Where's The Big Idea?

Finding ideas in everyday places.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the March 1998 issue of . Subscribe »

How do you come up with an invention that clearly stands out--something customers want and key decision makers in the distribution network want to sell? If you think it's tough to generate new product ideas, think again. Ideas for great inventions are all around you. You just need to know what to look for and what questions to ask, and you'll be able to come up with several winning ideas each year.

One tactic for generating ideas is to notice and record problems or needs that come up while you're using products. In 1981, Mark C. Williams, an inventor in Indianapolis, was relaxing at home, watching a video, when President Reagan was shot. Williams didn't know about the shooting until his sister called and gave him the news.

Williams invented a product that allows special bulletins, such as emergency broadcasts or breaking news, to be instantly displayed on a TV set--even if people are watching a video, playing a video game, or the television is off.

In 1987, Williams started the patent work on the Video Reporter, which monitors commercial station broadcasts for the three beeps of an emergency message. Once the signal is detected, the Video Reporter switches the television to the emergency message, no matter how the television is being used at the time.

Williams spent 10 years working on his idea, getting help from an engineer for his patents and prototypes. His goal was to license the Video Reporter to a manufacturer, giving it the rights to manufacture and sell the product in return for a royalty on each unit sold.

Williams' big break came when the Federal Communications Commission mandated that, starting July 1, 1997, all TV sets must have an Emergency Alert System. Williams is now negotiating with one of the world's largest TV manufacturers. He also has 30 other inventions, most of which came simply from his observations about how products could work better.

I recommend inventors keep a notebook and jot down ideas for new products as they occur. Every three to four months, look through your notebook and highlight the ideas that still appeal to you. If an idea looks strong after three or four reviews, it's time to consider developing it further.

A second tactic for finding a great new idea is to evaluate products or practices that have been unchanged for years. There are many product categories where change rarely occurs because most people who use the product just accept things the way they are. Often, you can find profitable new ideas just by doing a bit of research in these stagnant product categories.

When I teach classes on developing new products, I often ask the class how many people are dissatisfied with the hot water systems in their homes. Rarely does someone raise a hand. Then I ask the class what is the first thing they do when they are ready to take a shower. The typical answer: They hold their hand in the shower to feel the water. Why do people do that? So they won't get into a boiling-hot or freezing-cold shower. Does that sound like a perfect product? Then I ask what people do when they hear someone in another bathroom flush the toilet. Usually they jump out of the shower or turn the shower nozzle against the wall so they won't get scalded.

Once I'm done discussing hot water systems, no one is happy. Why didn't people notice the shortcomings of their hot water systems before? Because most people just accept products "as is" after they've used them for years.

Once you start questioning the way things have always been done, you'll be surprised how many ideas jump out at you. Julie Margaret, an interior designer in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, frequently sets up model homes. Margaret is small, and she dreaded wrestling with the heavy mattress and box spring every time she rearranged a home. She asked a simple question: Why do we have to use real mattresses? The answer was that beds in model homes had to look like beds.

From that simple answer sprung an idea for a new product line: cardboard boxes the same size as regular mattresses. Called Mimics, the boxes have interlocking "ribs" inside for reinforcement so that if someone sits on the bed, it won't collapse. The cardboard beds are lightweight, reusable and easy to ship. Margaret, who began marketing her product in 1996, now sells the substitute beds to contractors, department stores, bedding manufacturers and photography studios. Customers like the idea of replacing a heavy, expensive box spring and mattress with a lightweight, $30 to $50 cardboard box.

This tactic can pay off for you, too. Simply take a notebook and analyze common activities you do during the day. Write down every step that takes place in an activity. Then ask yourself why each step is necessary and see if there is a problem associated with it or a better way to get the same results.

You may not think of any improvements while you're writing down your observations, but review your notes every three to four months, and often, you'll see product opportunities where you saw none before. The lesson? There are plenty of outstanding opportunities all around. All that's needed is a creative entrepreneur willing to seek them out.

Don Debelak, author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 800-225-5945), is a marketing consultant specializing in bringing new products to market.

Financial Aid

Question: I would like to get a prototype made for my idea, but I can't make it myself and can't afford the $4,000 it would take to have it produced. How can I proceed?

Answer: There are three ways you can move forward. The best solution is to find an engineer, designer or prototype builder who will work for a percentage of your idea. Mark C. Williams, an Indianapolis inventor, granted 20 percent of his invention to an engineer who was willing to do the necessary patent drawings and engineering design work that moved his invention forward.

The best way to find people who can help in this way is to attend inventor or entrepreneur club meetings in your area. If you can't find an inventor's club, leave your name and address in the question-and-answer section on my Web site (http://members.tripod.com/~Donold), and I will try to get you the name of a group to contact.

A second strategy is to try to find a manufacturer who will make a prototype for you at its own expense. You might be able to get help from a manufacturer if you agree to hire the manufacturer to build your product or if you offer the manufacturer a small percentage of the product's profits. You can find manufacturers who might help you by looking in the Yellow Pages or business magazines for companies that want contract manufacturing work.

The third option is to find investors among your family, friends or business acquaintances. If possible, try to get contacts in the market to invest $500 to $1,000 in your product in order to produce a prototype. People in the industry are a better choice than family and friends for two reasons: First, their investment shows others in the industry that knowledgeable people believe in your idea; second, they are in a better position to help you introduce your product after the prototype is made.

Contact Sources

Mimics Alternative Bedding and Designs, P.O. Box 157, Kennett Square, PA 19348, (800) 3-MIMICS

Marc C. Williams, c/o Alert Systems Technology Inc., 4915 N. Kenwood Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46208, (317) 259-1649

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