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Five Steps for Turning Your Idea Into a Product Have a surefire invention idea, but not sure where to start? Make your dream a marketable product in five easy steps.

By Sarah Pierce

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The light bulb above your head is glowing so bright thatit's threatening to blind everyone around you. But what shouldyou do with your great invention idea? Before you start blabbingabout your invention to the wrong person or run to the firstcompany that offers to buy it, you need to do one thing: Protectit.

Whether you want to produce and market your invention yourselfor license it to another company, the only way to make money fromyour invention and to guarantee that no one will steal your idea isto file a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Thiscan be an intimidating process, so we've asked Andy Gibbs, CEOof PatentCafe.com, to break it down for you in five easysteps.

Step 1: Document It

Simply having an "idea" is worthless--you need to haveproof of when you came up with the idea for your invention. Writedown everything you can think of that relates to your invention,from what it is and how it works to how you'll make and marketit. This is the first step to patenting your idea and keeping itfrom being stolen. You've probably heard about the "poorman's patent"--writing your idea down and mailing it toyourself in a sealed envelope so you have dated proof of yourinvention's conception. This is unreliable and unlikely to holdup in court. Write your idea down in a specially designedinventor's journal and have it signed by a witness. Thisjournal will become your bible throughout the patent process.

Step 2: Research It

You will need to research your idea from a legal and businessstandpoint. Before you file a patent, you should:

  • Complete an initial patent search. Just because youhaven't seen your invention doesn't mean it doesn'talready exist. Before you hire a patent attorney or agent, completea rudimentary search for free at www.uspto.gov to make sure no one else haspatented your idea. You should also complete a non-patent"prior art" search. If you find any sort of artwork ordesign related to your idea, you cannot patent it--regardless ofwhether a prior patent has been filed.
  • Research your market. Sure, your brother thinks youridea for a new lawn sprinkler is a great idea, but that doesn'tmean your neighbor would buy one. More than 95 percent of allpatents never make money for the inventor. Before you invest toomuch time and money into patenting your invention, do somepreliminary research of your target market. Is this somethingpeople will actually buy? Once you know there's a market, makesure your product can be manufactured and distributed at a lowenough cost so that your retail price is reasonable. You candetermine these costs by comparing those of similar productscurrently on the market. This will also help you size up yourcompetition--which you will have, no matter how unique you thinkyour invention is.

Step 3: Make a Prototype

A prototype is a model of your invention that puts into practiceall of the things you have written in your inventor's journal.This will demonstrate the design of your invention when you presentit to potential lenders and licensees. Do not file a patentbefore you have made a prototype. You will almost alwaysdiscover a flaw in your original design or think of a new featureyou would like to add. If you patent your idea before you work outthese kinks, it will be too late to include them in the patent andyou will risk losing the patent rights of the new design to someoneelse.

Here are some general rules of thumb when prototyping yourinvention:

1. Begin with a drawing. Before you begin the prototypingphase, sketch out all of your ideas into your inventor'sjournal.

2. Create a concept mockup out of any material that willallow you to create a 3-D model of your design.

3. Once you're satisfied with the mockup, create afull-working model of your idea. There are many books and kits thatcan help you create prototypes. If your invention is something thatwill cost a lot of money or is unreasonable to prototype (like anoil refinery process or a new pharmaceutical drug), consider usinga computer-animated virtual prototype.

Step 4: File a Patent

Now that you have all of the kinks worked out of your design,it's finally time to file a patent. There are two main patentsyou will have to choose from: a utility patent (for new processesor machines) or a design patent (for manufacturing new, nonobviousornamental designs). You can write the patent and fill out theapplication yourself, but do not file it yourself until youhave had a skilled patent professional look it over first. If theinvention is really valuable, someone will infringe on it.If you do not have a strong patent written by a patent attorney oragent, you will be pulling your hair out later when a competitorfinds a loophole that allows them to copy your idea. It's bestto get the legal help now to avoid any legal problems in thefuture.

When searching for a patent attorney or agent, remember onething: If you see them advertised on TV, run away! Once you arefar, far away, follow these steps to choosing the best patentprofessional:

1. Do your homework. Have your inventor's journal,prototype and notes with you. This will save them time, and youmoney. This will also help persuade them to work with you.

2. Make sure they are registered with the U.S. Patent andTrademark Office.

3. Ask them what their technical background is. If yourinvention is electronic, find a patent professional who is also anelectrical engineer.

4. Discuss fees. Keep your focus on smaller patent firms.They are less expensive and will work more closely with you. Agreeto the estimated total cost before hiring your patentprofessional.

Step 5: Market Your Invention

Now it's time to figure out how you're going to bringyour product to market. Create a business plan: How will you getmoney? Where will you manufacture the product? How will you sellit? Now is a good time to decide if you will manufacture and sellthe product yourself, or license it for sale through anothercompany. When you license your product you will probably onlyreceive two percent to five percent in royalty fees. This oftenscares away inventors who feel they deserve more. But consider theupside: You will not have the financial burden associated withmaintaining a business. This could end up making you more money inthe long run.

Following these five steps will ensure an easy road to patentingyour invention. Just remember that an easy road doesn'tnecessarily mean a short one. From the time you conceive your ideato the time you see your product on the shelf is a very longprocess. Most inventions take years to come to fruition. Havepatience and follow due diligence in your steps to patenting yourinvention and your years of hard work will finally pay off.

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