Q: I have an invention I want to patent, and I had an invention company help me. They wanted more money than I felt I should spend so I'm venturing off on my own, but I'm really not sure what to do first.
A: You've already taken the right first step: not spending your money on an invention promotion company.
During 1999 alone, the Federal Trade Commission closed down numerous invention promotion companies and filed civil and criminal complaints against owners of invention promotion and invention development companies that bilked more than 40,000 inventors out of more than $60 million dollars.
More important than your "sticker shock" at the price for their services, when it comes to living up to their claims of getting your ideas licensed to industry, they have a success rate of less than one-tenth of 1 percent-a rate that's much smaller than inventors who venture off on their own. So congratulations go out to you for having avoided this snare.
And that brings us to your next statement: I'm not sure what to do first. Invention companies prey on inventors by telling them what they want to hear, namely that they have a great idea that's sure to satisfy their financial dream. By contrast, what you need to do first is determine whether your idea really does have commercial potential. Will it sell if it's put into the rough-and-tumble commercial or retail market? Don't just think it will, you'll have to prove it will.
That means one of your most important first steps is to determine whether your invention has any commercial merit by completing an invention marketability assessment. Many factors go into an assessment, including analysis of the probable cost of production vs. the estimated retail price, margin determination, legal barriers to selling the product and many more criteria elements. A typical assessment completed by Wal-Mart Invention Assessment, Wisconsin or Southern Missouri Universities or other commercial assessment services takes into account all these elements and includes a report that will either tell you to forget your idea (because it probably won't sell), proceed with caution or that you could have a winner (so go like crazy). The cost for these assessments usually ranges from $200 to $600, so shop around. It's best to begin this process yourself even if you don't have the business or marketing background. What you learn will be invaluable for this as well as your next invention.
If your invention marketability assessment suggests you could have a solid opportunity, you'll need to begin thinking about getting patent protection. Unless you have some exclusive ownership or intellectual property rights, anyone could copy the product and sell it. Whether you manufacture and sell the product yourself or you're thinking about licensing your invention to another company, you can't ignore the value a patent could bring to your venture.
When you need legal help to get your invention patent process started, seek out a registered patent attorney or patent agent. Don't contact an invention promotion company! A legal professional is the best one to provide legitimate advice to you directly and will be most knowledgeable about how to best protect your invention and maximize its intellectual property value.
Andy Gibbs is president and CEO of PatentCafe.com Inc, a leading intellectual property information and resource Internet portal. He is an inventor with seven issued and pending patents, and an entrepreneur who has started seven companies ranging from product development to low-and high- technology product manufacturing. He speaks to inventors, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists on intellectual property, marketing research, competitive strategy and sales development. Visit http://www.patentcafe.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.