LAGUNA NIGUEL — Commercial plumber Dave Fortney couldn't stand the dingy ring-around-the-brim his baseball caps would develop after a hard day's work or an outing on his boat, but he also hated the way the caps came out of the laundry limp and battered.
When one of his favorite caps came out especially mangled, he decided enough was enough.
Fortney, who often cobbled together his own tools in his workshop, came up with the Ball-Cap Buddy, a hinged gadget that closes over the cap like a clam shell and protects it in the washer or dishwasher. The result: Eight million devices sold in three years.
"Now I've traded in my plumbing truck for a Cadillac," said Fortney, 48, co-owner of Wild Injun Products in Laguna Niguel, who has retired from his former trade. He and his partner, Hal Finney, 63, now work full time promoting their plastic cap protector, which sprung from a prototype made from wire clothes hangers.
The product, which has a suggested retail price of $9.95, is available at nationwide chains such as Wal-Mart, K mart and Target, and in a variety of sporting goods stores.
"We can't keep them in stock. We do phenomenal business with them," said Dean Foes, sporting goods manager at Chick's Sporting Goods in Tustin. "We'd sell more, but we're always out of them. We've been out for about three weeks. When we have it, I always point it out to customers, and they love them."
Foes said his store has sold 95 Ball-Cap Buddies since picking up the product during the holiday season, while the other six Chick's locations in Southern California have combined to sell 235.
Those numbers are music to the ears of Fortney and Finney, who struggled for 1 1/2 years to convince people that there was a true market for their Ball-Cap Buddy concept.
"I never doubted it," Finney said. "I knew it was a winner the first time I saw it. But nobody took us seriously. They do now."
While it was hardly overnight, Fortney's success at turning a quirky brainchild into a money-making gizmo is a consumer-age version of the American Dream. Ron Weber, a tax manager at Price-Waterhouse who often works with small start-up companies, said the market always seems to have room for little ideas that produce big revenue.
"If you build the better mousetrap, can you still make money? I believe you can," said Weber, who is represents a company trying to find a niche for a three-dimensional baseball card. "If you get the right idea and make a good turn on it, you can make some good money selling a fairly cheap product to a wide market."
Wild Injun is trying to duplicate the Ball-Cap Buddy success with a line of other novel consumer items.
There's the Anti-Ant Pet Dish, which keeps crawling bugs out of dog food, and the Final Drop Dispensing Cap, which lets you get every bit of shampoo out of the bottle. There's the always popular RAPP'S, a pair of shiny sunglasses that hug your face and roll up so you can put them in your pocket.
None of the other products have taken off like the Ball-Cap Buddy, which is cashing in on the boom in baseball cap sales, but the partners remain hopeful that it's just a matter of time before the items find their spot.
Robert Smith, 43, a former plastics engineer, came on board last year as a consultant to help the Wild Injun expand to overseas markets. He said the company is still seeking inroads to the European market, but the Ball-Cap Buddy is already thriving in Australia and, most recently, in Japan, where the United States' love of baseball caps has been imported along with other fashion trends.
Smith said Wild Injun (a company title borrowed from the longtime nickname of Finney, who is a Native American) has a million boxed-up Buddies waiting to move out. He won't say how many Buddies are produced by the company's contractors in a given month, though, because he doesn't want to volunteer information that might help rival companies.
Like other simple products with low overhead, the Ball-Cap Buddy has spawned imitators. Smith said that, while he wasn't surprised to see the copycats, he was stunned to find that they were difficult to fend off.
"You spend a tremendous amount of money to get a product protected, through attorneys and such, you do a lot of hard work to make some money, and then somebody unscrupulous comes along and does a knockoff version," Smith said. "I was floored by that. It says something about the patent protection laws in this country: They don't work."
Chick's, for example, was selling a similar product. Sporting goods manager Foes said his store switched over to the Buddy when Wild Injun sent a letter saying it was pursuing legal action against the manufacturer of the rival product.
"We were glad to carry the [Wild Injun] stuff as soon as we heard," Foes said. "We would have carried them from the start if we knew."
Competitors or not, business is brisk at the modest offices of Wild Injun. Not all the calls that come in are orders, however. Finney said other would-be inventors often phone to compliment the simplicity and success of the Ball-Cap Buddy.
"It's great," Finney said. "They call up just to say, 'Hey, you know, I wish I had thought of that.' "