The First Steps to Inventing
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So you bolted awake at 3 a.m. last week with a can't-miss idea. Or maybe it came to you in the shower, on your way to pick up the kids at soccer or out of necessity while trying to solve a problem. No matter what the inspiration, you have an idea. And you've got the excitement and energy to do something about it . . . but you're not quite sure where to start.
As Thomas Edison once said, genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Chances are, your great idea has also occurred to someone else. It's the act of taking action that will separate you from the rest of the pack.
So what should your very first action be? Getting a patent, perhaps? Going on a fact-finding mission to manufacturers in China? Calling QVC? While all these steps may be appropriate down the line, it's critically important that you first take action by shifting your thought process.
I know what you're thinking. Thinking doesn't seem very actionable, does it? Maybe not, but over the years, I've seen countless would-be inventors make devastating mistakes based on false beliefs and inaccurate assumptions. For this reason, I want to attempt to debunk some common myths associated with inventing--misperceptions that can be debilitating to your progress and costly to your pocket book. Then I'll share tips on overcoming challenges you may encounter along the way. Although it may not seem very "actionable," it's vital to begin the inventing process with a realistic understanding of some of the basic tenets of bringing an idea to market.
Debunking the Myths
While I've encountered countless myths and misperceptions, the following three are among the most common:
Myth #1: The first thing an inventor should do is get a patent. It's understandable why this is such a commonly held belief. The topic of getting a patent is so pervasive among the inventing literature, conferences, websites and even TV commercials, it's no wonder that many people feel they can't move forward without getting a patent first.
The fact is, however, that only two to three percent of all patented products ever make it to market. That means 97 to 98 percent of patents endure a lifespan as a very expensive piece of paper. Clearly, filing a patent has little impact on a successful product launch.
Patents are expensive, too, costing you $5,000 or more, so unless getting a patent for its own sake is your end goal, it doesn't usually make good business sense to apply for a patent first thing off the bat. There are many more critical, less expensive steps you should take first to ensure your product is marketable--steps like researching your target market, building a prototype and evaluating the manufacturing process. If you file a patent first, then encounter overwhelming obstacles later on, you may have invested in a patent for nothing.
So why do so many inventors spend 80, 90, even 100 percent of their initial effort and money on obtaining a patent? Because that's the myth that's been sold and supported--often by people who stand to profit from it. Certainly a patent can be a valuable tool later in the process, but you should first determine the viability of your invention as a business before moving forward.
Myth #2: If I tell people my idea, they'll steal it. The theft of a new invention idea is actually very rare. A lot of sweat equity goes into developing an invention--and this is a big barrier to most potential "thieves."
That doesn't mean ideas are never stolen. Keep in mind, copying and competition are facts in any business. However, once you have an understanding of how much work goes into taking an idea to market, you'll understand why most ideas are stolen only after a product's proven successful. It's like betting on a horse. You're more likely to win by betting on a horse with a winning record than you are by backing an unproven long shot.
That said, don't be careless. But speaking with friends, family and prospective customers is a sensible thing to do as long they agree to maintain confidentiality (verbal or written).
Myth #3: My invention is worth a million dollars! Earning a million dollars with an invention is highly uncommon, and it's important to establish realistic expectations before moving forward. For as many Julie Aigner Clarks there are (the inventor of Baby Einstein ended up selling her million-dollar-plus company to Disney), you'll find countless more businesspeople who've found success on a smaller scale. That's not meant to squelch your enthusiasm, because there are an abundance of ideas out there worth $10,000, $20,000 or even $50,000! Study the process, set realistic expectations, take action, work hard and you can find success--especially if you have more than one marketable idea.
Overcoming the Obstacles
In addition to setting aside your false beliefs, taking action may also involve shifting your approach to challenges that develop along the way. As an inventor, you're an entrepreneur who already thinks creatively. That creativity will benefit you throughout the inventing process--not just when developing product ideas or design.
Plan on tapping into those creative-thinking abilities as you proceed through the inventing process. When you're confronted with a challenge, don't change your goals--instead, be creative and change your plan of action. If you believe you only have two options, you'll find yourself in a dilemma. That's why author Patrick H. Sullivan, in his book Profiting from Intellectual Capital: Extracting Value from Innovation , says, "When given the choice between two alternatives, always pick a third!"
In practice, this may mean changing your environment or doing something differently. For example, you might try finally contacting that person you've thought about approaching or joining a club you've been considering. Put yourself someplace you've never been before, and just hang out and see what happens! There's no way you can know what will transpire until you take a chance. This thinking--constantly creating new options for yourself--should apply during all the steps you'll take as an inventor.
Every great invention begins with a great thought. By taking action to help encourage and develop your great ability to think--whether it's debunking myths or facing challenges creatively--you'll be on your way to success as an inventor, and as an entrepreneur.
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