America is the country of innovation and inventions, big and small. But what about those smallest, least expensive of inventions? Here are seven products under five dollars that made a million -- and in some cases, a lot more than that.
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1. Post-it Notes
Unless you've been living under rock, you've probably used a Post-it at least once in your life. Those handy little sticky notes actually started as a failed adhesive at 3M (NYSE: MMM - News) -- the glue wasn't sticky enough. 3M's Arthur Fry began using the glue to add removable sticky notes to his reports, and fellow employees quickly started requesting them for their own use. The Post-it is now one of the least-expensive inventions that's since made the company millions, and has evolved to 4,000 different products -- not bad for a failed adhesive.
2. Crazy Straw
Parents know: kids can be finicky eaters and drinkers. It's a problem of the ages, and back in 1936, Denver inventor Arthur P. Gildersleeve decided to bend a straw to add interest and get kids to drink milk and juice. The simple invention is still a success, and found in stores all over the world many decades after it was first invented.
This simple invention by Richard James got its start at Gimbel's department store in Philadelphia in 1945, and was a raging success from day one -- the 400 Slinkies the store carried sold out in 90 minutes. Over 300 million Slinkies have sold since, making it a classic and inexpensive staple in most kids' rooms.
4. Silly Bandz
If you have kids, you'll likely be familiar with Silly Bandz, those elastics shaped like animals, rock stars and other personalized shapes. The elastic (wrist) bands were last year's craze, after only being on the market for a short time. Despite a host of imitators, Silly Bandz sell 1 million packs a week now.
5. Pet Rock
It started as a joke: at a get-together with friends in 1975, Gary Dahl talked about how messy pets were, and how he preferred his pet rock. After having fun with the idea with his friends, Dahl wrote "The Pet Rock Training Manual" which he packed in a box along with the rock, with a $3.95 price tag -- and the Pet Rock was born. What started as some fun in April was selling 10,000 Pet Rocks a day by October, making Dahl millions. It is estimated that the creator made over $15 million during the first half year of "production." The Pet Rock is now a long-forgotten fad, but this invention shows that sometimes a joke and a bit of determination can lead to a fortune.
6. Antenna Ball
It's hard to imagine when you see those little antenna balls, but someone made more than a million dollars off those things. Back in 1997, Jason Wall was inspired by a Jack in the Box commercial and started to design different antenna balls. He began selling them at his local California auto stores, and soon contracted with Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT - News) to sell his antenna balls. Jason Wall became a multi-millionaire, and president and CEO of In-Concept.
7. Koosh Ball
Another simple ball invention that made millions is the Koosh ball, invented by Scott Stillinger in 1987. Stillinger wanted a ball that was easier to catch for his children, and he tied rubber bands together to create the soft Koosh ball. He expanded his endeavor to found his company OddzOn, which was later bought out by Russ Berrie and Company. Today, you can still buy Koosh balls for a few bucks, proving that some simple inventions stand the test of time.
The Bottom Line
Are you inspired? Whether your idea answers a need, like the Post-It, or a fad, like the Pet Rock, imagination can yield big bucks if you persevere. The bad news is that the odds are not in your favor as an inventor -- 99.9% of inventions never see a successful product launch, so don't plan to spend your future millions just yet. The good news is that these inventors prove that you can beat those odds, with a good idea, some perseverance and a little luck.