Inventing Business

People want to start businesses. They just need an idea: yours.

Back in 1992, Michael Miller decided the time had come to strike out on his own. Miller was 30 and had nine years of corporate experience under his belt. What he didn't have was an idea for a business.

Miller got that final piece of the puzzle from an inventor he was associated with. The inventor (who wishes to remain anonymous) had come up with a mechanical device that takes weeds and roots out of lawns and gardens. Miller liked the invention, called the Weed Hound, and felt the inventor was really onto something. Miller test-marketed the product at several lawn and garden shops. The response was favorable, and Miller knew what he wanted to do: "When I demonstrated the product to people, they said, 'Wow, that is really great.' I knew then the product was a winner, and I decided to license it." In 1994, Miller launched his company, Hound Dog Products Inc., in Edina, Minnesota, to do just that. Since that time, he's added a variety of different items to the Hound Dog line and expects sales to grow from $5 million in 1999 to up to $6 million this year.

Explore Your Options

The moral of the story? Most of the people or companies that actually license products are not established companies, but rather start-ups or individuals wanting to launch businesses. So, as an inventor, you need to explore all your options when trying to license your idea-don't spend all your time courting established companies. They're overwhelmed with innovations from myriad inventors and don't have time to evaluate everything.

Instead, you can often make much more progress in licensing your idea if you expand your options. For instance, if you consider your invention a unique opportunity for someone looking to start a company and manufacture a new product, you can then list your invention on Web sites that compile business-for-sale ads. Some good ones to start with are the Business Resale Network, MergerNetwork and the US Business Exchange.

Another avenue is to talk to people in a distribution channel who would be able to carry your product, such as manufacturer's sales agents (independent contractors who sell products for anywhere from three to 20 manufacturers) and distributor salespeople. These contacts have experience in the market and might be interested in starting a company based on your invention. To find leads, read through trade magazines that target retailers, distributors and manufacturers in specific industries. You can find some titles in Gale's Source of Publications and Broadcast Media, available at your local library.

Contact the publishers of every trade magazine related to your product and ask to be put on their mailing lists. Look in the magazines' ads and new product sections; start requesting information on every product you see that's even remotely similar to yours. Often, the literature you receive includes the name of the local representative and/or distributor-that's the person you need to contact and try to convince to license or buy your idea. Sometimes, those distributors are even willing to partner up with you to help launch your invention.

Painless Patents
Save money with the latest patent software.

Patent attorneys are expensive-it's not unusual for the patent process to cost inventors $5,000 to $15,000. If those figures seem a little sky-high, consider PatentWizard software from PatentWizard Inc. The program, which can be ordered at www.patentwizard.com or www.patentcafe.com, guides inventors through a series of questions and then produces a provisional patent application that can be submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. PatentWizard costs $249 (street) and allows you to prepare your patent application in less than a week. Applying for a provisional patent is an ideal, low-cost tool for those who want to do more market research on a product yet be able to advertise that the idea is patent-pending.

At only $75, provisional patents may seem like a great bargain, but they have a big drawback: You must apply for the more expensive utility or design patent (applying for a standard utility patent costs $355) within one year of submitting your provisional patent in order to get standard patent protection. Otherwise, you'll lose your patent rights.

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This article was originally published in the April 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Inventing Business.

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