Where and How to Start
The majority of inventors who come to me for guidance have not been through the invention process before, and they wonder about the steps that one should take, and in what order to take them. Many such "uninitiated" inventors rush off to a patent attorney, (not the best first step), and when they find how much a patent will cost, they put their dreams on the back burner where they eventually dry up and die. As the poet, Langston Hughes, has asked us:
"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"
Well, sometimes we have to "defer our dream," but I'll try to show you here how to start without spending a fortune, and how to work toward a successful conclusion.
First, and most important, don't rush out to a patent attorney, and start the patent process. The simple reason is that until you have some idea of the market prospects for your invention there is no point in spending a relatively large sum of money on a patent. And a patent attorney very seldom will give you solid marketing advice. In fact, most attorneys, although they are experts in their own specialty, are not experts when it comes to your invention's prospects for making you money.
So, the first two steps are to get expert opinions on:
- is your invention marketable? And
- can your invention be protected with a patent.
Is it marketable?
Other than psychic value, there is no value to an invention that will not succeed in the market. Thus, the first step is always to determine your invention's marketability. There are several ways to assess marketability:
- Ask friends and relatives what they think.
- Get a formal evaluation from a university.
- Talk to chain store buyers.
- Have a market study made by a legitimate marketing expert.
- Ask the Inventor Mentor.
Friends and relatives are generally biased in your favor. They want you to succeed. And even though they swear that they would buy your invention if it were on the market, this encouragement is seldom sound. Its okay to ask, but don't base your hopes entirely on their opinions, whether positive or negative.
A few universities around the country evaluate inventions using the PIES (Preliminary Invention Evaluation System). This system evaluates 41 separate points that influence your invention's prospects for successful marketing. Southwest Missouri State University is the one I prefer, and it is sponsored by, and available through the not-for-profit United Inventors Association.
Chain-store buyers won't sign a confidentiality agreement, but if you feel that you can trust this person, you may get some valuable insights. However, chain store buyers seldom will take a chance on a product that has no sales history. They watch new products closely, and only buy for their stores when they see (or are shown) a favorable sales trend in the independent stores. Further, many products, especially innovative products, should be sold through any of the 15,000 catalogs in the U.S. These are often products that will succeed in catalogs, but not in retail stores. Thus, chain-store buyers are not always a reliable judge of marketability.
Legitimate marketing experts can be found in the ads in Inventors' Digest magazine. (If you don't already subscribe, you should! Call 1-800-838-8808.) Most of these fellows will charge you between a thousand and two thousand dollars for a study. And sometimes such studies only tell you how big the market is, how many people will probably buy your invention, etc. So, be careful if you decide on such services. Ask a lot of questions about what you will learn. And consider also that there is almost certainly no money-back guarantee if you aren't satisfied. If money is no problem, such studies may be of value. But if you are on a tight budget I suggest that you start with either the university assessment (PIES), or using my service (next).
The Inventor Mentor (that's me). I provide down-to-earth advice, not just an evaluation. I tell you which marketing channel or channels appear to be the best for your invention, and why. And if you prefer to license (or sell for a lump sum), I may even personally know an honest licensing agent who will work with you to find a manufacturer that will want your invention. (That depends on the kind of product it will become.) Of course, I provide an all-around plan, not just marketing. I'll tell you the special conditions that apply when a patent is not advisable; whom to use for a competent and inexpensive patent search; recommend the patent attorney that I use for my own patents; and give you the names of the three best prototypers I know. All of this for a low fee, and I guarantee my work. If you aren't satisfied, I'll refund your money in full, period.
Is it patentable?
Not every invention needs a patent. But if you intend to license your invention to a manufacturer (or sell it outright), you must have a patent. No one will pay you merely for an idea for a product. Corporations consider that all inventions are in the public domain until you prove otherwise by getting a patent. Thus, the first step in patenting is to find out if your invention qualifies for a patent. This is done by completing a patent search. You can do this yourself on the Internet, but I don't recommend it. I have done six patent searches myself, including three at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office in Washington, DC, and have come to understand that searching is best done by the professional who does it full time. The professionals almost always find critical patents that we amateurs will miss when we do our own searches.
A professional searcher will review the patent files, and make copies of patents that cover inventions similar to yours. To determine how the discovered patents affect your invention, and whether or not you can probably even get a patent, you must have a patentability opinion. Your patentability opinion should be in writing, and should be prepared by a patent attorney or patent agent. See more on this in my article, About the Patent Search.
The third step is to make a prototype.
Most uninitiated inventors think that if the patentability opinion they receive is positive (suggests filing for a patent), that the next step is to file. This depends on what you have invented, but in most cases it is preferable to make (or have made) a prototype before proceeding to file for a patent. The reason is simple. If you plan to license, you will need a prototype anyway. And if you create the prototype before you apply for a patent, you may discover patentable features that you missed when your invention was only a sketch or drawing. A prototype almost always help you to pin down the details of your invention, and such details help in the patenting process.
You can find prototypers in the classified and display ads of Inventors' Digest, or I will suggest persons I know to be inventor-friendly, reasonably priced, and competent. I get feedback from my clients on the quality of work done by the prototypers I recommend, and they only stay on my private resource list if the feedback reports are always favorable. Incidentally, I never receive kickbacks or finder's fees from any of the service providers I recommend. For more on prototyping see my article, About Your Prototype.
The fourth step is to apply for a patent.
This is generally the big step for inventors. A patent isn't cheap, but there are a couple of things you can do to reduce its cost. Also, there are three conditions under which you may not want to apply for a patent: 1) the patentability opinion states that you probably won't be able to get a meaningful (strong) patent; 2) the cost of the patent is too high in relation to the probable income you can make from the invention; 3) the market is small enough that competition is unlikely, and therefore your best bet is to use the money for tasks other than patenting.
See my other article, How to Find a Good Patent Attorney, for more details.
The last step is marketing.
By marketing I mean one of two possible approaches: License (or sell outright) the rights to your patent, or produce it and take it to market. For details on licensing or outright sale see my article, Should I Produce or License? For producing your invention yourself you should consider whether or not you are entrepreneurial. If you are the kind of inventor who comes up with many ideas and inventions, you may be too much the creative type to be successful as an entrepreneur. But if you are the kind of person who is organized, focused, goal oriented, and gets things done, producing may be the better path for you.
By producing I don't necessarily mean that you must set up a production line in your garage or basement. Today, many producers operate from their desktop. It is possible to have an item made overseas, ship it in to a fulfillment service, and take orders over the Internet that are linked directly to the fulfillment service. Orders are taken and filled without the producer having a direct hand in the day-to-day operations.
To start up as a producer you should incorporate as a "small" entity. The requirements for a small ("S" corporation) are much less formal and demanding than for a full corporation, and yet they provide for protection and enable you to raise money via investments. My book, How to Finance Your Invention or Great Idea, available on the first page of this web site, covers "starting up to produce" in detail.
The best plan for most inventors and most inventions is this:
- evaluate marketability
- evaluate patentability
- make a prototype
- patent if advisable
- license or produce.
Remember Langston Hughes' words. Don't defer your dream. I'm here to guide you and save you money at every step along the way. The five steps above are sound, and will provide the best chance for success. But don't overlook the value of my personal, affordable mentoring, tailored to your specific invention and needs. In almost every case it will save you more money (and anxiety) than its cost. Your money back if you aren't satisfied.
Copyright © Jack R. Lander. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for noncommercial purposes. Credit must be given as follows: Copyright © Jack Lander, www.inventor-mentor.com