From the October 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

Question: I've drawn up sketches of blue jeans, and now I'm satisfied with one I think the public would rush to purchase. How do I proceed with manufacturing and finding a buyer?

Name withheld

Answer: Some business experts might consider a solo novice designer going head-to-head in a highly competitive field of giants like Levi's and Lee a pipe dream. But we've seen too many people defy the odds to discourage you from proceeding--if you're sufficiently passionate, committed and determined.

The fledgling designers we've seen succeed have done so by carving out a niche, such as designing specialized clothing for Yoga devotees, orthodox Jewish professional women or those with physical disabilities. Or, if they have a mainstream item like jeans, they usually succeed by starting very small and building an avid following for a unique design that makes their line desirable to reps and retail stores.

So before leaping into mass production, we suggest offering your jeans directly to your target market by making several dozen prototypes and selling them yourself. You can do this at swap meets or sidewalk booths (like Ash Hudson did with his wildly popular Conart T-shirts) or by placing them in a few select boutiques (as Anna and Sarah Levinson did with their Ripe Inc. nail polishes). Once your jeans start attracting customers, you'll be ready to arrange for mass production and to contact buyers--if they haven't sought you out already.

You can contact reps through the Manufacturers' Agents National Association, P.O. Box 3467, Laguna Hills, CA 92654, (949) 859-4040, http://www.manaonline.org.

Patent Check

My inventions demand attention!

Question: I want to sell my patented ideas to companies that manufacture similar products. But since I don't have a lot of disposable income or collateral, how do I finance my patent searches and applications? Also, when I write to companies about my ideas, I get rejection letters or no response at all. How can I get them interested in my ideas?

Robert D. Brown, Randleman, North Carolina

Answer: Patent attorney David Pressman, author of Patent It Yourself (Nolo Press), recommends waiting before sending letters to manufacturers until you've completed a thorough patent search and submitted your patent application. It costs around $300 to hire someone to conduct a patent search, but you can do your own search by following the recommendations in Pressman's book.

You can begin your search on the Internet at http://www.uspto.gov/patft/index.html and gain helpful tips in books like Patent Searching Made Easy (Nolo Press) by David Hitchcock. Although the information on the Internet only dates back to 1976, you can search data prior to that time by visiting a Patent and Trademark Depository Library near you.

Expect to incur some expenses, however, because once you've completed your search, each patent application fee costs up to $400. After you file an application, Pressman recommends writing to suitable companies. He reports most will respond with a form letter asking you to sign an enclosed waiver form. The interest in proceeding will depend on finding a match between your idea and a company's current objectives. Although some inventors do offer to sell their patented idea for a lump sum, most seek to license their idea, typically for about 5 per-cent of sales.

A word of caution: Avoid invention-development companies, which offer to review your idea and then charge an inflated price to complete a search for you.

For additional information on obtaining a patent, contact the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, Washington, DC 20231, (800) PTO-9199, http://www.uspto.gov.

If you have a question regarding a start-up business issue, contact Paul and Sarah Edwards at http://www.paulandsarah.com or send it to "What's Your Problem?" in care of Entrepreneur.