By PAULA OLIVER
Most people dread the prospect of spending their life in a gutter, but Laurie Dee admits he is more than happy to be firmly wedged in it.
The Birkenhead entrepreneur is most recognisable as a former television co-star of Billy T. James, but he is also the archetypal Kiwi inventor. After hours of hammering away in a back shed creating curious solutions to the world's problems, Mr Dee came up with a toilet brush-inspired product that is selling in Australia and moving into the United States.
Aptly named "hedgehog," the long, black brushes are designed to go into the guttering system of a house, to keep leaves out while allowing water to flow easily through.
Up against a variety of protection systems that filter water by putting a cover containing holes across the gutter, the attraction of Mr Dee's product lies in its simplicity.
But it has been anything but simple to get the slow-moving hedgehog off the ground.
Like most inventors, Mr Dee's first attempts were not always successful. Inspired by a water shortage in 1994-95, he came up with a pipe system that controlled how much rainwater a guttering system sent into a holding tank so that none was wasted.
But by the time he managed to convince a large company that it was more than just another crazy Kiwi invention, "it started raining for 40 days and 40 nights and there was no need for it any more," he says.
Unperturbed, Mr Dee took another look at his product and noticed its potential to block up.
"I read enough to know that water was going to be an ongoing issue, not only in New Zealand but overseas too," he says.
"One thing led to another and I started looking around for a gutter protector that would filter gunk out of water before it went down the pipes."
Inspired by his toilet-brush, Mr Dee tried out a large brush in his guttering at home and it worked. He met numerous brush-makers and tweaked the product to the point where he was convinced it would finally bring him fame and fortune.
He then enlisted an Onehunga man to make a small batch, and tried to come to an agreement over the rights to the product with a large manufacturer. The deal fell through, but interest was growing.
"The Department of Conservation tested some in their tramping huts just before Mt Ruapehu started to blow up," he says.
"They went around to empty the water tanks to avoid people being affected by ash, and found that the huts with the hedgehogs had a lot less ash in the tanks."
Tired of toiling with New Zealand's big companies, Mr Dee called on all of his showbiz talents and phoned the 10 largest brush-makers in the US.
"I asked for the president of each company and the person [on the end of the phone] would always suspiciously ask who I was.
"So I replied that I was the president of Rainworks, a New Zealand company, and they were more than happy to talk."
His confidence and ingenuity paid off when one of the companies agreed to test the hedgehog at a Chicago Trade Show. Mr Dee wanted to go, but he did not have enough cash.
The turning point came when he was awarded a Business Development Grant to cover part of his travelling cost, and he was off to the US.
"I got great feedback and it looked like a deal was going to be set until the company said it had contracted out its marketing and my product didn't fit in with its focus on plumbing and janitorial things," Mr Dee says.
"They told me to find a distributor and it would be a goer."
Find a distributor he did, on the last day of the show, as he prepared to leave for home. But again the deal fell through, leaving him devastated.
So many knockbacks led Mr Dee to put the overseas project on the backburner, but the vast network of contacts he had built started to pay off.
"I was introduced to a Kiwi couple who had a brush-making facility in Australia, and they told me they could make the product cheaper than it could be made in New Zealand," he says.
Mr Dee agreed to give them licence rights, and the product is now being sold through Australian hardware stores, marketed by a former Marley executive.
Regularly attending home shows in New Zealand has also paid dividends, with orders secured and a reliable image established.
With sales in Australia growing, Mr Dee has also struck an arrangement with a local hardware chain, although most of his sales are made directly through the internet or by phone and mail order.
But perhaps his biggest chance came in the form of a phone call from the US six months ago, which led to the hedgehog being marketed in the US under a different name, the gutterpillar.
Unable to stop himself from inventing things, Mr Dee has also created a range of gutter cleaning tools, one of which resembles a golf club.
"We called it the gutter putter, and the Americans love it," Mr Dee says.
"I've been told to stop inventing things, but I just can't."
By PAULA OLIVER