Inventors are becoming a larger and larger portion of society. We are planning on doing a series of articles on inventors and invention leading up to May 16th when the Honorable John Doll, the Commissioner of Patents, comes to Denver to speak on the Future of the USPTO.
Tamara Monosoff: For most of us, inventing a new product or starting a new business is foreign territory. And unless you have a crystal ball (and you know how to use it) it’s impossible to expect to make all the right decisions, all the time. Yet certain mistakes in the invention process are very common–I see them repeated among countless individuals who are developing and/or trying to launch their products. Fortunately, they’re mistakes that can easily be avoided if you know what to look out for.
While you can expect to make mistakes along your journey–"healthy" mistakes that you’ll learn from in the process–there are those mistakes that can completely sabotage your efforts, deplete your life savings, or cripple your confidence. These are the mistakes that can and should be avoided. Here are some of the whoppers I’ve seen along the way:
Mistake #1: Expecting unrealistic results
There are those who believe that inventing is a get-rich-quick scheme. This is usually little more than wishful thinking. That’s because a successful invention involves building a business around a new product idea, or selling your idea to another company. That takes hard work–and very few inventors make a million dollars on their first invention. The good news is that you can make money, and as you become familiar with the process, your second, third or fourth effort will bring you even more financial success, more efficiently. The new inventor, though, needs to evaluate her resources, measure her motivation and assess the time she’s willing to put into her effort–then develop a plan with realistic timelines and financial goals. The riches seldom come quick–but they can come!
Mistake #2: Failing to search the market early on
You have a big idea. You’re sure the masses will clamor for it. So you begin sinking lots of money into building your prototype, developing a business plan, hiring a patent attorney, and more. Little do you know there’s an identical product that’s already out there on the market.
Yes, it can be heartbreaking to learn that someone else came up with your big idea first. But it’s even more heartbreaking when you’ve lost a significant amount of money because of it. Advice: be sure to research stores, the internet, catalogs, etc., before moving along in the invention process. I’ve seen people who’ve invested their life savings only to discover–too late–that their idea isn’t original. And it often takes a 10-minute search to find what you are looking for. How can you be sure your product doesn’t already exist? Spend enough time to ensure you’ve exhausted every angle. Search relevant stores wherever you go. Search the internet with multiple key words. In other words, don’t develop your product in a vacuum.
Of course, if your product is similar–but not identical–there may still be room for it in the marketplace. Maybe it has different features or a novel design. The key is knowing what’s out there, and taking an honest look at both products to decide if there’s enough differentiation to justify further investment and product development. If you decide to develop a product that’s similar to another already on the market, make sure that you don’t infringe on the competitor’s patent.
Mistake #3: Assuming everyone will want your invention
Even if you’ve done your research–and you’ve determined nothing like your idea already exists–you still need to decide if your product is something that people will actually want, and more importantly: buy. And that takes market research.
Your first step in market research is to determine if there’s a viable market out there for your product–a market large enough and receptive enough to make producing your product worthwhile. For example, if it’s a product for all children 2-3 years old, it’s pretty obvious you’ve got a built-in market. But if it’s a product for, say, senior citizens who snowboard, you’ve got a much more narrow audience, and you should determine their numbers, their habits and where they live before moving forward. (Note: That’s not to say a bigger market is always better–in fact, smaller specialty markets can mean less competition, more targeted communications and higher demand. The point here is to determine whether any market–big or small–is a receptive one.)
Also, be sure to go beyond asking your friends and family, who are a) biased and b) may not give you honest feedback. Many times I’ve seen inventors’ family and friends tell them their idea is terrific because they want to support them and avoid hurting their feelings. So recruit objective parties to give you their frank responses to your product idea and/or prototype. Also, if you plan to sell your invention through retailers in a specific industry, speak to them and see if they would actually carry your product.
Mistake #4: Sending your idea–and your money–to an Invention Promotion Company
Companies like these prey on hopeful inventors. You’ll see them advertising on late-night TV, the radio, in newspapers and magazines, or via the internet. Their tactics are clear and their process is pretty consistent. First, they hook inventors by telling them what they want to hear: essentially, that they have a million-dollar idea, and that they’d love to take it to market. Of course, it’s a perfect scheme, because inventors already believe this about their product and are relieved to finally meet someone who sees the brilliance of their idea!
These companies then request a relatively small sum of money ($500 to $2000) to conduct a patent search and marketing study. Within a few days they’ll send back a long, bound and professional looking report that demonstrates the obvious market need for this item and its tremendous financial promise. They’ll simply need one more payment, they claim, to make the dream come true. Although they’ll typically accept any amount they can get, this payment is usually in the neighborhood of $5,000-15,000. (I’ve heard of people who have paid as much as $30,000.) But once you mail your check, you’ll seldom hear from the company again, no matter how reputable they seemed to appear. In the last four years I have heard from hundreds of inventors who’ve been burned by these companies. In fact, I just received a letter from a woman yesterday who gave her entire savings of $8,000 to a company like this–and after two years, absolutely no progress was made.
Be very suspicious of any pay upfront "deals." While there are a very few legitimate companies that can help you, the legitimate ones don’t advertise and won’t seek money upfront. If you do decide to take this route, be extremely careful, be sure you’re getting real references (these companies have been known to offer fake ones), and get everything in writing. And have a USPTO registered patent attorney review their contract before handing over a dime.
Mistake #5: Sinking all your money into a patent
While a patent can be a valuable tool, it may be unnecessary to creating a viable product or business. And it should rarely be your first step in the invention process. Before you pay to get a patent (on average $5,000-$10,000), you should discern whether your idea is marketable. Will people want it? Is it financially feasible? Many thousands of patents exist for items that no one will ever set their eyes on. In fact, only 2 to 3 percent of all patented items ever make it to the marketplace!
On the flip side, many products on the market don’t have patents. As long as you’re sure your product doesn’t infringe on someone else’s patent rights, you can bring your product to market without one. Of course, you lose the protection a patent offers, but this protection is often over-rated and if it’s an obstacle to your progress (the cost will cause you to drop your idea), it is possible to go without it, especially at first. I recommend speaking to a registered patent attorney or patent agent to determine how broad a patent you can potentially get, and to help determine the business value it brings to your project.
Mistake #6: Lacking business acumen
Many inventors believe that the success of their product begins and ends with "the big idea." In reality, the "idea" is a small component of the overall process. The most successful inventors I have met actually have many ideas, and only act on the ones that are the most viable and offer the path of least resistance to market. It takes a great deal of sweat equity to turn an idea into a financial success. If you are planning to license your idea, understand that it will take more than a verbal description to convince an individual or company to buy into your product. You still need to make a compelling argument–with market research data, a prototype, and a proposal to back it up.
And if you’re planning on launching your own company to support your idea, the invention is only the first of many, many steps. Running a business is an enormous undertaking–you’ll need to manage manufacturing, sales, publicity, employees, financials and so much more to make your product a success.
Believing that a winning idea alone will make you a million dollars is unrealistic. So be prepared to put in many hours and much hard work, no matter what route you decide to go. And don’t forget to allow yourself the freedom to be creative and have fun throughout this adventure! Nothing is more gratifying than to see your product selling off store shelves.