Every product out on the market today started as an idea in someone's head. From a mobile device to a software platform or a kitchen gadget, most items you can purchase came to life through the process of invention.
The road from concept to finished product can be a long one, and those who travel it often face numerous obstacles and setbacks. But armed with the right information and resources, you can put yourself on the path to bringing your invention to market. Here's what you need to know to get started.
What you need to do
Turning your idea into a reality is a bit more complicated than just handing your design over to a manufacturer or developer and waiting for the profits to roll in. In an article on Entrepreneur.com, author Tamara Monosoff outlined some of the basic steps you'll need to take before your product hits the shelves.
Market research. Before you spend a lot of time and money creating a product, you should know if anyone will want to buy it. Look at what's out there and size up the competition. Do products that are similar to your idea exist, and if so, where are they sold and who's buying them? Answering these questions will give you an idea of your target market, as well as what you'll need to do differently to stand out from your competitors.
Patent research. Would your design infringe upon someone else's copyright or intellectual property (IP)? Visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website and investigate any patents on items like the one you want to invent. If you have questions or want to be sure your invention is legal for you to create and sell, consult with an attorney specializing in patents and IP law.
Develop a prototype. Once you've found your market and ensured that your legal path is clear, it's time to start bringing your idea to fruition. Monosoff said a good prototype can be as basic as a drawing or diagram, or as complex as a working, professional product.
At this point, you'll need to decide if you're going to have your product manufactured or licensed. The former means you'll create and sell your product yourself (this includes paying a third party to manufacture your product); the latter means you'll sell another company the rights to make, use and sell your products, granting that right in exchange for a license fee and royalty payments. More information about the pros and cons of each method can be found in these articles on FindLaw and IP Watchdog.
The challenges of inventing
Success in the world of innovation is all about getting your timing right. If you wait too long, someone else will have capitalized on a similar idea and captured your niche already. On the other hand, if your invention is the first of its kind, the market might not be ready — and you'll have to fight an uphill battle to carve out a place for your product.
Henry Helgeson, CEO and co-founder of Cayan, faced this issue as a mobile payments technology company in 2011, several years before mobile payments became mainstream. For other startups on the "too early" side of innovation, he advised perseverance, to get ahead of your competitors when the market does catch up.
"Peers in our industry [said mobile payments] would never happen, but we kept moving and got a three- to four-year jump on everyone," Helgeson said. "It takes a while ... it's not something you can build up overnight. But once you have momentum going, it's very powerful."
If you're on the later end, Helgeson said you'll need to take a look at your competition and decide if it's something you want to continue with, or if you'd be better off going in another direction with your invention.
"There [should always be] a sense of urgency, to fix what you need to, make the change and [get the product] back out to market," he said. "As long as you do it quickly, it's OK."
Another big challenge for inventors is figuring out how to get their product out to the public. It may not even be something you consider at first — your idea may be great, but without a marketing plan, no one will ever know about it.
"In hindsight, we were too focused on our product, and thought it would sell itself," Helgeson said. "You need a plan to [market it]."
Nicole Lininger, director of corporate communications at InventHelp, an inventor service company, said that many entrepreneurs who are just starting out don't have a large advertising budget to promote their inventions. But that doesn't have to stand in their way, she said. Lininger recommended starting off with a strong social media marketing plan, which is cost-effective and wide-reaching.
Tips for success
Ready to turn your product idea into a reality? Helgeson and Lininger offered the following advice for aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs.
Take time to research. Inventing a product requires a lot of initial investigation, patience and resilience, Lininger said. Before you begin the process, make sure you have the time to dedicate to due-diligence research. This is especially true when you're looking at patent protection for your idea.
"Do some research into intellectual property and familiarize themselves with the process and the jargon used in the field, including patent, copyright, trademark, etc.," Lininger said. "There are numerous reputable sites you can learn from, such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office, World Intellectual Property Organization and World Trade Organization. If patent protection is something you are interested in, contact a patent lawyer."
Continually test your product. Helgeson reminded entrepreneurs that their products are not going to be perfect in their first iterations. You'll have to tweak the product and make some changes along the way, and the best way to figure out those changes is by testing your invention with real consumers. Get honest feedback from test groups as a way to validate your idea, he said.
"The validation process needs to happen on a regular basis," Helgeson told Business News Daily. "If you're trying to do something, and the market tells you [they want] something else, you might be going down the wrong path. Be out there in the field ... talking to people, being part of industry conversations. You can't sit in a room and try to dream something up."
Work on your elevator pitch. Even before you have a finished product to sell, you'll need to start talking it up to your friends and professional contacts. Lininger emphasized the importance of developing a great elevator pitch — a short, concise sales pitch that includes a hook, a value statement, statistics and other data, your product's uniqueness, and a call to action. Learn more about creating such a pitch here.
Don't go it alone. There are a lot of steps involved in the invention process, and it can be overwhelming to try to take care of everything yourself. Lininger advised seeking out professional assistance so you can be assured that certain elements of the process will be in capable, experienced hands. For instance, you may want to turn to a service like InventHelp if you're looking for a way to get your idea in front of companies or develop your prototype, or Rocket Lawyer if you're looking for a qualified, on-demand patent attorney.