When Phoenix, a 9-year-old tabby cat, wants in or out of the house, he rings the doorbell.
By pawing at special switches mounted cat-high inside and outside of his Vincentown, N.J., house, loud chimes announce Phoenix's need for egress or ingress.
The cat's owner, Tony Vena, 72, a talkative former Philadelphia parking lot operator now living in busy semi-retirement, thinks he is on to something with that doorbell - which he invented with an eye on the $40 billion annual pet-supply industry.
"The pet world is huge - billions in kitty litter and cat food. You can see it for yourself looking at the ads on TV," he said. "We're going to have this [doorbell] thing all over the place."
But huge, also, are the odds against Vena and the tens of thousands of backyard inventors each year who come up with their version of a better mousetrap. Pet owners are not exactly salivating like Pavlov's dog for Vena's Pet-2-Ring Doorbell.
The indefatigable Vena, born and raised in Italian South Philly, said he spent the last four years and about $40,000 to invent, patent and begin marketing his $25 device. He even had a training video produced to show buyers how to get a cat or dog to poke the unique switch, which sets off a wireless doorbell.
He calls it his "pet project."
However, since September, when Vena took on a toll-free phone number, set up a Web site, began buying advertisements, and laid in the first 100 units of his doorbell, he has sold just a dozen of the devices.
"I'm disappointed," Vena said. "Inventing a product is one thing, but to market it is a whole different ball game. People think, with an invention, that's all you need. No."
Still, he scoffs at what he calls old-fashioned alternatives to his creation. Pet doors? "You have to make a hole in your building, and then other critters come in; snakes and possums and rabbits can come in; anybody comes in there," he said. Let the dog bark for relief? "Well, we're trying to change that habit, through teaching a dog a new habit - learning to ring the bell," he said.
There are competing products, too. An item called the Pet Chime, a paw-shaped switch that sits on the floor, costs $30 to $35. And the low-tech Gotta-Go dog doorbell - a standard, mechanical desktop bell, with training video - is just $20. Vena says his invention is cheaper than the one, more sophisticated than the other.
"But then, I realize it's a new product. I need more exposure," he said. "I also realized that you need a lot of capital to put it out in the mass media, to compete with the big boys out there. You've got to go big time."
Not to be stopped, Vena engaged an Arizona company two weeks ago that, for $850, is supposed to submit his invention to between 70 and 80 manufacturers for possible mass production.
Consumer groups, the Federal Trade Commission, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office warn against high-priced offers to help small-time inventors, but Vena was sure he picked a firm on the up and up.
Besides, he said, "I'm patient, I'm tenacious, and I'm obsessed with the idea. I believe it is a good idea."
Vena, one of nine children, takes pride in his South Philadelphia roots. He is a self-professed expert with the Mummers' strut. "I would challenge anybody to strut like I can strut. I got all the moves when it comes to strutting," he said.
After South Philadelphia High School, he took some courses at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania before going into the Navy in 1950.
Back in Philadelphia in 1953, he went to work for Fish Parking Inc., which operated parking lots around Center City. By 1966, he had bought the company, which he eventually expanded from four parking lots to 18.
He said he sold most of the parking business in 1983, but he turned to other pursuits - a line-striping business, real estate sales, and, briefly, a private commuter bus company in Willingboro, N.J.
He and his wife, Mary, have a family of seven children and 14 grandchildren.
Now financially secure, but always on the lookout for new ventures, Vena said the pet doorbell idea struck him one day when he saw a forlorn Phoenix looking in through the window. "I believe there's a lot of stray cats out there for the very reason that the family goes to bed, the cat can't get in" and wanders off.
Vena has a closet full of prototype doorbells, some made of wood and cardboard, others of heavy plastic. He said his invention expenses have included $6,000 to $7,000 for designs and models, $4,000 for advertising in dog and cat magazines, $2,700 for the training video, $1,000 for a Web site, and about $15,000 in attorney fees and the paperwork on patents for two versions of the doorbell.
The fees sounded "reasonable," said Michael S. Neustel, owner of the National Inventor Fraud Center Web site and a patent attorney.
But few inventors ever see profits from their inventions, Neustel said. "The general consensus is that less than 2 percent of individual inventors ever make money from their inventions," he said.
Neustel said Vena's idea did not sound new, but "a lot of times it might be a real narrow patent."
Neustel's Web site, www. inventorfraud.com, warns inventors against companies that charge hefty fees to market their inventions. Such firms can prey on gullible inventors, charging $5,000 to $10,000 in advance for useless services.
Vena said he was inundated with come-ons by such companies after filing for his patents, but he believes he did his homework in picking the Arizona firm to make contacts for him. "I'm very optimistic they're going to find somebody," he said.
"Most people [that] have a patent, they die with the patent," he said. "These people put a cap on their head with an umbrella sticking up there - they're entertaining.
"But this is useful."