Think about the first thing you did this morning. If you're an early bird, chances are it was flipping on a light, and you thought nothing of it.
But electricity was a far cry from the mundane 140 years ago, denounced by many leading scientists as a fairy tale. But Thomas Edison persevered, and here we are living in a perpetually lit-up world.
Innovation is not an easy process, but it has the power to propel you into the business world and open doors. The first step in turning your idea into a product is sharing it with the world.
Here's what you need to know about getting started and launching your invention.
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 capitalize on a similar idea and capture your niche. 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 (now part of TSYS), faced this issue as a mobile payments technology company in 2011 – years before mobile payments became mainstream. For other startups on the "too-early" side of innovation, he advised persevering 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," said Helgeson. "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 need to take a look at your competition and decide if it's something you want to continue with, or if you're 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 make the public aware of your product. 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," said Helgeson. "You need a plan to [market it]."
In a previous Business News Daily interview, marketing and communications professional Nicole Lininger 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? Experts offered the following advice for aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs.
Don't go it alone.
There are a lot of steps involved in the invention process, and it can be overwhelming to take care of everything yourself. Lininger advised seeking out professional assistance so you can be assured that certain elements of the process rest in capable, experienced hands. For instance, you may want to find a manufacturer if you're looking to develop your prototype, or Rocket Lawyer if you're looking for a qualified, on-demand patent attorney. You should also consider a business partner, said Anayet Chowdhury, co-founder of Argo Prep.
"Find a co-founder who believes in your idea/product and has a specific set of skills that you do not possess," said Chowdhury. "Companies that have co-founders are [more likely] to succeed compared to solopreneurs."
Incubators can also be a great place to find success, providing innovators with tools, resources, and a supportive community as you move through the process.
Kate Bell, founder and director of Zip Us In, which provides jacket expanders for pregnant women, uses IncuHive as a base for her business. "The business support has been superb and enabled me to be confident in my scale-up plans with such a vast network of experience behind me," she said. "IncuHive have been instrumental in us pitching to investors and has provided meeting space and an advisory board."
Take time to do your research.
Inventing a product requires a lot of initial investigation, patience and resilience, Lininger said. Before you start, 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. Would your design infringe upon someone else's copyright or intellectual property (IP)?
"Do some research into intellectual property and familiarize [yourself] with the process and the jargon used in the field, including patent, copyright, trademark, etc.," said Lininger. "There are numerous reputable sites you can learn from, such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office, World Intellectual Property Organization, and the World Trade Organization. If patent protection is something you are interested in, contact a patent lawyer."
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.
You should also look at what's out there and size up your competition. Marco Cirillo, co-founder and CTO of Kibii, recommended researching who your competitors are, what your target audience likes and dislikes about products already on the market, and if your product is unique enough to stand out.
"Many founders and business owners will leave marketing as an afterthought," said Cirillo. "To get the highest return, you need to conduct research and set targets before you even launch your product. This will help the team stay aligned and have a common vision so you can ensure a successful product launch."
Develop a prototype.
Once you've found your market and ensured that your legal path is clear, it's time to create a prototype. 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.
Work on your elevator pitch.
Even before you have a finished product to sell, you'll need to talk 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 perfecting your elevator pitch here.
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 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 to validate your idea, he said.
"The validation process needs to happen on a regular basis," said Helgeson. "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."
Additional reporting by Sammi Caramela and Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.