John Nottingham and John Spirk now lead a team of 70 inventors, tinkerers and support staff out of a decommissioned Christian Science church in Cleveland, where they’ve developed products like the Swiffer SweeperVac, Crest Spinbrush, Dirt Devil vacuum and nearly 1,000 other patented products:
Since 1972, Nottingham Spirk claims, products it developed have generated more than $45 billion in sales.
Nottingham Spirk has proven willing to take equity stakes as well. Its biggest score: Dr. John’s, which sold electric toothbrushes for $5 (based on a spinning lollipop design) when the going rate was $50. Procter & Gamble bought Dr. John’s for $475 million in 2001 (Nottingham and Spirk each walked away with an estimated $40 million on that one). Heady stuff for a guy like Nottingham who, as a college intern, ate lunch by the pond of the General Motors Technical Center, envisioning a corporate life for himself–until one of the company’s top designers disabused him. “He said, ‘John, this is the greatest R&D center in the world,’ ” Nottingham recalls. “ I’m just drinking it in. I’m just saying, Wow, I’m in heaven, feeding the ducks. Then he dropped a bomb on me. He says, ‘It’s amazing that the most innovative ideas that General Motors has come up with have come from the outside, small companies.’ And I stopped in my tracks, the crumbs going to the ducks stopped in midair. And at that point my life changed. I said if I’m going to be effective, it’s not going to be inside General Motors. It’s going to be outside.”
He returned to school for his final year at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he told his first-year hall mate John Spirk about his new dream–reinventing the world’s largest companies rather than joining one of them. After graduation GM came knocking with a job opening for Nottingham, and Huffy Bicycles had one for Spirk. They rejected the offers and became co-CEOs of their own shop instead.
“There’s a famous Bill Gates quote. They asked him where does he worry about competition from,” says Spirk, 65. “They’re thinking all these high-tech, you know, and he says I worry about two guys in a garage. So what do we do? We graduated school, and two guys moved into a garage.”
Their big break came when they approached Rotodyne, an Ohio manufacturer that mainly made bedpans using a cheap-plastic shaping process called rotational molding. Nottingham and Spirk helped the company use its rotational molding process to make not only bedpans but also cheap toys for children. The bedpan company shifted its focus and created a new brand: Little Tikes, whose indestructible red-and-yellow cars have become inescapable landmarks of toddler culture in backyards across America.