Testing Your Wings

Will your idea fly? Our expert tests the experts.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the June 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Family and friends have probably always been there to lend you moral support and encouragement. But when you have an idea for a product you want to put on the market, their kind words can sometimes lead you astray. What you really need to know is whether your product will sell.

There are two independent nonprofit organizations that can help evaluate the marketability of your idea: The Wisconsin Innovation Service Center (WISC) in Whitewater, Wisconsin, and the Washington Innovation Assessment Center (WIAC) in Pullman, Washington. I heard their evaluations were sound, so I decided to test their appraisals myself. I sent both organizations a product I invented and asked them to assess its marketability. The results were enlightening.

The product they evaluated is called the Halo, a brimmed hat made of rain- and sun-resistant fabric. A special construction inside the hat's crown suspends it above the wearer's head to prevent "hat hair"; grommets on both sides provide ventilation to keep the wearer's head cool. The entire hat collapses down to a 7-inch circle that fits into a coordinating pouch. The hat retails for $35. Neither center was told that the Halo holds several patents and has already been successfully test-marketed.

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.

Doing Their Homework

WISC mailed me its results in 30 days. I received a 100-page Research Report specific to my product and a well-written 100-page Innovation Guidebook full of answers to first-time inventors' common questions.

WISC's approach is to evaluate your product using three criteria: competition, demand and industry trends. To identify the Halo's competition, the staff investigated a wide variety of retailers and mail order companies to find out what competing products were on the market. While none of the hats they found had all the same features as the Halo, some shared one or more of the Halo's characteristics. WISC provided photos of these hats, along with verified prices and contact numbers. It also included a list of retail stores and catalogs that didn't carry competing products; these would be good leads to approach when selling my product.

To evaluate the patent potential of an idea, WISC does a preliminary online search to see what patents may already exist. This search is not an official patent search; however, it's a great tool to help you decide whether to pursue a patent. WISC's search on the Halo uncovered my existing patent. It also identified 11 other patents it thought I should be aware of. With the cost of a patent search at more than $200, I felt this information was very valuable.

The third research area is industry trends. WISC identified the market for the Halo to be retail hats. It contacted the Millinery Information Bureau and collected statistics on the retail hat market that showed a steady increase in sales over the past five years. It also summarized eight recent articles about the industry and provided copies of the articles with relevant areas highlighted.

A nine-page synopsis was included with its findings, in which WISC concluded, "The Halo appears to be a unique, useful and feasible product." I was impressed with the fact that without judging the product to be good or bad, WISC simply provided a concise explanation of its findings. For $495, I felt this research was absolutely worth the money.

The Final Analysis

WIAC takes a different approach to evaluating the marketability of an idea. Three evaluators from a list of more than 300 are assigned to analyze your idea and give you feedback. For the Halo, the evaluators selected had experience in new product development, specialty product marketing, and the clothing and textiles industry. The evaluators' mission: to identify the positive and negative characteristics of your idea and then provide a quantitative measure of its potential for commercial success. Unlike WISC, this organization grades your idea in a number of areas and then sends you an overall report card. In 30 days, I received my WIAC package, which included a 200-page bound evaluation, a 78-page guide titled Tips and Traps for Inventors, and a book called Marketing Your Invention.

Four general areas form the parameters for WIAC's analysis: research and development, marketing, performance and implementation, and legal protection. Within each of these areas, several evaluations are conducted.

The research and development area addresses the feasibility of manufacturing the product in volume. The evaluators use a four-point scale to measure the product's manufacturability and then a five-point scale to evaluate the complexity of the research necessary to bring the product to a market-ready stage. The Halo had a "somewhat likely" chance of being manufacturable and a "somewhat difficult" level of research complexity. I found this opinion curious, given that I had provided WIAC a manufactured sample.

Next came the marketing analysis. WIAC identified the most appropriate target market to be the "general consumer." Based on this determination, they concluded that acceptance of the Halo in the general consumer market would be "fairly unlikely." In essence, the evaluators felt: 1) additional competitive research needed to be conducted; 2) market acceptance for the Halo was not highly likely; and 3) the relative market for the product was not very large. These conclusions contradicted the fact that the product had already been successfully launched.

A product's ease of use is analyzed in the next area, performance and implementation. My evaluators' general conclusion was that the Halo has a unique design but is more complicated than any competing product. They did, however, feel the product would perform safely and as intended.

The final area, legal protection, measures the product's patentability. The judgment of the evaluators was that patent protection for the Halo is "somewhat unlikely." This conclusion was troublesome to me, as the Halo has two issued patents and several other patents pending. When asked how this determination was reached, it was explained as the combined "gut instincts" of the evaluators.

WIAC gave the Halo a 70 percent chance of success. The 20-page report included individual comments from each of the evaluators on the specific sections, a feature I found very insightful. For example, one evaluator suggested looking into the promotional products market. Another suggested offering a product guarantee. The remainder of the 200 pages comprised an appendix of various market research material found on the Internet, general articles on the accessories industry, a listing of hat manufacturers, and a thick collection of Web sites that sell or advertise hats.

It's difficult to grade a product, but I believe WIAC made an intelligent and thorough attempt to do so. Of course, there is risk associated with predicting success, and I have the advantage of hindsight with the Halo. The cost of the WIAC study was $350, and I believe this one was also worth the price.

WISC and WIAC are both useful assessment resources for someone in the early stages of developing an idea. I strongly recommend sending your idea to one or both of these centers before applying for patents, hiring staff or commencing with manufacturing. It's an important first step on the road to realizing your dream.

Contact Sources

Washington Innovation Assessment Center, (509) 355-1576

Wisconsin Innovation Service Center, (414) 472-1365

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