Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "In every society, some men are born to rule, and some to advise." How true these words ring in the society of inventors. After all, every inventor eventually discovers he or she doesn't have all the answers. At some point, it becomes necessary to seek out an expert for advice and counsel.
Consultants can be extremely helpful to inventors. The right consultant can offer advice on how to build a working prototype, assist in finding manufacturers and help develop a marketing strategy. He or she can also introduce you to important contacts. The key, however, is finding a consultant who will meet your needs without wasting your time and money.
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.
Do I Need A Consultant?
Only you can really determine whether you need a consultant's help. But don't get caught in the trap of thinking you can do it all. Bringing a product from the idea stage to the marketplace is a complicated, difficult process. Stop for a minute, and make a list of all the issues you're tackling. Are you having trouble making a prototype? Do you need another employee but don't know the best places to look for one? Are you interested in manufacturing your product overseas but haven't a clue how to get started? If you have other areas that need your attention and you can't afford to make too many mistakes with your capital, then you're the perfect candidate for a consultant.
Where Do I Find One?
Several options are available for finding a consultant. For starters, ask friends, family and colleagues. Getting referrals is always a good way to start because someone else has done much of the legwork and you get the benefit of what they've learned. This is the easiest and quickest way to find a consultant.
The Yellow Pages, surprisingly, is also a good source. The "Consultant" category is broken down by type (such as management consultants and business consultants), so you should be able to find one that matches your needs. (But you'll still need to do extensive research, which we'll get to in a moment.)
Trade journals are also helpful. Consultants tend to advertise in journals the majority of their potential clients read. A word of caution, however: An ad placed in a journal is not an endorsement by the association. Generally speaking, anyone can advertise if they pay the fee for the space. Therefore, you have to do your homework.
If the invention you're working on falls into a specific industry, join a trade association in that industry. This can be a great way to get in contact with consultants--and a great networking opportunity for finding others who can help as well.
A fairly recent phenomenon in the consulting field is companies that act as a clearinghouse to match your consulting needs with the proper consultant. The Consultants Bureau (http://www.consultantsbureau.com), created by the International Trade Association for the Consulting Profession is one such resource. Once at the site, you simply fill out a worksheet in which you pick your requirements from more than 200 consulting disciplines (such as start-up businesses, business plans and pricing), your need (such as an immediate project or a writing assignment) and your industry. The association then polls its members and gives you appropriate names and contact information--all free of charge. Keep in mind, these services typically only offer a list of members who fit your needs and don't recommend one member over another.
Another site, http://www.referrals.com, created by National Consultant Referrals Inc. (NCRI), operates on a similar concept. NCRI works with you to determine what kind of consulting you need. This can be helpful if you can't put your needs into a preordained box. After speaking with you, an interviewer matches your needs with suitable consultants in the organization's membership of more than 6,000. NCRI does a thorough reference check on each consultant before accepting them for membership. Consultants must also provide evidence of expertise in their given field.
Another interesting resource for consultants is FIND/SVP, a research and consulting company based in New York City. The company has more than 100 in-house consultants and over 1,100 consultants worldwide who do longer-term consulting. It also has a service called "Quick Consulting" (call 800-346-3787 for more information), where it will arrange a phone call between you and a consultant with expertise in your field of interest, billing in six-minute increments.
FIND/SVP is primarily a membership-based service. The monthly fee can range from $500 to $10,000 per month based on your industry and the number of users. However, they will take on ad hoc projects for fees that start at $500 and will provide you with a free proposal prior to requiring a financial commitment. To contact FIND/SVP, visit http://www.findsvp.com or call (212) 645-4500.
Evaluating A Consultant
Consultants are primarily hired to give advice and counsel--they don't make guarantees that their input will be effective. You are the ultimate judge of their value; therefore, it's extremely important you thoroughly check potential consultants' references. And check more than one. Consultants should give you their resume and a list of clients or references. If they don't, don't hire them.
When beginning your research, don't be turned off by those who consult part time. This can be a good sign that they are active in their area of expertise and can give you up-to-date information.
Interview consultants before hiring one. If they mention companies that have hired them, take notes. At the end of the interview, ask for the phone numbers of the people and companies they mentioned. Again, they should freely provide that information. I also ask them to tell me about a difficult client they worked with. Every consultant should have at least one not-so-great experience. Listen carefully. Their story will give you great insight into how they work. If they claim every job they've had was great, how can you be sure they'll tell you the truth about your issues? If they're overly negative, you should wonder whether they're really concerned about doing a good job.
"When working with a consultant, you should always have an agreement in writing," says Robert M. Chiaviello Jr., an attorney with Baker & Botts LLP in Dallas. "The agreement should include how payment will be made and the scope of the work being requested." It's also very important that the agreement assigns all intellectual property rights to you. Otherwise, Chiaviello warns, the consultant could claim ownership of the idea and leave you without recourse.
A final word about consultants. When approaching them, it's usually better to say you're a "product developer" rather than an inventor. It's a buzz phrase that tells the consultant you're more than a basement tinkerer (even if that's what you are), and they'll take you more seriously.
In the end, using a consultant has few downsides. They'll offer expertise you don't possess, but when it comes to playing the game, they're only a coach on the sidelines. You are ultimately the one who must act.
Check 'Em Out
Before hiring a consultant, make sure the following are true:
- They have no conflict of interest; for example, they don't receive commissions on products or services recommended to you.
- They willingly provide documentation of training received and share other background information.
- They present a written contract detailing the types of services to be performed and the fees for those services.
- They will provide you with a written report upon completion of the project.
Finally, make sure you talk to more than one consultant and evaluate the services provided and fees charged, as well as analyze your needs before making a final decision.
Stan Mason, (203) 227-0041, fax: (203) 222-1890
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