So you've come up with a great and inventive idea, and you're absolutely itching to take action. But where do you begin? Do you start looking into patents? Search online? Run your idea by trusted friends or family members?

Before you do any of these things, there's one important step to take: start an inventor's notebook. Why an inventor's notebook, you ask? Not only will a separate, defined notebook become your de facto organizer for all the ideas and information related to your invention as you move forward, it can also provide some legal protection for you in the future.

Easy Does It
While you may be tempted to buy the latest electronic gadget to record and organize your findings, all you really need--and should use--is a simple notebook and a pen. The only required element is that it contain bound pages that can't be temporarily removed (no loose-leaf binders). That's because, as you move forward in the invention process, you'll need to record your progress chronologically. This includes your own thoughts about your idea and your plan of action, as well as any and all conversations you have with others, especially potential business contacts like engineers or manufacturers. Be sure to date these conversations and detail them in your notebook. You'll want to do that because, as recommended by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office , your dated notebook will act as a record to validate your progress if there are any future problems or discrepancies (or if someone tries to steal your idea). Also, if someone is working independently from you to develop a similar idea, patent rights are granted to the person "most actively developing the product." Your notebook will provide a detailed record of your progress with dates attached to each step you take.

In addition to providing legal documentation, your notebook will also become your constant companion. All those details, contacts and information you've collected along the way will be in one organized and oh-so-valuable place. Take it everywhere you go so you'll have it at the ready--that way you won't find yourself frantically searching later for the note or phone number you jotted on the back of that old receipt!

Where Do I Start?
Each inventor's journey and style is unique, but the more you write in your notebook, the better organized you'll be. I recommend including the following topics to provide the foundation for your notebook, but feel free to include anything you think is relevant. To better illustrate exactly what should be included, I'll provide examples from my own experience inventing the TP Saver: the invention that launched my business.

Describe Your Invention Idea
Try to address the following questions in your notebook:

  • What's your idea? Jot down the primary function of your invention. For me, this was "a device that prevents children from unrolling the family toilet paper."
  • How did you think of it? In other words, describe what inspired you and what experiences it was based upon. Example: "My daughter, at age 10 months, started pulling the toilet paper and clogging the toilet."
  • What does it look like? This should include dimensions, shape, materials and anything else that is relevant. Example: "It should extend the length of the internal toilet paper tube and stick out a little bit further so that one can hold onto the end while fastening the cap (approximately 5" long x 1" wide). The current design is similar to that of a hair permanent rod. It is a long tube with some type of elastic securing the body of the device to the cap. Initially, I think it will be made of plastic and rubber bands."
  • How does it work? Describe the function of the invention. Example: "The body of the device slides into the current cardboard toilet paper tube and sits next to the metal/plastic toilet paper holder used to hold toilet paper in nearly all current toilet paper holders available on the market. It wouldn't be necessary to remove the metal rod. This device would fit inside the toilet paper tube next to the actual toilet paper holder as it is. No aspect of the toilet paper holder mechanism would need to be removed while attaching the toilet paper saving device."
  • What problem does it solve? Example: "There appears to be nothing available that prevents children from unrolling the family toilet paper. It solves the problem of kids pulling the toilet paper and clogging the toilet or making an unsanitary mess on the bathroom floor and wasting paper."
  • Possible product names? Example: "TP Roll Stopper", "TP Roll Guard," "TP Roll Holder, " "Toddler Toilet Paper Protector," "Toddler TP Guard", and "TP Saver."

Draw a Picture of Your Invention Idea
Don't worry if you're not artistically inclined--this can be a rudimentary sketch. A drawing is important to keep a record of your invention idea, and also so that you can better communicate with the machinist, engineer or product developer what you are trying to achieve when you get to the design/prototype stage. An added benefit of an early sketch is that you'll be able to revisit it to see how far you've actually come once the product's stocked on retail store shelves!

Describe Your Product's Features
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a feature is "a prominent or distinctive aspect, quality or characteristic." If you were describing a home's features, for instance, you might say three bedrooms, a master bath, an updated kitchen and hardwood floors. Use this as a guide when determining your own product's proposed features. The TP Saver has the following product features:

  • No assembly required
  • Simple to use
  • No need to remove toilet paper for insertion
  • Fits most standard toilet paper holders

Now List Your Product's Benefits
According the American Heritage Dictionary, a benefit is "something that promotes or enhances well-being; an advantage." In other words, what does this product solve? How can it help someone in his or her daily life? The TP Saver packaging states the following benefits:

  • Prevents your child or pet from unrolling toilet paper
  • Reduces the risk of paper ingestion
  • Saves paper, money and the environment

What Makes Your Product Unique to the Market?
Your idea may be brand new to the market--nothing similar already exists. Or, it may be an improvement on something that already does exist--with unique features and benefits to differentiate it. It can be helpful to include similar products in your list. When I performed my initial research, for instance, there was nothing like the TP Saver on the market, though one major manufacturer, Safety 1st, offered a kit filled with other types of gadgets to lock down the bathroom. I jotted this fact down in my notebook.

Who Will Buy It? Who's Your Target Customer?
It's important to fully understand who'll need or want your product. This will help you during every aspect of the process as you move forward--design, market research, advertising and sales. It's also valuable to figure out the approximate number this audience represents. For the TP Saver, I determined that my initial target market was parents with children of approximately 10 months to 2 years old, who pull the family toilet paper. My research indicated there were 11.8-million households with children 0-3 years old, 4-million new births per year, and 69-million grandparents--a significant market. (For tips on gathering this type of info, read " Market Research 101 .")

How Might Your Product Be Expanded for Other Customers to Use?
Create a list of possible markets. When I first developed the TP Saver, I assumed my only market would be parents with small children, based on my own experience. However, as time went on, I heard from consumers whose cats and dogs also got into the toilet paper, and often pulled it all over the house. I quickly realized that this was an entirely new market, and I began researching to determine how many more potential customers this would mean. I discovered there were 77.7-million households with cats and 65-million households with dogs in America--not too shabby!

Record Discussions Pertaining to Your Invention
You'll be amazed at the number of people you'll speak to as you go through the inventing process. Be sure to keep a brief record of all conversations you think are relevant. For example, when you speak with an engineer, graphic artist, prototype developer or patent attorney, write down the date and time of your call. Then, in two or three sentences, summarize your conversation. Not only will this provide a record of details you can easily refer back to (relying on memory can be risky!), you'll also have written documentation to help protect your interests.

Here's a sample of a notation I made after speaking with the machinist:

"December 15, 2002--met with Art Westman of Accurate Manufacturing. He gave me a copy of the signed non-disclosure agreement that I had faxed to him. We discussed the prototype for the toilet paper saving device. I showed him my sketch and the hair permanent rod, and he seemed to understand what I was trying to achieve. He said that he would be glad to hand-make a prototype out of Delrin(r) plastic. He said that it would be ready in about two weeks and that it would cost about $100. I told him to go ahead and make it."

Continue to Update Your Notebook Throughout the Product-Development Process
Record meetings, new developments and personal stories (if you wish). In addition to having a legal record, remember that this notebook is a measure of your progress. Enjoy it. But also, don't feel intimidated by it. In other words, don't feel that you have to write an essay or long detailed accounts. If you forget to make an entry, that's OK. Share stories and write enough to make sense to any sensible person. You may also wish to jot down personal stories to track your progress and provide future reminders about the process.

Remember: Tthere are no rules about your notebook--it can be anything you want it to be. Get creative and make it your very own!