From the October 2003 issue of Startups

There are two ways to successfully sell your invention on the Internet. One is to launch your own site, link it with other sites, learn how to work the search engines and offer free information to lure visitors to your site. The downside: Setting up and developing your own site is expensive because you need to work virtually full time to pull in traffic. It's even more expensive if you have to hire someone to do the programming.

The other Internet strategy is to sell your products to online merchants who have active sites that already draw plenty of visitors. In many ways, this is the ideal setup for inventors. Unlike most retailers, Internet merchants can buy a few units of the product, put them on the site and then see how they sell. If they don't sell, the merchants haven't lost much. If they do sell, you could win big.

What types of products are well-suited for selling online? The ideal product is one that isn't widely sold but has a core of dedicated consumers. For example, most people don't buy replicas of Air Force bomber jackets, but a small group of people do. When those people search for "bomber jackets" online, the few sites that sell them come up as a match.

Widely available products don't work as well online. If products similar to yours are widely available, people may not find your products among the many others in an Internet search. They may be able to easily find competing products in a store, and you might have to compete with discount merchants.

Products related to areas where there is a large amount of Internet activity also sell well online. For example, singles and people who are getting married have many sites that cater to them, with which inventors can form links.

Finally, the ideal Internet product is relatively easy to produce. Sales may be modest, and you'll probably need

To cover the costs of setup, production and patenting on your own.

Your goals for selling on the Internet should also be modest. Here are some reasonable goals to aim for:

  • Initiating sales of your product: So that you can eventually introduce it to broader markets.
  • Establishing a base for sales to a certain market: For example, you might launch a Web site to sell one horse-grooming product, with the goal to eventually make the site a central spot for an extensive line of horse-grooming products.
  • Creating a sales channel to produce modest sales in addition to your main sales channel: Internet sales can provide an extra $30,000 to $40,000 per year.
  • Generating testing data from customers: The Web can be a good way to get feedback and testimonials.

Be aware that most inventors who sell solely online never move into major distribution, so if you want the option of sizable retail sales in the future, you should also sell your product to catalogs and local retailers.

Money Matters
What kind of costs can you expect when selling online? Whether you're launching your own site or selling through existing online retailers, you will probably have to pay for the initial production of your product yourself. Since Internet sales are typically modest and not a predictor of eventual success, manufacturers will be reluctant to give you extended terms. (One exception: If you sell to catalogs, landing a catalog order should generally be enough to persuade a manufacturer to offer you favorable terms.)

If you sell to Internet retailers, you won't have to worry about the cost of Web site design and maintenance. But if you set up your own site, plan on setup costs of $2,000 to $10,000, plus monthly charges of $100 and up. Also plan on spending at least four hours per day marketing, promoting and updating your site to ensure a consistent flow of traffic. To cut costs, some inventors simply produce a prototype and put it online to see if it sells. They don't produce the product until they receive enough orders to justify production costs.

Do Your Homework

If you're thinking of launching your own Web site, start by going to search engines and putting in search terms that might lead people to your site. What types of sites come up? Your site won't get many vsitors if the search produces a large number of very popular sites. Keep using as many search terms as you can to see if there are any terms that pull up a limited number of matches.

As you search, write down all the domain names that come up so you can see what names you could use that aren't already taken. Visit a domain registration site to see if your potential names are registered.

If you plan to launch your own Web site, you'll need to attract visitors with a comprehensive marketing program that includes:

  • Content: Everyone who comes to your site should learn something useful. Don't just focus on selling your product; instead, address the problem that brings visitors to your site. For instance, if your product keeps leaves from clogging rain gutters, people coming to your site most likely have problems with maintaining trees on their property. To help them, you could provide information on pruning trees, composting leaves and such. Adding content also creates more keywords on your site for search engines to find.
  • Connections: Search engines alone aren't enough to get people to your site. Users need to remember and type in your URL. For that to happen, your site needs to get publicity from newsletters, associations, related businesses, end-user groups, schools, experts in the field and any other group you can think of.
  • Creating buzz: The Internet can create instant word-of-mouth. Offer something fun and intriguing-funny or irreverent lists, stories or cartoons-that people can forward for free, listing your site as the source.
  • E-mail lists: Developing an e-mail list isn't worth the trouble if all you do is mail product offerings to past visitors. Be sure to offer information about something of interest to your target group.
  • Online events: Contests, promotions, interviews, guests and chat rooms on hot topics are all ways to create excitement and get people to your site. Schedule an event at least once per quarter.
  • Becoming a resource: Your stock in the online world goes up when you become an authority on a topic of interest to your target customers. Develop a relationship with noncompeting sites that attract your target market. Offer to write articles, do surveys and answer users' questions, or frequently contribute to chat rooms to establish your expertise.
  • Offline promotion: Don't overlook traditional promotional venues as a way to promote your site. Send press releases about your site to magazines, newsletters, trade shows, cable TV programs and other sources of information your target customers use.

For more on promoting your Web site, visit www.virtualpromote.com (especially the "TipWorld" section), or check out the book Increase Your Web Traffic in a Weekend (Premier Press) by William R. Stanek.

Down to Earth

You may launch your online sales effort with visions of grandeur, but you'll stand a better chance of success if your expectations are realistic. Here's what to expect:

  • Only a small percentage of people who visit your site will buy. You need lots of visitors. It may take two months or longer to attract a significant number of visitors. Don't get discouraged, as long as you are aggressively promoting your site.
  • Offering free items, especially ones that can be downloaded, will dramatically increase traffic.
  • People will buy extra products if you offer them when you ship your product.
  • You'll get orders from around the world. Overseas distributors may request your product.
  • It may take awhile to recoup start-up expenses, so try to produce the product yourself.
  • If you're selling through Internet retailers, expect small orders at first.
  • You'll get many questions by e-mail. Answer them within 24 hours, or you'll lose sales.

Adapted from Entrepreneur Magazine's Start-Up Guide #1813, Bringing Your Product to Marketby Don Debelak