First, You Dream

How to take your products from idea to reality.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the January 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

How to take your products from idea to reality.

Tomima Edmark, the woman famous for her Topsy Tail invention has now turned her creative talents to the competitive retail arena of intimate apparel, HerRoom <> and HisRoom <>

You've got a great idea, but you haven't taken advantage of it yet. How come? You've uttered the words "I thought of that!" while thumbing through catalogs or strolling by store windows. Why didn't you act earlier?

Most people who have great ideas never take advantage of them. By failing to act, they lose out on the very thing that might have given them financial independence and greater control over their lives. Your explanation for not taking action will undoubtedly fall into one of the following categories: financing, development, marketing, manufacturing, patenting or fear. These rationalizations are legitimate concerns but should not be excuses for defeat. If you're willing to work with your idea, you can make it happen.

The Right Mind-Set

Many would-be inventors are "done in" by information--having too much and, at the same time, not having enough. The euphoria resulting from that initial rush of inspiration can fade quickly when confronted with the all-too-common questions: Now what? Is my idea good? Is it original? Is it worth anything? Will it sell? How do I protect it? Market it? Secure financing for it?

Take comfort in knowing that every inventor has to deal with the same issues, and you must be prepared to deal with them, too.

First, you need to realize that any great idea is a big deal. Success could make you your own boss, greatly expand your existing business and even give you financial independence. This knowledge should be your source of inspiration and motivation.

Yet many armchair inventors sit waiting for some orderly system to materialize which will turn their idea into a success. Stop waiting. It doesn't exist. You must choose among a staggering number of options for getting your product to market and determine which ones will suit your needs. Each product and service in the market today took a unique path, and a path that worked for any one of those ideas will not necessarily work for yours.

Having invented several products, I personally know the challenges and rewards of inventing. My goal in this column is to offer entrepreneurs advice on, insight into and facts about the world of inventing--to be a voice for entrepreneurs looking to understand more about the product development process.

The Product Genesis

The idea for my first product--the TopsyTail hairstyling tool--came to me while I was at the movies with my mom. Inspired and excited by the thought of creating something new and original, I spent the next 24 hours flipping and twisting my hair and creating prototypes.

While developing my idea, I continued working as a marketing representative for IBM. But I had hit the glass ceiling--and I was not nearly as close to the top as I wanted to be. If I wanted more money and a more fulfilling life, I needed to take control and do it on my own.

I devoted my evenings and weekends to my idea. Focusing my marketing efforts on mail order, I was soon able to bring in an additional $2,000 to $3,000 a month. This side business gave me the satisfaction and self-worth I had been missing at IBM.

I never expected to hit the proverbial jackpot with my invention. Did I dare to dream the TopsyTail would make me millions? Sure. But it started as a secondary income. Even though I was consumed with excitement, I didn't lose my head. I stayed in control of my life. And even as my idea grew to the point where sales surpassed $100 million, I always tried to keep decisions as simple as possible.

When people ask me (and they often do) what are the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make in the inventing process, I tell them:

1. They quit their day job and lose cash flow.

2. They take on the burden of employees.

3. They increase costs by renting office space.

4. They don't do as much as they can themselves.

The first three points are fairly straightforward, but I want to elaborate on the fourth. You need to be the expert on your idea. You can't afford to delegate tasks to others. No matter how successful you are now, you must take control of each part of the product development process yourself. If that means dragging mail bags down to the bulk mail distribution center in a suit during your workday, do it. You must be in complete control of your idea to make it successful.

Get Ready, Get Input

Survey after survey has shown that the number-one thing entrepreneurs fail to do is survey the marketplace to determine if there is interest in their ideas.

I can't tell you the number of phone calls I get from people who tell me their friends and relatives think their idea is a winner. That your Aunt Betty in Wisconsin thinks your idea is fabulous isn't enough. You need to get more objective opinions before proceeding further. These opinions will help determine your eventual target market and potential sales volume.

By not surveying the marketplace, many people unfortunately lose control of their idea, lead the idea in a doomed direction, or, worse, fall victim to one of the numerous unscrupulous "invention marketing" organizations that take your money and give you little, if anything, in return. (Beware: Anyone who tells you early on that your idea is a guaranteed success is probably being overly supportive or trying to rip you off.)

Take Control

Ready to take control? Great. Now you need to take the next step by getting real--real honest, that is. If your idea is going to make money, it had better be more than a good idea. In today's marketplace, clever or cute isn't good enough. An idea must be great to succeed and win precious dollars from the consumer.

How do you go about evaluating whether or not consumers will support your idea? You need to take into account complex variables, including the most unpredictable variable of them all: human behavior. This variable turned bell bottoms, Mood Rings and Hula Hoops into huge successes.

This task is not easy (or consistent), but honestly evaluating your product against general, industry, market and product criteria will help determine whether it has a good chance of success.

General Criteria

1. Is your idea legal?

2. What is its environmental impact?

3. Is it safe?

4. Is it high quality?

5. Will it have wide social acceptance?

6. Will it have any negative impact?

Industry Criteria

1. Who is your competition?

2. Does your product require the assistance of existing products?

3. Is there just one product or a line of products?

4. Will pricing be competitive?

Market Criteria

1. Does your idea fit into a trend?

2. Is there a need for it?

3. Is it seasonal?

4. Is it a fad, or does it have long-term value?

5. Who will buy it?

6. Does it need instructions?

Product Criteria

1. How much will it cost to get your idea to market?

2. Does it require service or maintenance?

3. Is there a warranty?

4. Does it need packaging?

5. Is it the simplest and most attractive it can be?

Is your head spinning yet? Keep in mind that measuring your idea against these criteria is not complex brain surgery. The criteria are based on common issues that confront each and every product developer. They are the building blocks to becoming the master of your idea, making you the undisputed and unstumpable expert. But they're also just the beginning.

In my next column, I'll discuss more about the first stage of product development. Future columns will discuss the actual process of inventing and how to take an idea to market. I will share stories and examples from other people who acted on their dreams and turned them into profits. And in every column, I will give you the facts--no esoteric babble, just the facts--you need to turn your idea into your American dream.

Got a great idea? Then this column is for you.

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