaped models to attendees. Later that month, they also attended Denver’s Spring Home and Patio Show. The team was encouraged as momentum began to build.
Immediately thereafter, QVC Shopping Network invited the team to audition the Gutter Pump for a program in development called the 50 in 50 Tour. QVC was on a quest to find the top twenty new products in each of the fifty states in fifty weeks. Colorado’s show was scheduled for July 15th. The Gutter Pump team brought their working exhibit to the audition, and competed against 240 other potential vendors There, they were selected as one of the twenty finalists for QVC’s “live” television broadcast.
Confronted with some technical functionality setbacks, the group created and tested a new L-shaped prototype and manufactured a new mold. They managed to build up a sufficient inventory just in time for airing of the QVC show at the end of July. They hauled their working display onto the stage and competed against the other 19 product finalists. All the hard work and scrambling paid off, as they sold out their entire inventory in just six minutes. They were also selected for the Best of Show award at the end of the program. Two weeks later, four team members traveled to Chicago for their first official booth exhibit at the National Hardware Show. They eventually picked up orders from the Brookstone and Improvements catalogs, along with a couple of individually-owned retail stores and trade show vendors. They also developed many future leads and the interest of manufacturer representatives.
That September, The Family Channel’s Home and Family Show featured the Gutter Pump on their New Inventions segment. QVC invited the team back to appear on several shows through the spring of 1998. In January 1998, the Gutter Pump got its first written press exposure in Sunset Magazine. Spring and summer brought subsequent articles in The Journal of Light Construction and Mountain Living.
In February, they appeared on the QVC finale show for the 50 in 50 Tour, in which Gutter Pump finished with an enviable sixth-place ranking. The team again featured the Gutter Pump in their National Hardware Show booth. Highlights of that show included orders from the EAGLE Hardware and Garden retail chain. Fall 1998 saw more QVC appearances. The Denver Business Journal also named the Gutter Pump as “Colorado’s Most Innovative Product” in the Outdoor Home and Garden category.
Achieving a Milestone
Carter’s original goal for the Gutter Pump project returned to the fore in November 1998. It became necessary for his mother-in-law to quit her job and stay home to care for her husband, who was by then in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Carter and Delk surprised her with the presentation of dividend savings funds produced by Gutter Pump earnings. This allowed her to give her full attention to her husband’s care instead of worrying about finances.
Success for the Gutter Pump has continued, as it was featured in Better Homes and Gardens’ Home Products Guide in their Spring/Summer 1999 issue, and in Popular Mechanics’ May 1999 edition. The development team was presented with a “1999 Retailers’ Choice Award” from Do It Yourself Retailing Magazine at that year’s National Hardware Show. There, the Gutter Pump was one of only 63 among all the products at the show selected to receive this award.
The year 2000 continued Gutter Pump’s success, as Carter’s team appeared seven times on the Home Shopping Network and finally received their U.S. Patent. They signed a licensing deal in the United Kingdom resulting from exposure at the 2000 National Hardware Show, and obtained vendor numbers and orders from Home Depot, Ace Hardware and TruServ stores. The Gutter Pump continues to thrive, demonstrating that, with the right attitude and motivation, when life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade.