Ever see a product on a late night infomercial that you thought of years ago or watched ‘your’ big idea being pitched on the CBC TV show the Dragons Den? You are not alone. Just how does someone take an idea out of their heads and into their hands and then on to market? It is more than just having a cool idea; it is what you do with that great idea that will separate you from those other people with the same idea.
The goal of most inventors is to revolutionize the world and make bags of money along the way. Think of these 5 ‘crazy’ inventions seen in the past 35 years: the Pet Rock, Tamagotchi, Furby, Snuggie and the Singing Bass fish. They have combined sales well in excess of 1 Billion dollars. Yes, that was billion with a ‘b’. The reality is that less than 3% of patents ever generate money for the inventor, or put another way this is a 97% failure rate.
So just how does a person become an inventor?
The first step is ideation, thinking up your invention and there are several ways to go about this. You can discover a new invention completely by accident like the ice cream cone, the ‘slinky’, the Popsicle, fireworks, microwave ovens, crazy glue or Velcro. What made these inventions hugely successful was the observant person that saw an oppourtunity and capitalized on it.
Or, you can be like me and let your brain loose to dream…and dream big. Get a notebook and write your ideas down. DO NOT FILTER YOUR THOUGHTS, just write them down; preferably as legible as possible. I have notebooks and sticky pads everywhere from my car to my lab and every room in my home which I then transfer to a ‘Big Book of Ideas’.
You finally have your BIG idea for an invention…now what?
You must covert that ‘idea’ into an ‘invention’ as ideas can’t be patented. Most importantly you need to find out if your invention already exists. It is very disappointing to spend many hours or even days creating your ‘baby’ only to find that it not only exists, it is available in every major box store and has been available for years.
Inventors today are fortunate as it only takes a few key strokes on the internet to check if your invention already exists. If you are lucky and don’t find your invention available on the internet you just might have the next ‘latest and greatest’ new invention. The searching doesn’t end here as you need to also check if your invention may have already been patented. It is very possible it may be patented and may NOT be available for sale.
Preliminary Patent Search
The good news is you can do a preliminary patent search on your own for free; the downside is it can take you a long time, you will need a good understanding of the patent classification system, and you might miss an existing patent. ‘Google patents’ offers an excellent free patent search tool that is very easy to use and is a great resource to help you in your search. You can also search the Canadian and US Trademark and Patent offices. Secondly, you can work with a licensed patent agent that has experience in patents and is usually more cost effective than hiring a patent lawyer. Meet with several patent lawyers for feedback as most offer a free initial consultation.
Evaluate If Your Invention is Worth Pursuing
Does your invention solve a REAL problem? Television Infomercial companies have strict rules regarding their invention submission policies. Your invention must solve a REAL problem, appeal to the masses, be highly demonstrable and have a great price point.
Try using these four ‘guidelines’ to determine if your invention is worth pursuing.
1. Are your abilities sufficient to move your idea through the invention process?
It is very common for inventors to have access to professional technical or marketing help; however your project should be reasonably within your grasp. You still need to do most of the work unless you have very deep pockets.
2. Can you produce it profitably?
Consider construction materials, complexity of manufacturing and type of packaging you want to use, to name a few. If you will be competing with inexpensive ‘offshore’ products, your invention may not be worth pursuing, unless your idea is significantly superior to competitive products.
3. Is there significant competition?
If you have significant competition you must be keenly aware of them, and be able to prove how your invention is superior. Increased competition can mean lower profits and difficult sales if you ever get your invention to market.
4. Do people say, ‘WOW’ when you demo your product?
I probably should have put this as #1. The ‘WOW’ factor is one of the most important, if not THE most important consideration of your inventions success. I am not talking about your family members being impressed with your invention but do people that don’t love you or know you say ‘WOW’?
Determine Your Market
Does your invention have mass appeal or will your market be so small and specialized that the selling price will make your invention prohibitively expensive?
Do Meaningful Market Research
Call or visit businesses that you think would sell your invention and look for the ‘WOW’ reaction. You want to share your invention with them but must be cautious to limit the details as not to give away the ‘secret sauce’ or key features that make your invention unique.
While drawings are a good way to get your idea across, a prototype will help potential customers or investors truly envision your invention. A prototype will ‘verify’ if your invention really works the way you think it will. It is crucial to have a prototype of your invention so people have something they can objectively evaluate.
If you are skilled you can try making your own prototypes, or you can work with Industrial Designers. If your homemade prototype is plywood and duct tape, you should seriously consider hiring a professional. If you do chose to work with an Industrial Designer, meet with several firms to better understand what each can offer you as their services and prices will vary significantly. They will sign your NDA and will often ask you to sign one of theirs.
Intellectual Property Protection
If you have completed all the steps up to this point and still want to continue, protecting your invention is one of the most important AND difficult areas inventors face. Learn as much as you can about this topic! Invest the time and study the many patent options available to you. Personally, I found going the ‘patent pending’ or ‘provisional patent’ route for my latest invention the most cost effective method to meet my needs.
This has been a VERY brief overview of the many steps involved in taking an idea from your head to your hands, but the most important thing you can do is study the invention process in detail. Talk to the experts, read as much as you can and have fun. Watch for my next blog as I share my experience of facing the Dragons on the CBC Dragon’s Den. (Episode airing December 5th)
Note: I strongly suggest you consult industry experts and the internet for more detailed explanations to understand ALL the steps required from patent types to prototyping to marketing your invention. The internet website About.com is extremely helpful and most importantly unbiased. The internet can also be a minefield filled with ‘invention promotion companies’ that will leave you with nothing but frustration and financial failure.