How absolutely fulfilling and rewarding it is to bring your vision to life. I realize the first four points may seem like downers, but this one is the heart of the matter that makes everything else a mere distraction. The satisfaction of realizing your dreams is unlike anything else.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Altieri.
Joe Altieri is a life-long innovator, entrepreneur, and problem solver who turned his cutting-edge invention, FlexScreen — the world’s first and only flexible window screen — into a thriving multi-million-dollar company.
Since its introduction into the marketplace, FlexScreen has gained international attention and earned multiple awards, drawing interest and eventual partnerships with powerhouse entities, including Global 500 company, Saint Gobain, and American television personality, inventor, and entrepreneur, Lori Greiner (Shark Tank investor and “Queen of QVC).
A third-generation entrepreneur, Joe learned the value of creating outstanding teams and healthy organizational cultures from his father and grandfather. He is generous with his resources and time and has been honored and recognized as one of Pittsburgh’s Volunteers of the Year.
Joe married his high school sweetheart, Alisha, and they have four children, two of whom are married and have children of their own. They all still like each other enough to get together every Sunday for dinner, and Joe considers their healthy family life to be his most important and highest achievement.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
The adults in my life struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, and as a result, I learned independence very early. My father and grandfather owned businesses, and I spent a lot of time observing and learning from their successes and failures. By the age of 12, I was finding ways to work and earn money. At 15, I was selling flowers curbside and doing so much business that the local flower shop owner made an impromptu visit to my stand to see what was going on. I believe that I’m a born entrepreneur. I’ve always had a strong work ethic and a real drive and determination to make things better and seek solutions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The way to get what you want is to help other people get what they want.” -Zig Ziglar
Several years ago, my wife and I did a life evaluation and decided that we needed some guiding values to measure our choices against if we wanted to live an extraordinary life and have a thriving business. We came up with Honest, Passionate, Grateful, Healthy, and Adventurous. Everything that we do revolves around or supports one of these values, or we don’t do it.
This quote directly speaks to the value of being grateful, which would be number one if I had to rank them. When you choose to be thankful, it naturally leads to being generous, which then leads to positive change. It’s a powerful formula.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Ironically, “Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive” by Harvey Mackay. It was originally published in 1988 and it was one of the “sales” books that my father always had around the house. I read and re-read it over and over again in my high school years. This particular quote from that book really resonated with me; “Life is too short to wake up in the morning with regrets, so love the people who treat you right, forget about the ones who don’t, and believe that everything happens for a reason. If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it. Nobody said life would be easy, they just promised it would be worth it.”
I didn’t have many good role models growing up so Harvey MacKay, Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, Napoleon Hill, and many others helped to shape me into the person that I am through the wisdom-filled pages of their books.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I spent 20 years in the window industry dealing with countless and constant complaints from my customers, some of the country’s largest window manufacturers, about the inherent problems with old-style window screens — flimsy aluminum, complicated hardware, difficult installation and removal, etc.
Conventional screen technology is over 100 years old and hasn’t changed at all in that time, and I was just crazy enough to believe I could change it. So I took to my garage to start experimenting.
My “aha moment” came one night while I was putting away my daughter’s princess pop-up tent. It occurred to me that I might be able to make a window screen with similar properties that could solve all of the problems with regular screens.
From conception to finished product took over two years, but when I completed my first “duct tape and bubble gum” prototype, I was pretty sure I had something.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
One fortunate thing is that I was already in the window industry, so I had contacts and inroads. Beyond that, I asked a lot of questions and sought advice from people I knew who were very successful businessmen. Those conversations led me to my initial group of investors who saw the value in what I was trying to do and helped me get started.
