Got a New Idea?

If the answer is "not really," don't worry; just buy the rights to someone else's invention and reap the profits. Now that's a bright idea.

The Entrepreneur: Chris Lawson, 35, founder of Lawson Hammock Co. in Raleigh, North Carolina
Product Description: The Lawson Hammock, a one-person, off-the-ground tent for campers that features a mosquito net
Start-up: $25,000 in 1997
Sales: Approximately $150,000 for 2002
The Challenge: To market someone else's invention when you lack your own million-dollar idea
Chris Lawson didn't have an invention of his own, but that didn't stop him from finding one and bringing it to market. How did Lawson do it?

Steps to Success
1. Find the ideal product. Lawson felt most comfortable selling a product in a market he was already familiar with. He hoped to find an invention significantly different from others in the market; identify a small base of customers ready to buy the product; ensure there was potential for large orders, which would secure sales growth; and hold down expenses with a product that could be easily outsourced.

The Lawson Hammock fit the bill perfectly because no one else sold a tent/hammock, plus Lawson had no trouble identifying his target customers: campers wanting to have a minimal impact on the environment.

Lawson found his product through a business broker. You can find local brokers in the Yellow Pages or on the Internet. Your area's inventor's club is another good spot for locating an inventor looking to sell. You can track down a local inventor's club through the United Inventors Association) or at www.inventorsdigest.com, the Web site of Inventors' Digest magazine.

2. Ensure the inventor is ready to sell at a reasonable price. Lawson explains why the inventor he found wanted to sell: "She was doing everything herself," he says. "She sewed all the products herself. She was just overwhelmed with the amount of work required, and she wanted out." The inventor also hadn't invested too much in her tent/hammock concept, so she was willing to sell the product for a reasonable price.

3. Identify a production source that will allow you to make a profit on the product. At first, Lawson let the inventor continue making hammocks while he searched for a low-cost production source. After researching other similarly made products in the outdoor market, he found that "most were made in Korea," he says. "So I contacted the Korean Embassy in Washington to get a list of manufacturers. I found one that made tents and was able to start overseas production."

4. Look for a small market of customers likely to generate immediate sales. Lawson sells his product, which retails for $172, mostly to camping catalogs such as Piragis Northwoods, through ads in Backpacking and Sierra magazines, and at camping stores in areas with lots of bugs, such as the Florida Everglades, Minnesota's Boundary Waters and tropical rain forests.

5. Use word-of-mouth publicity and a Web site to your advantage. As Lawson explains, "The product is starting to get a reputation for quality among camping enthusiasts, and sales over the Internet have been increasing every year."

6. Start working on the big customers. Lawson expects business to take off once he lands a big account. "I've been calling on the big four--L.L. Bean, Cabellas, REI and Eureka--since I've been in business, and they are waiting to see how the product sells. I've received an order from Bass Pro Shops, and I'm hoping to add the others over the next few years." Large buyers are reluctant to buy from a new company with few financial resources; they're afraid it will go out of business. But if you start calling on them early, they'll see by your third or fourth year that you have staying power.

HOW DO THEY INVESTORS THINK?
Not like the rest of us. An interesting book on the topic is The Patent Files: Dispatches From the Frontiers of Invention by David Lindsay. The book tracks down inventors of products such as handwriting identifiers, a solar-powered interstellar spaceship and air-purifying helmets. The book's essays are amusing, and the author's firsthand experience with trying to get an invention through the patent office on his own is something every inventor can relate to. This book isn't a how-to, step-by-step approach to inventing, but it does offer insights into how inventors really deal with the world around them.
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This article was originally published in the February 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Got a New Idea?.

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