Invention: Should I Pursue Mine?

Making research-based decisions is critical to pursuing your invention.

You have been thinking about an idea for months or maybe years. You feel like you have a good idea, your family and friends have told you that you have a good idea and you are passionate and optimistic about the success possibilities.   Regardless of your excitement, you would still like to know if your idea is really going to succeed in the marketplace.  You would like to at least gain some reassurance that success will happen so that you don’t have to go through the work if your invention isn’t going to make it.  What should you do?

For most entrepreneurs and inventors, passion, optimism and a strong belief in their ideas are key ingredients that drive them to succeed and overcome odds.  However, when it comes to making a decision on whether to pursue an idea or invention, inventors should not rely on passion and optimism alone.  For an inventor, there is no substitute for taking the time to do research on the idea and to plan for its success.  In the long run, making research-based decisions rather than emotional-based decisions can yield more favorable results.

As much as inventors want to know if their inventions will ultimately succeed in the marketplace, it is almost impossible to predict with certainty.  Many good inventions have failed on the market while many seemingly not-so-good ideas have gone on to see big success.  I suppose the inventors of those not-so-good ideas would argue that their ideas were in fact the good ones considering that they are the ones that succeeded in the market and who can blame them?

The point to consider is that just like the weather, the process of predicting if an idea is going to succeed is a difficult task that more often than not produces inaccurate results. Big companies spend lots of time and effort trying to figure out if a product will succeed before launching it to market.  Oftentimes, they can weed products out but it’s never a guarantee that a launched product will succeed.

However, what an inventor should focus on is doing enough research to determine if the invention is unlikely to succeed based on their research and then make a decision how much time and money they are willing to invest based on that research.

Keep in mind that the research process usually doesn’t happen all at once. It is ongoing and occurs in stages as you progress with the idea.  If your ultimate goal is to license your invention for royalties as opposed to manufacturing and marketing your invention on your own, consider doing at least some basic research (Please see the Innovator’s Dilemma in the February issue of Inventors Digest Magazine for more on licensing).  While manufacturing research will not be discussed in this article, please note that if you are an entrepreneur determined to manufacture and market on your own, you should consider doing far more due diligence and research before you pull the trigger on financing the development and manufacturing of your invention.

If your goal is to license your invention for royalties, you will more than likely be able to pass off the manufacturing and marketing expenses to the company who licenses your invention.  Therefore, your financial risks are substantially reduced.  While the amount of development needed can vary from invention to invention, you will still have to develop your idea far enough to convince a company that it’s worth licensing. Even though your risk may be less than that of someone who wants to self-manufacture and market their invention, there is still some level of time and expense that must be invested in your invention to reach the point of licensing.

Typically, these efforts and expenses include such things as market research, patent research, patent application and design or prototype development.  Although many inventors want to see their idea succeed with a minimal amount of personal expense, it is unlikely that you would be able to license a conceptual idea without having some form of protection and/or design or development.  There are two forms of research that all inventors should consider performing before making a decision to pursue an invention: Basic Market and Patent Research.

Basic Market Research

Before you spend any time or money developing your idea, including meeting with a patent attorney, take some time to conduct your own informal market research. For starters, ask yourself some basic questions to ascertain whether your invention really fills a need and if there is a substantial customer base that would purchase your invention.  Some inventors may solve a problem that is unique to them, but when they look at the market overall, they may realize that although it’s a good idea, only a limited number of people share their problem, thereby limiting the market opportunity.

Remember that most companies will be reluctant to spend tens of thousands of dollars developing, manufacturing and marketing an invention if at the end of the day there is a very limited market for the product.   Gary Sullivan, Director of Merchandising for Allstar Marketing, a direct response marketing company, reiterates this fact when he explains his company’s procedures.

“Our company works within very strict guidelines before we invest in any project,” Sullivan says,  “We take the time to research the strength and history of the product category as well as researching the costs to produce the product and the development time and demonstrability of the products for TV.  We do our due diligence before we invest in a product.”

After asking yourself some basic questions, you should also consider visiting some local retailers such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Office Depot or Target to see if any similar products are already on the market.  Search the Internet, and if you don’t have access to the Internet, take a trip to a local library or ask a friend to use their computer. I know this sounds obvious to experienced inventors, but many new inventors skip this step and move right into the patent application or development process.  If you have an idea for a new and improved “widget,” find out if there are other widgets like yours already on the market.  You may be surprised to find that there are others just like yours sitting on store shelves.  If so, do not immediately become discouraged, rather, examine if your invention has benefits or features that differ from the existing product.  For example, suppose you invented a terrific new way of catching mice (i.e., a mousetrap), surely you would find many other mousetraps already on the market.  This does not mean that there is no place in the market for your trap, you just need to identify if or how your solution is different or better than the others.  It could be easier to setup, more humane or an easier configuration of parts that would result in lower cost production—any of which could make it a valuable addition to the marketplace.

In addition to scouring the marketplace for existing products, research whether any of the similar products are patented.  Just because a product is on the market doesn’t mean that it has received patent protection from the USPTO or even that a patent has been filed. If you decide to pursue patent protection, you should review these similar products with your patent attorney.  However, after completing this research you may decide not to pursue your invention, thereby saving yourself the time and money associated with taking it further.

Patent Research

If you are still feeling passionate and optimistic about your invention after conducting some basic market research, you may now want to consider arranging for patent research to be performed on your idea.  I would suggest that you consult with a registered patent attorney or patent search firm to perform and discuss the search with you.  Although you can perform a preliminary patent search on your own, utilizing a professional skilled in this area should yield better results.

A patent search is performed for the purpose of finding the issued patents that are most relevant to your invention.  Typically conducted in the early stages of the application process, these search results are referred to as prior art.  Although, a positive result from a patent search does not predict with certainty whether an invention is or is not patentable, this information can be used as a guide to whether further action is likely to be worthwhile.

After conducting your basic market and patent research, you will be much more educated on whether to continue to pursue your invention into the application filing, design and development stages.  Your decision to move forward will be based on research rather than emotions and you will not be rushed into the next steps in the process.

It is this research-based approach to the invention process that can lead to the feeling of reassurance needed to pursue your idea.  And remember, as valuable as their feedback is, the fact that your family and friends would buy your invention if it were on the market should not be the extent of your research, since it does not necessarily mean success.

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