West Hills Community College in Lemoore, CA, serves a mid-state rural area where many residents struggle to makes ends meet. So in his position as Computer Information Systems and Business Professor at West Hills, Monte Paden sees a lot of students who are barely getting by. One such student is Chris Leach, who until last April worked three jobs to support his wife and daughters. Today, boosted by mentoring from Paden and thanks to his own ingenuity, persistence and a big dose of courage at a critical moment, this former Burger King employee is a multi-millionaire.
"Three years ago I decided I wanted to go back to school,” says Leach. "My family and I were living in the slums of Lemoore in a 2-bedroom apartment where the rent was $400. I decided it was time to bring us out of there.”
Leach had earlier attended the Fresno Institute of Technology to learn how to build and repair computers, but illness had kept him from completing the course. After he began taking courses in Entrepreneurship with Paden, he was soon visualizing how he wanted to improve things for his family. And he began dreaming up ideas for new technology.
"Chris has very good computer skills, and I said ‘Start writing your ideas down,’” recalls Paden, who in addition to teaching is a successful entrepreneur who has run his own IT company for over 17 years.
"I got a book to write down my ideas and I started going on-line to learn how to draw schematics for my ideas,” says Leach. "I still carry a book around with me all the time; I’ll get an idea and I’ll write it down and run it by Monte or my wife.”
The idea that most intrigued Leach was designed for the young male market of people like Leach who enjoy both cars and music. Soon he was submitting an application to the U.S. Patent Office for an after-market product that would enable users to significantly boost the sound output of their car radios.
"At the time, the $74 patent application fee was a stretch for me,” recalls Leach. "And they said it can take up to 18 months for a patent to be approved. In my case, it took almost 18 months to the day. Meanwhile, I was still working three jobs.”
Over the next year, Leach invested another $1,000 of hard-earned money in parts so he could perform the bench testing required to get the patent approved. All the while, Paden was encouraging him, reminding him that if this idea didn’t work out, he still had plenty of others. "That’s the true entrepreneur spirit,” says Paden. "If one thing doesn’t work out, you try something else.”
Nerves of Steel Pay Off
Once a letter from the U.S. Patent Office stating that his patent was in hand, Leach contacted three leading mobile electronics companies, two of whom wanted to bench test his design. "Monte advised me that if they wanted to test the product, it should have a price attached to it,” says Leach. "He said, ‘Don’t name a price. Make them tell you what it’s worth to them.’”
The first offer came in at $150,000 to purchase the design; no royalties were included. Leach said no. Negotiations with both companies dragged on. "I was getting two or three calls a week from both companies,” he says. "Finally, one of them sent a private plane to pick me and my family up and take us to LA; they took my wife and kids to Disneyland and took me to a conference room in their headquarters. Their first offer was $2 million and 1 ½ percent royalties. I asked myself what Monte would do.”
What Leach did was call their bluff. When his wife happened to call him on his cell phone, he convinced the people in the room that it was their competitor calling with a higher offer and then he started to walk out of the room. By the time he got to the receptionist’s desk, they called him back and raised their offer to $4 million with 5 percent royalties.
Leach is now setting up his own business as an idea broker after a chance meeting with an idea broker from San Francisco. "People would come to him with ideas and he helps them make their ideas real,” Leach says. "That’s what Monte did for me, and I wanted to do it as a lucrative business. I can pass along the small things I’ve learned about the business side. For me, I’ve learned, I’ve won and now it’s time for me to teach.”