Many people are looking to raise capital, connect with a mentor, or find other resources that will help them advance their businesses. Most of the time their ideas have been formalized in some way and they already have a business plan or maybe even a prototype. But lately, we’ve received several calls from serial inventors looking to take that first step. One self-proclaimed “Idea Guy” explained that he has dozens of ideas he’d like to see become moneymakers. So, he asks, “What is the most efficient way for a busy inventor like me to use my time and money to turn my ideas into products or a viable business?”
There’s a famous quote: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” While this isn’t entirely accurate, it is a reminder that the first thing inventors need to determine is whether or not their ideas are truly unique. There’s no need to spend time and money on an idea already on the market. An extensive online search can be a good place to start. You can also contact manufacturers who work in related industries to determine what products are already out there. Finally, check if there are existing patents for your product with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Always beware of infringing on a competitor’s existing patent.
Find your Product’s Niche
Once you’ve done some research, you can begin to determine where your product will fit in the market.
What are the ideal demographics for your invention? Is your invention limited to toddlers who are learning to surf, or would it appeal to kids between the ages of 13-16? The bigger the market, the more potential your invention has for success.
Consider the features and benefits of your invention and how they will enhance the lives of your customers. Seek out the objective opinions of others. Since your mother and best friend are certain to absolutely love your invention and proclaim their lives will exponentially improve because of it, don’t ask them. Instead, go to those in your industry—be they retailers, a random selection of potential customers, or manufacturers—for honest (and sometimes brutal, but necessary) feedback.
Make a Realistic Plan
While you may feel you have a billion dollar idea, you won’t make a billion dollars overnight. Let’s be honest—that’s not likely to happen. The “get rich quick” invention isn’t the norm. Getting an idea to market takes time and careful planning.
Set realistic sales goals. Maybe you’ve recently found a local retail store that’s willing to sell your product. Determine how many units they plan to take as inventory and how much they are willing to sell it for, and then try to predict how many could sell in a month. This is where having good business sense is key. The more you’ve researched the market, the better you’ll be able to predict your product’s success. Again, your sales goals should be attainable. It’s better to underestimate than overestimate.
Make a solid timetable for your results. Maybe this month you’d like to sell 100 units, but six months from now you hope to see that number triple. Set aside time for research, attend tradeshows, create product sell sheets, and schedule meetings with potential vendors.
Be Willing to Put in the Work
Generally, nothing good happens after midnight, so why would you submit your invention to an invention promotions company that only advertises on late night television? Beware of scammers claiming they can sell your product to major retailers in a matter of months. While they will try to convince you that they truly believe in your product, generally they just believe in one thing: your wallet. Also, watch out for companies asking you to pay upfront to get your invention promoted. Very few legitimate companies ask for fees upfront.
Look for reviews of companies before you agree to work with them. Run company names through a search engine along with the term “scam” or “reviews,” or go to the USPTO to view published complaints about less than reputable companies inventors have encountered. If you feel you’ve found a reputable company that is asking for a fee, make sure you get everything in writing and have a trusted attorney review the contract before you start paying.
To Patent, or Not to Patent
On average, a patent can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 and, out of those awarded, only two or three percent actually make any money. You may be able to bring your invention to market without a patent, as long as your product doesn’t infringe on an existing one. A patent attorney or agent can help you determine your best route. If you are concerned that someone could try to steal your invention or idea, apply to make your product “patent pending,” a step that costs about $100 and provides your idea basic protection for one year. This gives you time to determine if your product has the potential to make the money you think it will.
So, back to the original quandary posed by our friend the “Idea Guy.” Our recommendation? Do your research, focus on the idea that has the best possible position and consider “patent pending” your idea. Yes, it takes time and a little bit of money, but if seeing your dream become a reality is important to you, it could be the way to go.
For more useful tips on getting your venture started the right way, check out JumpStart’s helpful Entrepreneur Toolkit. And don’t forget to sign up for JumpStart for Entrepreneurs, our monthly newsletter giving you more helpful advice along with local success stories and lists of local funding/networking opportunities.