Ideas come from many sources: nature, personal interactions, problems — even your morning shower. Some ideas remain in the imagination, but at times they’re the spark that ignites a new business. Many entrepreneurs have great ideas for how to solve problems and improve the world. The challenge is how to take these ideas from a sketch to a successful product launch. Here’s a brief outline of some of the steps required to bring an idea to market:
Is this idea really a business? Great innovations solve problems in the market. Is your invention doing that? Sure, it’s cool to invent something nifty. My grandfather invented a way to turn tin cans into highly serviceable soup ladles. Unfortunately for him, the market isn’t clamoring for tin-can soup ladles. Seth Anderson, inventor of Loki’s patented jacket design, says, “I would make sure your whiz-bang idea solves a real problem and is as well thought out as possible for the first product.” If your idea will be easy and inexpensive to manufacture and provides a significant advantage over what exists on the market today, you might have hit on a business.
Is this the market niche with the greatest potential? In the early 1970s, Art Fry needed a better bookmark for his choir group. He used some adhesive created by a colleague at 3M Corp., Spencer Silver, and applied it along the edge of a piece of paper to make a sticky bookmark. Of course, Post-it notes turned out to be a lot more than a placeholder for church hymnals. Ideas evolve as research is performed. An inventor must take time to identify the optimal market niche and then refine the product to best serve that niche.
Are you ready for the journey? Fry struggled within 3M for years to get his concept to market because of technical problems and management doubts about the salability of the product. More important than his creativity and technical savvy was his tenacity. Eventually, he got 3M to complete the market research and consumer sampling necessary to find a market niche for Post-its. Are you ready to take this journey? What are your strengths as a product developer? What are your weaknesses? Knowing where you’re strong and where you’re going to need support is a crucial part of the process.
Use protection when necessary. Patenting an invention could be a critical step in developing a market niche — it might be nice to have a few years without competition to build sales. But not always. It takes years to get a patent. If the marketplace demand won’t exist in a few years, there’s no value to a patent. If a design is easily changed to perform the same function, then a patent could be worthless. Patents can be critical to success, but they’re not a panacea.
If protecting your intellectual property creates value in the market, Anderson suggests, “Do a thorough patent search yourself on the Web site www.uspto.gov to make sure your idea has not already been patented or is patent-pending.” Then find a good patent attorney. The value in the patent is going to be created in how broadly it is scoped.
If you merely describe a prototype’s construction, then your competition can design a device with a similar function but an alternative construction. If you can patent the whole concept (a broad scope), the patent is worth more because it’s more difficult to “design around.” You might need to spend some big bucks to get an attorney proficient in creating value in your industry, but it will be worth it. Matt Mayer of Leap Frogg says, “Without the benefit of a well-respected law firm with deep knowledge of the medical device arena, we would not have generated the value that we have in our patented medical device.”
If you take the patent route, be cautious in talking about your idea. In patent law, the monument you “disclose” your invention to a third party without a non-disclosure agreement, you have a one-year time frame to file your patent application.
Take a reality check. Late-night television commercials abound with sweet-sounding promises of promotion firms. They claim that inventors only need to call a toll-free number, sit back and watch the checks roll in. Unscrupulous promoters will push inventors to patent their ideas and then make false and exaggerated claims about the market potential of the invention. The reality is that few inventions ever make it to the marketplace, and getting a patent is not always a path to commercial success. If a firm seems enthusiastic about the market potential of your idea and wants to charge you huge fees in advance, take your business elsewhere.
ake it to market. There are many ways to do this. You can build an entirely new company around your invention or license your invention to an existing company. Each holds significant risks and rewards.
Building a new company could potentially make you rich, but you need the skills, experience and financial resources to handle manufacturing, distribution and marketing. If the big guys in your industry are already fighting hard for space on store shelves, you’ll have to be ready to operate on par with your larger competitors.
When you license your invention to an existing firm, that company pays you a small percentage of future sales so they can make and sell your product. This can be an effective route if the partner company has manufacturing and distribution resources in place to make your invention successful. But sometimes it’s hard for inventors without a track record of proven sales to make inroads at big companies. And once you get in the door, there’s still a risk the licensor will not deliver on the sales potential.
Negotiating your way from an idea to a successful product can be daunting, and coming up with the idea is really only about 5 percent of the process. However, inventors are ingenious individuals capable of rising to meet the demands of challenging situations. Innovation is the spark of our new economy, so let’s get those inventions to market.