Join the Club

Launching your first product? Get by with a little help from your friends at an inventors' group.

The Entrepreneur: Mary Ellroy, 51, is founder of Gamebird LLC in Norwalk, Connecticut. A toy inventor, Ellroy develops games and toys and licenses the products to outside companies. She's also president emeritus of the Inventors' Association of Connecticut (IACT).

Product Description: Of the more than 100 games and toys Ellroy has invented, 13 have hit the market to date. Examples include the Great States board game, the Two Out of Three board game and the Magic Rainbow Sprinkler toy, due to hit store shelves this summer. The games and toys are primarily sold through specialty toy stores, such as FAO Schwarz and Zany Brainy.

Start-Up: $25,000 advance from Mattel Inc. in 1993 for her first game, American Rhythms, which never made it to market

Sales: $450,000 in 2002; $1 million projected for 2003

The Challenge: To locate valuable sources of help while negotiating the pitfalls of introducing a new product

As Mary Ellroy learned firsthand, an inexperienced inventor can gain valuable knowledge and insights by joining an inventors' group. Here are the steps Ellroy took to find the right group and make the most of her membership:

Steps to Success
1. Do some research. Take some time to get to know your industry better. As Ellroy explains, "I started out at the library, looking for the right associations, trade magazines and trade shows." To expedite her search, Ellroy used the game Trivial Pursuit to locate key contacts: "I looked up all [the] articles I could find on the game." After noticing references to a magazine called Playthings just about every time she researched Trivial Pursuit, Ellroy purchased back issues and signed up for a subscription.

2. Look for a sounding board. Ellroy's first visit to an inventors' club happened just six months after starting on her first game. Her goal was to meet "soul mates, people who had been through what I was going through [so I could] bounce ideas off [them]." The spirit of camaraderie is strong in most inventors' clubs, and that's what keeps even experienced inventors coming back. Says Ellroy, "They enjoy being with other people who work outside the box." To find an inventors' club near you, visit the United Inventors of America Web site (www.uiausa.com) or Inventors' Digest magazine online (www.inventorsdigest.com).

3. Make contact. According to Ellroy, one of the most valuable assets of an inventors' club is its membership list, and it pays to get to know the people on that list. Members of most clubs include industrial designers, marketers, prototype builders and patent attorneys. These contacts have proved very helpful for Ellroy: "I had this vision of a toy that would allow kids to always see a rainbow when they used it, but I didn't know quite how to do it." So she teamed up with one of the club's designers, and together they created the Magic Rainbow Sprinkler toy, which was recently licensed to Spin Master Toys in Toronto.

4. Present your ideas to the group for feedback and help. Inventor clubs typically give plenty of opportunities for inventors to throw out questions or problems to the group for input. Some groups hold question-and-answer sessions, while others organize round-table discussions on specific topics, such as marketing, manufacturing, patenting or licensing. Some clubs even let inventors make full presentations to the group and receive feedback.

5. Get a variety of input. Inventors' clubs tend to attract inventors who work at large corporations as well as those at small businesses. This variety in the membership allows an entrepreneur to gain many different perspectives-whether it's regarding the resources available to inventors or advice on how ideas are sold to businesses.

Inventors from large companies are also typically aware of all the latest technology available to help inventors. At IACT, Ellroy learned all about virtual prototyping, 3-D modeling and stereo lithography. She also gained a greater understanding of simpler forms of prototype design.

REVIEW SESSIONS
Some inventors' clubs hold invention evaluation forums, which you can attend to get feedback on your idea from other inventors. That's great, except they generally won't guarantee absolute confidentiality.

Before you decide to attend, keep in mind these forums usually handle manufacturing and marketing problems and provide inventors with general bits of advice. So if you need to keep things confidential, you should meet with a professional evaluator. To find one, check out these notable inventor evaluation services:

  • The Innovation Institute (I2, www.wini2.com) is a cooperative public service program maintained by I2 and Southwest Missouri State University. The evaluation includes a graded score for your invention but not a lot of individual comments about your invention. Cost: $220 in the United States, $240 elsewhere.
  • The United Inventors Association (www.uiausa.com) also offers I2 service with a $75 upgrade that provides you with a list of service providers in your industry, such as industrial designers and prototype builders. Cost: $295 to $315
  • The Wisconsin Innovation Service Center (WISC, Academics.uww.edu/business/innovate) offers an invention evaluation that includes a competitive intelligence search. The comments pertaining to your invention are more individualized than those provided by I2. WISC also offers distributor assessments, one-on-one customer interviews and a licensing/strategic partner search for additional fees.
    Cost: $595
  • The Canadian Innovation Centre (www.innovationcentre.ca) offers a critical-factor assessment that covers 37 areas, including marketing, legal and business strategy questions. The service is available to both Canadian and U.S. inventors. Cost: $370 to $1,488, depending on the service used
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This article was originally published in the May 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Join the Club.

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