There really is no one-size-fits-all approach inventors can follow, and there is no inventing roadmap to success that will work in all cases. Notwithstanding, there are certainly a number of things that can and should be understood if an inventor is going to pursue inventing as more than a hobby.
By understanding some basic but critical information at the outset you will substantially raise the chances of succeeding. This is not to say that you won’t make mistakes; mistakes are inevitable. You will, however, make fewer mistakes if you give thoughtful consideration to what it is you are attempting to do. Indeed, running off and starting without an appreciation for the process will prove costly.
What follows are 10 critical pieces of advice for inventors.
1. Find Your Passion as an Inventor
If you are a serious inventor and do not plan on giving up the first time an obstacle is placed in front of you, then you absolutely need to focus on something for which you have a true passion. The point here is simple: The act of inventing takes a lot of time so you need to love it to make it work. There will inevitably be both successes and setbacks, and any inventor who is honest will tell you the setbacks outnumber the successes. What makes inventing rewarding is the pursuit of success and the challenge. If you are not passionate about your invention and the field of endeavor the likelihood you will succeed is very low.
2. Inventors Must Become an Expert
The biggest mistake I see all inventors make is they rush into a field of endeavor without really understanding what they are getting into, or to solve a problem in an industry they don’t know. For example, every new parent suddenly becomes an inventor in the baby products space, but how many have any idea about the onerous government safety regulations imposed on baby products? While passion is required, knowledge is also absolutely necessary. A successful inventor will learn everything they can about each aspect of the field, from the technology, to the business, to the competition.
3. The Goal is Not Simply to Obtain a Patent
The goal is not to create an invention that is cool, the goal is not to get a patent, the goal is almost universally to make money. The cool invention and patent are a means to the end, not the end in and of themselves. Don’t get so caught up in the creation aspect of inventing that they fail to stop and ask whether they should be investing the time, money and energy into the creation. The moral of the story is that the best innovation can lead to no financial reward, while sometimes modest improvements can lead to financial riches. For that reason it generally make sense for inventor to focus on inventing to solve specific problems, and not just inventing to create something unique.
4. Approach Inventing in a Business Responsible Way
Given the inherent uncertainty that characterizes the inventing business it is critical that inventors treat inventing as a business endeavor from the earliest stages and approach your efforts in a business responsible way. Treat your invention from day one as if it will be wildly successful, because by the time you realize that this is the invention that will be wildly successful it will be too late unless you have planted the seeks for success early. This means inventors really must have immediate, short-term, intermediate and long-term goals in place. Give consideration to what the next several phases of development will be if phase 1 turns out to be successful enough to warrant phase 2 and beyond, but for goodness sakes if phase 1 isn’t promising move on to something else. Don’t fall in love with an invention that is failing when you can move on to the next project, which may be the one that will succeed.
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5. Don’t Underestimate Importance of a Patent Search
Patent searches are an important first step on the road to seeking a patent because they will let you get an idea about what, if any, rights you can likely expect to obtain. If it looks like only extremely narrow patent protection will be available it probably makes more sense to simply move on to your next invention, because inventors always have a next invention. Patent searches are also excellent learning tools because they give you an opportunity to discover which aspects of your invention are most likely to contribute to patentability. Thus, if you are going to move forward with filing a patent application you can focus your description on those aspects of the invention most likely to contribute to patentability.
6. Don’t Underestimate the Importance of an Internet Search
Over the years I have preached to inventors about the importance of doing a patent search. Earlier in my career I would hear from inventors who would say that they searched the Internet thoroughly and could not find the invention so they want to move forward. But there are numerous reasons why a product might be patented and not available for purchase. Having said that, there are also numerous instances where a product is available for purchase but a patent application has not been filed. Therefore, it is critical to remember that a patent search is just that: A search of patents and published patent applications. You hire trained professionals to do a patent search, but the patent search does not typically include a product search online. That is generally the responsibility of the inventor. So for goodness sakes, if you come up with an invention the very first thing you should do is see whether it exists and can be purchased online or in stores.
7. License Inventions Not Ideas
Without a patent pending you don’t have anything to license other than an idea that lacks tangible boundaries. When you seek to license an idea alone you can easily scare companies. In fact, even listening to an idea without tangible boundaries as defined in at least a provisional patent application can scare companies to the point where some, perhaps many, won’t want to do it. Moreover, the further you can develop your idea the better and more valuable it will become. So an idea may be worth a little to a very limited number of people, but an idea that has taken shape and has become an invention is worth even more and to more people. An invention that has been defined in a provisional patent application is worth more. Prominent inventor coach Stephen Key talks about a filed provisional patent application creating “perceived ownership,” and he recommends his inventor students seriously take the time and energy to define their ideas in tangible ways to create those perceived rights with a provisional filing. That is excellent advice.
8. Set a Budget
Inventing and commercializing can be extremely expensive, and if you really are an inventor that means you are creative and it is crazy to think that your current invention will be your last. In fact, most inventors have a handful of inventions at any one point in time, so the difficulty they have is picking which one to pursue first. That being the case, and the inevitable reality that you might not score with the first invention you choose, you need to set a budget and constantly reevaluate through the process to make sure that it continues to make sense to pursue the invention. Investing time and money is one thing, but investing good money and your time once the pursuit has been demonstrated to likely not be fruitful is nothing short of a disaster. So I recommend you set a budget, which you can reassess if things seem to be moving forward in a positive direction. Once you reach your budget limit if there is no positive momentum you need to move on to what is next. Of course, don’t throw your work away, you never know when it might become relevant or you might have a breakthrough inspiration.
9. Proof of Concept
At some point it will become necessary to prove your invention, which is called a proof of concept. This is an important step because many times things will seem to work on paper, but then when you build out the invention things are not as they would seem. While it is true that an invention with a proof of concept will be more valuable than one without such proof, it is still necessary for inventors to be cautious. Everyone typically wants a prototype, but that can sometimes cost tens of thousands or dollars if you rush right to a prototype firm. It is best to start out crude and work you way down the path. You might begin working with artist who can sketch your invention first on paper. After that you might directly work with an engineer to obtain 3D renderings and ultimately with engineering drawings. When you work with a capable engineer or design firm many things become clearly inoperable as you move through the sketch, 3D model and engineering drawings phases. Additionally, if you are going to be thinking about a provisional patent application at some point having those sketches, 3D models and engineering drawings can be quite helpful to attach to your application. They can also make great attachments to a business plan you might put together to show investors. Ultimately, before you get to the point where you hire a prototype firm you might want to consider trying to get access to a 3D printer, which many local inventor groups may be able to help with.
10. Plausibly Estimate the Size of the Market
There is nothing wrong with dreaming, but there is an extremely important cautionary tale to be told about the tremendous harm that can be done to opportunity when inventors exaggerate the market size for their invention. You don’t want to be the one who confidently proclaims: “Everyone is going to need to buy this invention.” No one ever achieves 100% market share, and if that is what you expect you will be very disappointed. If you are serious about determining the true size of the market you will research publicly available information and dig through the data applying reasonable assertions. For example, according U.S. Census data, in 2016 there were 40.6 million people living in poverty in the United States. The poverty line for an individual was $12,228, while the poverty line for a family of 4 was $24,563. So exactly how many people can afford to purchase your invention? And then consider how many people might actually need the invention. For an example about how you might approach this decision matrix see Plausibly estimating the market for your invention.