I recommend that you find people who have done what you’re trying to do and soak up as much wisdom as they’re willing to share. Good mentors are essential.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Google is your friend. Start there and do your research online. But once you get past that point, hire a professional patent attorney. The investment is more than worth it. That’s what I did, and I highly recommend that you do the same.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
Without a doubt, my family — particularly my wife, Alisha. She believed in me the whole way — even when I wasn’t sure that I still believed in myself. It’s a huge ask to leverage everything you have to start something new with no crystal ball to know if it will succeed or not. The hardships of business startup and ownership would be, in my opinion, impossible to navigate without the support of your family.
On the business side, Andy Virostek — my friend, partner, and original investor. His influence has been the difference between FlexScreen being a small niche product to a company with global aspirations. His know-how and business sense, as well as his friendship, are invaluable.
For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
It’s a challenge to condense a 10-year journey down to a few lines, but here are some of the key steps.
Once I had a working prototype, I downloaded a non-disclosure agreement from a website, printed it out, and carried copies with me everywhere I went.
I approached a few people in the industry I trusted, had them sign the agreement, and showed them my product to get their feedback.
It didn’t take long to know that I had something worth pursuing. Everyone I showed strongly encouraged me to patent the technology ASAP. That’s when I engaged a patent attorney to do a full patent search and file for our first patents.
I never thought about someone else manufacturing my product. I always believed I would have some hand in the process. So once patents were filed, I started contacting different equipment manufacturers and people that I thought had the know-how to figure out how to mass-produce my product. One of those equipment manufacturers ended up making me an offer to purchase my intellectual property and patent applications. I wasn’t sure what to do, so that’s when I reached out to some business professionals for advice. Through those discussions, I decided not to sell. Instead, we created a business plan and presented it to a group of investors who helped fund the start of our company.
Until recently, the business had been primarily B2B — wholesale to window manufacturers and dealers. But our recent partnership with Saint Gobain ADFORS has propelled us in the B2C sector as well, and very soon, they will be launching FlexScreen in some of the largest home improvement retailers in North America.
You’ve got to have some way to get your product in front of the masses. For us, we just happened to land on one of the most popular national television shows and get a deal with one of the most popular and renowned investors. But I realize that doesn’t happen for most, and it certainly wasn’t our initial strategy!
I would encourage everyone to pay attention to their online presence. Utilize social media and give your brand an identity that people can relate to. Spend some ad dollars, make sure you have a user-friendly, informative website, and stay committed to consistent content.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, I’d love to help you out here, but none of my mistakes have been very funny! However, I think it’s good to mention here that I actually encourage my staff to make mistakes. I want them to try things that maybe our industry has never tried before. Be daring. Make bold moves. And sometimes it doesn’t work out — sometimes to the tune of thousands of lost dollars. But no one has ever made the same mistake twice, and we are all learning valuable lessons along the way, so I consider that a win.
As for my own mistakes, you can see some of the funnier ones on our social media. I spend a lot of time in front of a camera, and I tend to mix up my words or maybe get a little flustered with the content sometimes. There are some pretty embarrassing bloopers floating around on our social media because, for some reason, my staff thinks it’s a good idea to show the world my humanity!
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
There was that little battle between three investors on Shark Tank in front of 30 million people. That didn’t hurt! But if you take away Shark Tank completely, I’d say my personal tipping point, where I was able to believe that this was really going to work out, was when I was able to bring on staff who could take some of the day-to-day workloads off of my shoulders. When I went from wearing every single hat to people owning portions of the business — that was huge.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- That affecting change in a century-old industry was going to be way harder than I thought.
-We had tons of excitement around the product and lots of “we want that!” affirmations from industry professionals who saw the prototype, so we moved ahead and built custom machinery and large capacity manufacturing plants based on initial reaction and positive affirmation. But we overestimated how quickly people would come on board and underestimated our industry’s tendency to move slowly and resist change. As it turns out, trying to change an industry using 100-year-old technology is a bit like turning the Titanic around.
- That the support of your family and close friends is going to be the air you breathe sometimes. During the toughest times, my wife and immediate family kept me afloat in every way. I can’t stress enough the importance of a close support system.
