Wow, can you believe it? You just got a great idea for a new invention!

Permit me to read your mind for just a few minutes. Here are the questions that are going through your head right now.

  • This could make me a lot of money, hasn't anyone thought of this before?
  • Do I need a patent so no one can steal my idea? That's going to be expensive!
  • I'm going to need some prototypes, but who can help me with that?
  • Can I just sell my idea or find a company to ‘take it over for me' and license it? 
  • How do I even get started? What is the next step?

Okay, first relax and take a deep breath. Now, let's look at what your first step should be.

Step 1: Quantify and Clarify the Idea

A large oak tree may drop as many as 10,000 acorns in a single year – almost all of which are eaten by animals, rot, get washed away or land on rocky soil. Only a tiny fraction – maybe one or two – will find fertile soil with good sunshine and germinate to become another oak tree.

Like an oak tree, your brain may produce thousands of ideas, but very few of your ideas are suitable to germinate into inventions and even fewer may become viable consumer products. Your first task is to quantify and clarify your ideas to see if they merit further time and effort – most don't. It is ideal to have an inventor's notebook – a simple notebook with sewn-in pages (not a ring binder) to jot down your ideas and diagram them. Just sketch out each idea as clearly as you can so it's no longer vague – it has form and function. It's no longer a large, ranch-style home, it is a two-floor, 4 bedroom, 3 bath 2,500 square foot red brick home with a back porch and a fence.

Step 2: Review, Critique, and Cull – Repeat

Now it's time to prune, to eliminate most of your ideas – something inventors hate to do, but it's necessary. Look at each idea and ask yourself three questions:

  1. How practical would this product be? Would consumers easily understand how to use it?
  2. Does the product have a fatal flaw or liability?
  3. Can it have a 4X mark up from manufacture to retail and still have a competitive price?

How about a dinner plate that folds in half? It might take up less space in cabinets, but is space that big a problem (1 above)? Also, the hinge or fold might rust (2) and it would certainly cost more to make than typical plates (3). Eliminate!

How about a super pogo stick, where users can spring up to 6 feet off the ground? It's value could be easily understood (1) but the liabilities (2) from injuries would be a magnet for lawsuits. Eliminate!

You get the idea. Regarding 3 above, this is crucial. Anyone who watches Shark Tank has often seen inventors with intriguing inventions whose retail costs are way above what most consumers would pay. The ideal product might cost $4 to manufacture in large quantities and sell for $20 at retail. Of course there are plenty of consumer products that sell for more than $20, but a $50 item is much more difficult to sell in large volumes than is a $20 item.

Step 3: Search – and You May Find

Now that you have winnowed your ideas from a bushel to a handful, it is time to take the third step: look to see if your product is already ‘out there' – an already patented item or selling in either retail or online stores.

First, do a thorough retail search. Look in all the major retail outlets including Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Macy's, Target, Lowe's, Home Depot and many others. Then, look at the key online retailers; not only the most obvious like Amazon, eBay, HSN and QVC, but also search Alibaba, Rakuten and others. Also, don't forget their are millions of items sold only through online catalogs. A great place to search is Be prepared for an unpleasant surprise: your product may already be selling somewhere!

Second, you can do your own free patent search by going to the US Patent and Trademark website (USPTO). The USPTO provides excellent search tools to access over 8 million issued US patents. First go to the patents section and then do a simple word search which will bring up many patents, only some of which are relevant. For more details on retail search and an example patent search, click here for your  FREE copy of 5 Steps to Launch Your New Invention.

After you have gone through all 3 steps, you may have only one or two ideas left that merit further research and consideration. That is good! By narrowing your focus to include only the best candidates, you will have saved hundreds of hours and perhaps thousands of dollars you could have spent on untenable product ideas.

Stay tuned.