Beyond the Big Idea

So I've Got This Great Idea...

If you think you may have a winning product like The AB-DOer on your hands, you'll want to know how to get it into the right hands. Abdo advises new inventors to study the process of bringing a product to market, from start to finish. Remember, just having a good idea doesn't necessarily mean you've got a good seller.

"You might have a good idea, but [if] it costs hundreds of dollars to manufacture, or it weighs too much [to be shipped], it's not a [direct-response] TV product," notes Abdo. "You have to know your product, how your product is going where, how to secure your intellectual property, how to teach people to use your product and teach them in a fun way."

Developing a prototype is one surefire way to determine whether your product will sell. You can hire someone to do this for you, but developing it yourself-or at least having a sharp understanding of how your product is put together-has many benefits. Not only will you have a better knowledge of how your product works, but you'll also uncover any glitches in product design. "Build the best functional prototype you can, not a duct-tape prototype that you whip together in your garage," says Abdo. "People only understand what you're showing them."

Also check in with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), an excellent place to begin your self-education. Browse the USPTO Web site, and read up on how to obtain patent-pending status, trademarks and other protections. The USPTO also holds an annual Independent Inventors Conference with the National Inventors Hall of Fame, where top USPTO officials, successful inventors and other experts will advise you on marketing and intellectual property protection.

Hiring a patent attorney like Abdo did is also a good idea. That was just one of many steps that Kelsey Wirth, 35, and Zia Chishti, 33, took when first starting Align Technology in midwinter 1997, the year they were completing their MBAs at Stanford Business School. Using Chishti's background in computer graphics, and aided by some Stanford computer graphics majors who ditched their Ph.D. programs to work for Align, the co-founders created Invisalign, a product that combines 3-D computer imaging technology with orthodontic science. The Santa Clara, California, company appeals to adult consumers who want to straighten their teeth discreetly using the company's "aligners," a series of removable, clear plastic orthodontic appliances.

Like Abdo, the Align founders met with initial opposition. They put together the necessary computer graphics and brought on a local orthodontist, "but we talked to a dozen VCs, and most of them were not interested," says Wirth. Finally, big-name Silicon Valley VC firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers bit. Excited by the idea, the firm was willing to take a risk. Wirth and Chishti closed their first round of financing, $3.2 million, in August 1997. They then went on to raise three more rounds as well as go public in January 2001, raising approximately $260 million altogether.

The co-founders got patients into clinical studies within six months of startup and introduced Invisalign in two test markets: Austin, Texas, and San Diego (the cities where they'd hired two sales reps with experience in the industry). They then trained scores of orthodontists nationwide, laying the groundwork for a $30 million national consumer advertising campaign, launched in fall 2000. The partners gambled that if they advertised directly to adult consumers, the product would be so appealing, orthodontists would jump on board. "Essentially we had a product that we knew ultimately would have tremendous consumer appeal," says Wirth.

What Wirth and Chishti found, however, was that consumers who asked their orthodontists about it were often told to try braces first instead. "We hadn't done enough of a job convincing orthodontists that Invisalign worked," recalls Wirth. "We had tremendous brand awareness in a very short period of time. But when it came to getting patients into treatment, we didn't have the results we had originally hoped for."

They refocused their marketing dollars in 2002 to include general practice dentists, reaching 120,000 dentists nationwide (compared to about 8,500 orthodontists), and giving the company the broad appeal it needed. "There are plenty of GP dentists who can put braces on," explains Wirth, who estimates the company's 2004 sales will be $175 million to $180 million, up from $122.7 million in 2003. Wirth stresses, however, that she's not sure where the company would be without first going through the national consumer advertising campaign.

To create consumer awareness of your product, you have several options, including press releases to editors of trade magazines, direct mail, classified and display ads, and speaking events and conferences with you as an expert. If your product is off-the-wall, try getting on a talk show such as The Oprah Winfrey Show or The Tonight Show, which occasionally have "gadget" shows. (For more information, see "Lights, Camera, Action!" in last month's issue of Entrepreneur.) "The wackier it is, the better," says Smith of showcasing your product on a talk show. Just be prepared to move your product: "Once your product is shown, it will hurt you if you're not able to meet the demand."

Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.

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This article was originally published in the October 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Beyond the Big Idea.

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