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Product development companies make getting your invention to market a cinch.

You've got this great idea, but you don't know how to take it forward. You haven't the foggiest notion how to evaluate your idea, research the market or build a prototype. Well, an industry has cropped up to help you with this dilemma: product development companies.

Although the two are sometimes confused, product development companies and invention development companies are not the same. When you thumb through the backs of many magazines, you'll see advertisements for invention development companies or invention marketing companies. The ads offer a quick and easy way to get your idea to market for an upfront fee. These companies offer such services as a patent search, marketing reports, development and distribution contacts, and more. The services are all done for a variety of fees and for a percentage of profits from your idea. The companies' sales approach is usually high-pressure. They will flatter you by telling you how great your idea is and appeal to your sense of guilt for not having what it takes to develop it.

More than a year ago, I had one of my employees contact five of these companies that we randomly chose from the backs of magazines. She submitted a product idea I had already received a patent on and had even advertised on television. All five companies responded. Each gushed over the idea, saying it was fantastic, and each claimed to have done a preliminary investigation that showed the idea was patentable.

All the companies offered to do a patent search and an initial patent filing for fees ranging from $500 to $5,000 upfront. One company gave her a quote of $10,000 and 20 percent of future profits to "develop" the idea. The companies could not tell us what type of patent would be filed (design or utility), and all five were vague about what she would receive. My employee was aggressively and frequently called in the evenings by all the companies. When she finally asked for details in writing, her request was denied, and the phone solicitation stopped.

Both CNN and "48 Hours" have done reports on invention development companies. Both advised their viewers to steer clear of these companies, and so do I. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) has introduced legislation that would conceivably wipe out these types of companies. The act is titled The 1995 Inventors Protection Act. His office estimates that about 25,000 inventors are conned by these companies each year to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

By stark contrast, a product development company is a full-service solution to your prototype needs. These companies provide assistance in areas such as prototyping, marketing, finance, legal protection, manufacturing and packaging. The level of service may differ from one firm to another, but most offer some combination of the above. Product development firms take more of a whole-product view than do typical prototype makers. Their goal is to give your idea the best chance for success in the market. Without an aggressive sales force, they develop a proposal tailored to you and your idea and clearly state their fees upfront. These companies are end-result driven and give a lot of thought to the needs of the consumer who will buy your product.

Tomima Edmark is the inventor of the TopsyTail and several other products and is author of The American Dream Fact Pack ($49.95), available by calling (800) 558-6779. Questions regarding inventions and patents may be sent to "Bright Ideas," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614.

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This article was originally published in the December 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Know-It-Alls.

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