Everyone has a great idea for a product, but very few people feel they have the financial means to bring it to life. I’m here to challenge that myth. With the incredible resources available today, in my opinion, there’s never been a better time to try your hand at inventing!
As an inventor who has brought several products to market and has many more in active development, I’m often asked how to get a product idea off the ground without spending a fortune. I’m happy to share my tried and true tips that will allow you to explore the world of inventing without breaking the bank.
• Patent Search – One of the most important first steps you should take when considering bringing an invention to market is to do a preliminary patent search to ensure the invention does not already exist and/or that your idea does not infringe on an existing patent. One way to do this is to hire a Patent Attorney—they will typically charge between $500 and $3000 to do the search for you. With the resources available today, you can do this preliminary patent search yourself at no cost.I find “Google Patent” (www.google.com/patents) and “PatentStorm” (www.patentstorm.us) to be the most simple platforms to navigate. You can also go directly to the USPTO (United States Patent & Trademark Office — www.uspto.gov ). Down the road, you may want to have an attorney do a more thorough search, but in the initial stages, doing your own search can save you a lot of money.
• Provisional Patent – To patent or not to patent is an ongoing debate in the world of inventing. Sadly, the thought of spending $5,000 to $10,000 to secure a patent scares most would-be inventors away. Did you know that only about 5% of the products in the market place are patented? When deciding whether to file a patent, it’s important to determine what your goal is. If you’re goal is to commercialize the product yourself, you may not need a patent at all. And in fact, it can often be a waste of money for small business owners as they are usually not financially equipped to defend it if their product should get knocked off. In most cases that money would be better spent building market share. However, if your goal is instead to license your idea to a company, then a patent is likely very important. The good news is that you don’t have to decide that now. You can file a “Provisional Patent” for $125 (In California. Other states may vary.) that will give you a “Patent Pending” status for 12 months while you explore the commercial viability of the product. Filing a full utility or design patent too early in the process can be a waste of money as the product will likely evolve over time. It’s usually best to wait until the product is manufacture ready before taking that step. As always, consult a patent attorney before making your final decision.
• Trademarks– I happen to be a big believer in trademarks. When it comes to consumer products the name is usually one of the most important things. For example, when you go out to buy dark brown cookies with cream filling, what name comes to mind? I’m willing to bet it’s Oreos® over Hydrox®. It’s all about the name and brand loyalty. If you can create that loyalty with your product name then many times that can be much more valuable than a patent. And the good news is that trademark protection is relatively inexpensive and fast when compared to patent protection. Legal Zoom has trademark packages that start at $169 plus the government filing fee.
• Developing a Prototype – A prototype is a working example of your idea. It doesn’t have to be fancy. The idea of a prototype is to make sure your idea will actually do what you want it to. Many people run out and spend thousands of dollars to get a working prototype built. Big mistake in my opinion! At least initially. You can build one yourself from anything you might have around the house or that you can find at your local hardware store. Remember you just need to know if it works at this point! My next step is usually to have a photorealistic 3-D rendering created that will illustrate my idea as a finished product. I work with an amazing firm out of San Diego called “Viz Source” (www.vizsource.com). Their quality is so good that within 5 days I have a photo rendering that makes it look like my idea actually exists as a product on the shelf. Instead of spending $10,000+ on a fancy prototype, I’ve only spent approximately $500. My best kept secret! (Tip–If you tell them I referred you, they’ll honor a 10% discount.) These renderings can help finalize a design and identify potential flaws before it is too late and thousands of dollars have already been spent. I’ve sold inventions from these renderings alone. In my experience, a rendering like this combined with your ability to talk about your product and clearly explain the market, the features and benefits and the problem that it solves is often enough for someone to know whether they’re interested in it or not. Many times a company who wants to move forward with your idea/product will want to modify your design for their purposes. It’s at this point that a true prototype can be built. And at this point you’ll likely have the funds to do so or the interested company will put up the money.
• Tradeshows – Tradeshows can be very expensive. Yet many first time inventors feel the need to exhibit at them in order to promote their products and/or ideas. This is certainly one way to do that, but expect to pay a couple thousand dollars plus for booth space alone. I definitely encourage new inventors to attend the key tradeshows, but I encourage them to do it as a guest and not as an exhibitor. Many times being a guest won’t cost you anything at all (other than travel expenses) and you’ll have the benefit of walking the showroom floor without exposing your invention to someone who could potentially knock it off. Tradeshows are an amazing forum from which to network as the key buyers are all usually in attendance. For this reason, you’ll want to have your product or prototype and/or your 3-D rendering on hand. If you’re concerned about protecting your idea, then having several copies of an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with you is also important. In my opinion it’s more valuable to walk the floor and network than it is to be in a booth hoping that the right person happens to stop by.
• Invention Submission Companies – I get more questions about these companies than probably anything else. And sadly, I hear stories all the time about people who have been taken for thousands of dollars by them. My rule of thumb is to avoid any company that wants to charge you a large up-front fee. The bottom line is that reputable firms will never ask for large fees in advanced. But also know that they won’t take on your product unless they believe it will be successful. They make their money off the royalties from your successful product…period. If someone asks you for money up front, run…don’t walk! If you’re uncertain, contact The United Inventors Association to see if there have been any complaints. This is not to say that there are no good Invention Submission Companies out there—there are! You can find many in Inventor’s Digest Magazine—they’re very particular about who advertises with them and won’t work with anyone who might have questionable ethics.