What do inventors do with great new product ideas they just can't afford to take to market? One tactic they're increasingly using is attending invention conventions. While these shows aren't the dealmaking paradises inventors hope for, they provide an excellent place to generate feedback, make helpful contacts and learn about the invention business.
Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant and the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons). Send him your invention questions at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Real World
Young Kim of Wayne, Pennsylvania, developed and patented a front-wheel-drive mountain bike in March 1999. Although he'd created a prototype, he didn't have the cash to take his product further. Then the 1999 INPEX (Invention/New product Exposition) came to Pittsburgh, and Kim thought he'd found the solution to his problem.
However, it didn't quite work out that way. Kim didn't line up the money he was hoping for at the convention, but he did win a gold medal for his bike and garnered positive feedback from several mountain-bike riders who thought he had a great idea on his hands.
"I talked to several marketers who were also mountain-bike enthusiasts," says Kim. "They loved my product, and though they weren't with companies that could help me, they felt I had a great product and should try to market it."
Frank Hrabar, 42, and his daughter Kristin, 13, of Matawan, New Jersey, had a similar experience at the 1999 U.S. Patent Office Invention Exposition in Orlando, Florida. They made the trek to the show with the expectation of finding a tool manufacturer to take over their invention, an illuminated nut driver. They won first prize for the best invention, and they received positive feedback from people who attended the show, but they didn't connect with a manufacturer interested in licensing their idea.
"Most of the inventions at the show were much more complicated and sophisticated than ours," says Hrabar. "We weren't sure that our invention would get much attention. But Kristen and I knew we had a winner when, during the show, people flocked around our booth and we won an award. The show gave us confidence that we had a winning product."
What Do People Think?
No one can be sure your idea will sell until it's actually sitting on--or flying off--the store shelves. But you can get an idea whether your idea has potential at an invention show when visitors to the show: 1) flock to your booth, 2) love your idea or 3) wonder where they can buy your product. People who attend invention shows see a host of inventions, so you can learn a great deal about your product by seeing how attendees respond to your and others' ideas.
First, pay attention to how many people come to your booth compared to the booths around you. People will go first to booths where they see a product that fits their needs or is substantially different from other products on the market. If people aren't coming to your booth, it could indicate that your product isn't perceived as innovative, your product isn't addressing a need, or people don't see how your product will benefit them.
Invention shows not only attract industry marketers but also a wide variety of consumers. You'll generate more feedback if you have a product that a sizable percentage of the general market will buy than if your product is aimed at a limited market or is solely intended for industrial use. You just won't see enough potential buyers of the product. Though the invention shows, particularly INPEX, run extensive publicity programs to aid inventors with products for specific markets, they still rarely attract enough interested parties for inventions targeted at a limited number of buyers.
With luck, inventors might meet a few key contacts interested in taking their product forward into the marketplace. But many other people can also be helpful. For example, Kim met marketing people for several consumer-product companies that were interested in mountain biking. These contacts couldn't directly help Kim, but that doesn't mean they weren't worth a follow-up call. How can they help? First, they can be ongoing advisors for Kim's products and features. Second, they can offer Kim advice on how to market his product most effectively. And third, they may be able to offer Kim some fund-raising suggestions.
Look at every person you meet at an invention show and ask yourself how they can help you. Be sure to take down the name of anyone you meet who is in your industry. A salesperson at a bike shop, a bike repair person, or even a bicycle manufacturer's sales agent are all possible connections to other contacts who might be able to help Kim get his product into stores.
Scoping The Scene
Even if you're not ready to present your product at a show, you should take every opportunity to visit invention conventions in your area. Shows offer a wide forum for networking with other inventors and finding sources for legal advice, prototype building and manufacturing small lots. At many shows, you can also attend workshops designed to help you prepare your product for market.
Invention shows may not be the quick route to riches inventors often dream of, but they're a great way to learn more about the task in front of you, meet valuable contacts and get a better feel for exactly how much potential your idea really has. Kim and the Hrabars, both, were disappointed by the outcomes of the shows they attended in the spring of 1999. But not discouraged, they both signed up to attend the Yankee Invention Exposition in November 1999. Even though they didn't get financing or close any deals this time around either, they received more feedback from marketers as well as many new leads to follow up on. They learned that the invention trade shows are a cost-effective way to get just a little bit closer to success--even if they don't sign that "big deal" right away.
Get Your 15 Minutes
At most invention shows, you set up a booth and hope a manufacturer will stop by and visit. The Response Expo works just the opposite. Companies looking for inventions set up booths, and wait for you to come to them. The show features a wide variety of companies in the direct-response-TV industry, including companies that run one- to two-minute TV ads for products, as well as companies running infomercials on cable and local TV networks.
The lifeblood of these companies is new products, and if you have the right idea, some of them will even help finance its production. These companies only take on a very small percentage of the products they see, but the show might be just the place for you to visit if you have a product that will demonstrate well on TV and will appeal to most people. The show runs March 20 to 22 at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. (There's no need to register.) For more information on the Response Expo, contact Lara Giddings at (949) 760-0362.
Tips From A Pro
Ellen Yarnell, producer of INPEX (Invention/New Product Exposition), offers this advice to inventors who are attending their first shows:
- Provide a visual depicting the inventio--either a product, a prototype, a working model or drawings.
- Make your booth eye-catching. Include photographs, posters or props that relate to your product.
- Dress the part. For example, an exhibitor for a cooking product could wear a chef's hat.
- Provide information for interested attendees. This can include brochures, fliers, other promotional materials and business cards. Usually about a hundred pieces of literature is sufficient.
- While making certain to hand out material, you also need to collect contact information from attendees. Don't rely on them contacting you. Remember that follow-up is your responsibility.
- Greet attendees with enthusiasm and prepare a targeted sales pitch beforehand in case some interest is expressed.
Invention show managers also caution inventors that the show is a public display of their product. If you are concerned that your idea may be stolen, you should have a patent, trademark or copyright, or your invention should be patent-pending, before attending the show.
Advanstar Communications, (949) 360-0362