- That the sleepless nights don’t end — no matter what level of success you reach. The pressure changes, but it’s always there. Early on, my sleepless nights revolved around wondering if the business would succeed — feeling the sheer weight and gravity of what I had done by burning all of my other bridges and going all-in with this business.
-Now the occasional sleepless night revolves around the responsibility I feel to my employees and all of the people who count on me to keep the company moving forward, healthy, and growing.
- That being the boss does not equal freedom — not how you think it might. I read a quote once that said something like, “Entrepreneurs are the only people who refuse to work 40 hours for someone else, but will work 100 hours for themselves.” Somehow there is this romanticized idea that if you are the boss, no one can boss you around. But the business is the real boss, and sometimes it will demand more than you think you have to give.
- How absolutely fulfilling and rewarding it is to bring your vision to life. I realize the first four points may seem like downers, but this one is the heart of the matter that makes everything else a mere distraction. The satisfaction of realizing your dreams is unlike anything else.
There was a house in my neighborhood that had windows installed with FlexScreens on them. Seeing that sign in the yard — seeing those screens go up on the house across the street. Those moments bring everything into perspective.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
-Do your research. See what’s out there already that may be trying to solve the same problem. How are they going about it? How can you make it better? The more you investigate, the more you know. And the more you know, the better your product will be.
-Do the work, get your hands dirty, and don’t give up. My prototype was made of things I could buy from Lowe’s and Home Depot. I did a ton of research on how to bend metal — ideas for “melting” mesh to the frame. I used our oven, our iron, my wife’s hairdryers, curling irons, and more. I got inspiration from everyday items and spent a lot of time in my garage on countless failed attempts.
-Get the patents. Once you have something, get it protected — fast.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I did not use one, but I’m sure that there are good ones out there. Since Shark Tank, I’ve had lots of inventors reach out to me regarding their ideas. Many of them have had experience dealing with these consultants, and some of it was not good.
Just remember that, like any other business, these companies are there to make money. I would advise you to do your own research before engaging a consultant. And then, take what they say with a grain of salt, or you may end up spending money unnecessarily.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
It doesn’t have to be either/or. We kind of did both. My initial investors are not venture capitalists. They are private investors that I either knew or were associated with one of my current partners.
Of course, any investment comes with a certain responsibility to those investors. So, if you can solely bootstrap your business, that’s great. However, if you choose investors, I believe they can help you have even greater success.
Even though they’re not in my industry, my partners are a valuable sounding board for legal and financial advice and personal support. They have the experience that I’m lacking and have been an immeasurable asset to my business.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It has been an unexpected pleasure to meet so many fellow inventors and entrepreneurs who learned about me through Shark Tank and have reached out for advice and encouragement. I remember being where they are, and it’s an honor to share what I’ve learned and offer my support.
Another way I can speak into people is through my podcast. In a recent episode with my wife, Alisha, we challenged our listeners to take steps to live proactively instead of reactively. Part of their homework was to come up with a personal mission statement to help keep them on track. Mine is “To use all of my gifts and life experiences to serve and inspire others to live their best life.” I have that up on my board in my office. I see it daily and do my best to let it inform all of my decisions.
And I’m really pleased about a company project that we’re working on to start a charity that will provide mosquito nets to help protect the most vulnerable in the malaria-ridden parts of Africa.
Overall, I would say a better you = a better world. And the best version of all of us includes some form of generosity.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Simply determine to do good. Use what you’ve been given to do good in this world and find a way to give back. Align yourself with a trusted local or global organization that is changing the world — whatever cause speaks the most to your soul. Then give consistently — your time, money, or (better yet) both. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. And while you’re doing good, also determine to do no harm. That’s just as important.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Apple CEO, Tim Cook, would be a top choice. What Steve Jobs did at Apple is so inspiring. We look to the lessons that Apple teaches as they completely dominate an industry and lead the world in innovative ideas. I would love to meet the man who is carrying that legacy.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.