From the September 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

A big thank you to all who have written me with questions and comments. Your letters help me focus my column on topics that are of interest to many: patents, resources, common mistakes, networking and so on. So here are answers to some of your most frequently asked questions.

Q. I need a patent attorney I can trust. How can I find one?

A. Finding a qualified patent attorney is no easy task. I should know; I've used several. My best advice is to get referrals from other businesses and through local or state bar associations. Then ask the potential patent attorney the following questions:

  • How long have you been practicing? (Look for three-plus years.)
  • Who are some of your clients?
  • Do you have technical expertise in the area of my invention? (For instance, if your invention is electrical, your patent attorney should have an electrical engineering degree.)
  • How many applications have you filed in the past three years? (Look for 30-plus applications or around a dozen a year.)
  • What has been your cost range for the last 10 applications you filed?

Q. Where can I get answers to simple patent and trademark questions?

A. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, DC, has set up an automated message system to answer basic questions about patents and trademarks. There is also an option that allows you to speak to a person if you need additional assistance. That number is (800) 786-9199.

Q. Where can I find a mentor?

A. I am a big fan of a nonprofit organization funded by the Small Business Administration (SBA) called SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives). Made up of more than 12,000 volunteers who are seasoned executives, this resource has a wealth of information to share with both start-up and established small businesses. For the SCORE office nearest you, contact the national SCORE office in Washington, DC, at (800) 634-0245.

Q. How can I tell if a company I'm considering doing business with is honest?

A. The unfortunate answer is there's no one right way. However, I have found that dealing with a company or person who has been in the business for a long time can be a safe choice--it's a pretty good bet that if they've been around for a while, they're legitimate. They can also assist you in getting a product to market. As an example, one person I have done business with was well-established with material suppliers. Using his name, I was able to quickly establish credit and procure a better price for my materials.

Q. What are the most common mistakes you see first-time entrepreneurs make?

A. Budding entrepreneurs frequently make three mistakes:

1. Quitting their jobs too soon. That job is your financial safety net. Work on your idea after hours, use vacation days when free time is needed during the workweek, and look into flex-time options at your job. Hold on to your job (and the cash flow) for as long as possible.

2. Hiring employees too soon. It always feels like you need help in the beginning, and you may. However, employees are expensive and come with a range of responsibilities such as benefits, taxes and so on. At the start, try doing most tasks yourself (you'll need to know how to do these things anyway), then try enlisting family and friends who might be willing to work without pay for a while.

3. Renting office space too soon. Rent is expensive overhead, and you're often required to sign up for a long-term lease. Instead, try to work out of your home if possible. Garages, attics, basements and even closets can become makeshift corporate headquarters early on. You'll also have the advantage of no commute.

Q. How do I find manufacturers to help me with my idea?

A. A great resource for locating manufacturers is the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers (Thomas Publishing Co.). This multivolume guide lists almost every manufacturer in the United States. You can find the Thomas Register in most public libraries, or you can buy it ($240, cloth; $395, CD-ROM). Recently, the Thomas Register went on the Internet; access it free of charge at http://thomasregister.com . A word of caution, however: This resource simply gives you a listing of companies; no checking has been done to ensure the reputability of the manufacturers.

Q. Are there any inventors' associations or groups?

A. The Inventors Awareness Group Inc. and the United Inventors Association of the USA are two nonprofit organizations that publish newsletters, maintain information on inventor resources, and promote awareness of fraudulent invention marketing companies. For more information, contact the Inventors Awareness Group at (413) 568-5561 or the United Inventors Association at (716) 359-9310.

Q. Who has been issued the most patents in the United States?

A. Here is a list of the top 10 companies receiving assigned U.S. patents last year, according to the Intellectual Property Owners association.

1. IBM 1,867

2. Canon K.K. 1,541

3. Motorola Inc. 1,064

4. NEC Corp. 1,043

5. Hitachi Ltd. 963

6. Mitsubishi Denki K.K. 934

7. Toshiba Corp. 914

8. Fujitsu Ltd. 869

9. Sony Corp. 855

10. Matsushita Co. Ltd. 841

Q. How do I find out what federal laws and regulations I must comply with?

A. This is a great question because the responsibility to know the laws and regulations that govern your particular industry rests on your shoulders; you can't use ignorance as your defense if you don't comply. The SBA's Office of Advocacy can help you out of this bind. By calling (202) 205-6532, you can speak to a person about federal laws and regulations in your industry. There are even attorneys available for you to speak with if you need specific information.

Q. How do I find someone to make a prototype of my idea?

A. If you can't make your own prototype, there are people who can help. First, look in your local Yellow Pages under model makers, industrial designers, machine shops, prototype experts and product development companies. Call them until you find someone familiar with your industry who has worked with the materials with which you want the prototype made. These experts should have a portfolio of prototypes or be able to refer you to examples. I always suggest interviewing these people in person. You will be working with them very closely, so you need to have compatible personalities. Plus, it provides you with an opportunity to see their facilities and the tools they use. You can get an indication of their actual abilities from looking around.

However, I advocate making your own prototypes. The exercise is an education, and the experience is greatly rewarding. And making prototypes is really not that hard. I had an idea that required an engine to work under water. I didn't build the engine; I went to a pool accessory store and bought a toy that worked in the water. You know your idea better than anyone. If at all possible, try to develop it yourself.

Contact Sources

Inventors Awareness Group Inc., http://www.cache.net/iag

SBA Office of Advocacy, (202) 205-6532, http://www.sba.gov/ADVO

Service Corps of Retired Executives, (800) 634-0245, http://www.sba.gov/SCORE

Small Business Administration, (800) 8-ASK-SBA, http://www.sba.gov

Thomas Register of American Manufacturers, (800) 699-9822, ext. 444, http://www.thomasregister.com

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, http://www@uspto.gov

United Inventors Association of the USA, (716) 359-9310, uiausa@aol.com

Tomima Edmark is the inventor of the Topsy Tail, the Kissing Machine and several other products, and is author of The American Dream Fact Pack ($49.95), available by calling (800) 558-6779. Write to her with any questions you may have regarding inventions and patents in care of "Bright Ideas," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614.