New inventors often say to me, “I have an idea I think is great, now what do I do?”
My most succinct answer is to do the following:
- Search: USPTO.gov, retail and online stores, catalogs
- Prototypes: Begin building prototypes of your invention
- Validate: Market test in as many ways as you can do on your budget
Perhaps the biggest mistake made by new inventors is they spend very little time doing any of the three steps described above and focus instead upon immediately filing for a patent. Huge mistake.
Let's look at the above three steps in a bit more detail.
According to USPTO.gov, for the first time ever in 2014 over 300,000 utility patents were issued in the US in 2014 and there are over 8 million total issued patents. In 2014 there were over 600,000 US patent applications with estimates of over 1,000,000 total patent applications pending before the US Patent Office. Given these statistics, doing a patent search is the opposite of a lottery ticket; the chances of winning (matching an existing patent) are really quite good.
Yet many inventors do, at best, a cursory patent search and then happily proclaim, “nope, nothing out there like my invention.” Really? The reality for any invention idea or concept: it is likely there are at least 20 issued patents that have some similarity to the invention, sometimes 50 or more. I worked with one inventor where, in only about 15 minutes of searching, we found an issued patent very much like his idea.
Since successful prosecuting of a patent takes years and probably over $5,000 in capital, doing a detailed patent search is a financially wise choice. Do the most detailed search you can for free and then consider having Patent Search International do a comprehensive search for you for $250. PSI is a highly reputable firm that has been doing professional patent searches for many years.
Also, don't forget to spend time searching in retail stores, online stores like Amazon.com and also search in catalogs. Catalogs.com is a particularly good place to start.
Building a proof of concept prototype is essential for most products. Most inventors understand that having a working prototype is important. If necessary, find someone to help you build a prototype. Building a raw first prototype is just the beginning, however. Many inventors ask me, “how many prototypes do I need to build?” My answer is, “as many as necessary.”
With each prototype you build, you see ways to improve the functionality, things that should be changed. So, build another prototype to incorporate those changes and improvements. Guess what? As you incorporate changes into your second prototype, you discover more refinements that could be made. That becomes your third prototype. Continue with this iterative process until you reach the point where you have a prototype that feels complete. For my first product, a thin, flexible wallet I built 10 different prototypes – and that was for a simple wallet product.
Having a good, reasonably refined prototype will make for a more accurate and comprehensive patent filing.
Test, test, test! Every inventor loves their own product and thinks it is great – a million dollar idea – and they might be right. It is also quite possible that they could be wrong, as well.
This is why validation of the concept or product is crucial. Asking opinions of your friends and loved ones is not validation. Why? They love you and want to support your ambitions, so they will love your product too, no matter how good or bad it is.
Get creative and market test it as cost-effectively as you can. Focus groups are great but may be unaffordable for the average inventor. One inventor took prototype samples and short postcard surveys to a college campus and did on the spot opinion testing of students for a very low cost. He got a lot of great feedback that helped him to better shape his product.
I had my wallets manufactured and tested them by selling at a variety of venues including festivals, flea markets and other events. This was a bit expensive and time consuming but a hugely valuable experience. It became clear that men loved the wallet (and women too) and I quickly learned how to pitch it most effectively – what to say and what not to say. When I sold on QVC years later, it was easy because I had done my pitch thousands of times, there was nothing to remember, no need for a special script that might stump me up on air before millions of potential buyers.
Spend as much time as you need to really validate your product. It takes time, effort, and some money, but the rewards of doing it far outweigh any inconveniences.