Changing a diaper in a restaurant . . . dropping a blanket in a puddle . . . pushing a stroller uphill. Sometimes even the most mundane hassles of traveling with young kids can lead new parents on journeys they never expected to take -- maybe even a new career.
Erik Monrad was wheeling his infant daughter Clio up and down San Francisco's hills one day when the proverbial light bulb went on over his head: He needed a gadget that would enable him to steer his umbrella stroller one-handed.
"Since babies don't sleep, I found myself in a situation where having a latte in my hand all of the time was a necessity," said the 38-year-old Monrad, a former union rep. "But you can't push a stroller and drink coffee at the same time."
The 6-foot-2 Monrad had also discovered that stroller handles were too low for him. Since no one seemed to have the gizmo Monrad wanted, he set out to build one with supplies from bike and garden-supply shops. Within a week, he had a prototype for a Stroller Stretcher, an invention that earned Monrad an innovation award last year from the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. He now has a new company, Berkeley Baby Products (www.strollerstretcher.com), 10,000 stroller stretchers (retailing for $14.95 each) in a warehouse and lots of stress over whether his product will be successful.
"Would I do it again? Ask me in six months," Monrad said.
Monrad and other parents around the country are trying to turn their ideas for making family travel easier into new products and, hopefully, new businesses. By some estimates, there are more than 100 such inventions and ideas already being marketed.
"We are of the belief that the number of products developed by parent inventors is growing rapidly," said Brad Kofoed, president of Mom Inventors (www.mominventors.com), which solicits these types of new ideas and offers advice to parent entrepreneurs.
Another such company, Parents of Invention (www.parentsofinvention.com), sometimes gets dozens of product ideas a month from parent inventors, said founder Laine Caspi.
"Parents have always had ideas," Caspi said. "They just didn't know what to do with them."
Parents have come up with luggage that doubles as a seat (www.zuca.com), travel craft and toy kits that double as a play surface (www.kidkase.com), comfy pillows that promise to soothe even hyperactive children (www.snugglup.com), and mobiles that easily be attached above the baby's car seat (www.upandawayinc.net).
"Some of the most innovative products I see come from parents," said Brian Beihl, who started Family on Board (www.familyonboard.com), a catalog for family-travel and camping products, after a car trip with his family.
Parents also may have different ideas on how to run a business. For example, the four moms (two in Florida, two in California) who developed SnuggL' Up pillows -- first created from a pair of maternity shorts -- started donating to hospitals and schools as soon as they started, long before they had made any sort of profit.
"We wanted this to be meaningful for us," said Sharon Weisman, the company's Los Angeles-based CEO and co-founder.
Many parent-inventors will tout their products at the annual Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (www.jpma.org) show May 23-25 in Orlando, and at the All Baby and Child Expo (www.abckidsexpo.com) Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas.
These kinds of inventions don't necessarily require rocket science -- just a well-conceived idea for dispensing with some of the annoyances we've all faced when traveling with young children. Take the Teeny Towel, a scaled-down dispenser for anti-bacterial wipes or insect repellent that clips onto a stroller or diaper bag, "so parents don't have to dig through the diaper bag whenever they need to wipe their child's hands," explained Caspi, who helped market the successful product ($9.99; available at www.parentsofinvention.com).
Suburban Denver mom Becky Dawson came up with her SuperBlankie after dropping her son Jack's stroller blanket in a puddle once too often.
"It drove me crazy," said Dawson, a former manager for IBM, "and it was an easy problem to solve."
She sat down in her kitchen and sewed blankets with Velcro straps that could attach to a stroller, car seat or even a diaper bag. Now, the SuperBlankies ($14.95 and up; available at www.superblankie.com) are selling well. "But don't think you're going to get rich quick," Dawson said with a laugh.
In fact, most of these parents finance their dream with credit cards and with loans against their homes and retirement accounts. Lisa and Garrett Stackman, who live in Montville, N.J., aren't ready to quit their day jobs yet. He's an attorney, and she's a human-resources executive. They got the entrepreneurial bug after one particularly distasteful experience changing their son's diaper in a restaurant restroom outside of Washington, D.C.
"There was no changing station, no place to put the baby except on the floor," Garrett Stackman said.
On the weekends, he began tinkering with an idea for a plastic, portable changing station that would fit over a sink but then fold up to fit in a diaper bag. Two years, untold hours and thousands of dollars later -- just as baby Alex, who inspired the effort, is getting out of diapers -- their Diaperbridge has a patent pending and is being marketed. It comes complete with straps that attach it to the sink and a harness to keep the baby from squirming away ($39.99; available at www.diaperbridge.com).
"I've learned so much about plastics, insurance, consumer product safety -- it's been really neat," Stackman said.
The biggest hurdle is the same one faced by anyone who has ever had a Big Idea: Will others agree this is the Next Best Thing?
"We're hopeful," said an optimistic Stackman. "It really works."