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What's the Big Idea?

With the right knowledge, a little luck and a lot of perseverance, you, too, can turn your big idea into a million-dollar business.

Part I
Bring Your Invention to Life

Caroline Shengle, 46, and Lisa Beltezore, 34, are an inventor's version of the Cinderella story. Beltezore was sick of having her shoes chewed up and her couch pillows carried into the backyard by her beloved canine companions. She and Shengle came up with a solution: They freeze dog treats into a block of ice anchored onto a rimmed metal plate. As the ice melts, it creates a container of cool water for outdoor pets, as well as a toy to keep them occupied.

One patent search ($5,000) and a few prototypes later, the Kool Dogz Ice Treat Maker was a reality, launched out of the women's Thornton, Colorado, home. While making the rounds at their second trade show, they met representatives from Premier Pet Products, a Midlothian, Virginia, pet product distributor, who licensed the rights to the product.

Within a year of the idea's conception, Kool Dogz had a manufacturer and distributor. A few months later, it was being sold online and in small boutiques. Recently, ├╝ber-pet supply store PetSmart has shown interest in the product, and the inventors are now working on new versions of Kool Dogz and other ideas for pet products.

Of course, it doesn't always happen so quickly or easily.

"It can be expensive to bring the product to market yourself, and it's difficult to get someone else to license it," says George T. Haley, director of the Center for International Industry Competitiveness at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. "Buyers have limited time and space, and every year, there's something in the order of 1,200 new products going into supermarkets alone. There are so many different products, it's tremendously difficult to get [buyers'] attention."

Difficult, yes--but nowhere near impossible, especially if you do your homework. In-the-trenches inventors and industry experts recommend these seven essential steps to successfully move from idea to invention.

1. Research
Doing your homework is the first step in determining if the time, effort and expense of developing your idea will be worthwhile. And that starts with paying attention to the marketplace, says Don Debelak, consultant and author of Bringing Your Product to Market: Fast-Track Approaches to Cashing In on Your Great Idea. The number-one question you have to ask, he says, is whether this is something that people really want--whether there's a need for it in the market.

When collecting this initial feedback, Debelak counsels inventors to come up with some alternative ideas to show prospective customers. Then let them select the product they like best without telling them which one is your big idea.

"The initial test is if you show the idea and a few others to your target customers, and they look at your idea and say, 'Wow, that is a great idea'--you can tell by the look in their eyes whether you're onto something," he advises.

Debelak also suggests looking at the marketplace to see if there's a lot of competition from similar products and to assess whether the product is reasonably within your grasp to produce. While most inventors get some outside help, you should have a good understanding of how your product will be produced and how it will work. For example, if you're a great cook with an idea for a new kitchen utensil, you should have a reasonably clear grasp of the mechanics behind your product.

Another good place to get ideas and contacts for prototypes, production and marketing is an inventor's club. Debelak says inventor's clubs, which exist nationwide, can be excellent places to get information about the best way to bring your invention to life. Trade associations and publications are also great resources for accessing secondary research about your industry and identifying its key players.

2. Protect
Before you share the idea too widely, though, it's a good idea to take steps to protect it, says Patrick H. Higgins, a Princeton, New Jersey, intellectual property attorney with law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC.

But Higgins also sees some budding inventors go overboard. "I've dealt with a lot of folks who were starting a new business, maybe making a new flashlight or a new teddy bear, [and] focusing more on the patent protection than on building the business," he says. "Your first consideration should be how you need to allocate your resources."

Higgins advises looking at the financial resources you have to bring your product to market and understanding how much of that money you can devote to protecting your idea. The most inexpensive way to safeguard your concept against theft is to keep an inventor's notebook, he says. If you can document that you had the idea first, you may be entitled to the patent, even if someone else has the same idea and is the first to file it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office within the following year.

"In the U.S., we have a first-to-invent practice. If you keep a notebook and sign and witness those pages, and properly keep the dates on the pages, that can be very important evidence later on that you conceived of the invention before someone else did," Higgins says. "If two entities file a patent application within a year of each other, and you can go back and look at the records, that would be the controlling evidence as to who was first to conceive the invention."
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Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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This article was originally published in the May 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: What's the Big Idea?.

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