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Have a Lot of Clever Ideas? License Them to the Novelty Gift Industry. When I walked into Hallmark and saw "Sweet Darts," darts inscribed with the words 'I'm Stuck On You," I smiled. Seeing my name on the back never got old.

By Stephen Key Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Most inventors I know enjoy solving problems. They're plagued by an annoyance, so they invent a solution. Me? I've always enjoyed making people smile.

And yes, I know just how corny that sounds. But it's true! That's what motivated me to start designing my own products when I was young. My creations were silly and funny. I never thought of them as inventions, actually. If you're similarly inclined, consider inventing for the novelty gift industry.

These days, most products I'm pitched do not put a smile on my face. They're just good ideas. But the other day, an experience brought me right back. When a gentleman I met on the road at a conference in Charleston, South Carolina made an effort to follow up with me, I agreed to hear him out. And man, am I glad I did, because his designs were absolutely delightful.

Related: How the Tacky Sweater Holiday Novelty Became Big Business

In fact, as I sat across from him on Skype, they just got better and better. His products are simple and extremely clever. I smiled -- even laughed out loud. He kept saying, "Just one more." I loved every one of the eight he showed me. It brought me right back. "This is why I began creating in the first place," I thought.

I remembered hauling an enormous suitcase around New York City packed with my creations when I was just starting out. In the heat of summer, there I was, running around to appointments, lugging my bag of tricks up and down flights of stairs. "How do you like this?" I'd ask the product development team seated in front of me. "No?" I'd reach in and pull out another idea. "Well, how about this?" After about the 10th product, someone would invariably remark, "That is some bag! You have an endless supply of ideas."

What can I say? I began licensing my ideas, because it was fun. It wasn't about patents or protection. I could copyright my designs for $45 and show them to companies freely. Maybe I was a little naïve, but I never once worried about someone taking my ideas. The companies I worked with needed creative people like me. They'd been relying on freelance product developers for many years. Guess what? They still do.

If you get these companies to embrace you, they'll tell you what they're looking for. The downside? Most products are seasonal, meaning they won't sell for very long. On the other hand, how many holidays are there these days? A lot. It's very consistent work. With that in mind, here's how to successfully license your ideas to the novelty gift market.

1. Study each market at the appropriate time.

Unlike other industries, you can't really study the market all year long. Take note of what's being offered online and at retail during each season, like Valentines' Day, Fathers' Day, the holidays, etc. You won't get another chance. At the same time, you'll need to submit your creations well in advance of a holiday -- up to an entire year. Make a point to ask companies what kind of lead you need to factor in. Don't be afraid to communicate!

Related: 8 Ways to Ensure Market Domination

2. Research companies producing products for the novelty gift industry.

Call them up and ask, "How do you work with independent product developers?" These kinds of products are not often protected with intellectual property. When I designed for these companies, all that was required was a one-line description of my idea and maybe a quick drawing demonstrating the concept. You might be able to avoid prototypes all together. You could get priceless insight like what's hot, what they're looking for in terms of price points, what materials they prefer, etc.

3. Learn how to use copyrights.

If your ideas are similar, you can file a catalogue of designs under the same copyright for about $45. Your work is under copyright protection the moment "it is created and fixed in a tangible form," according to the U.S Copyright Office. But if you want to make it official, you can apply for a certificate of registration with the Office. (You have to register to bring about a case of infringement.)

4. Understand how the game is played.

Because these products are mostly seasonal, only so many are going to be ordered. No one wants to hold on to stale inventory for a year. What does that mean? Royalties on any single product are likely to be limited. However: This also means companies are looking for new products all the time, every year. It's not about inventing, really. It's about being clever. It's about good design.

5. The way to make money?

License evergreen novelty products ideas, like for birthdays and anniversaries. Products catering to these markets sell every single day.

Related: The 'Short Guy Problem' in Clothing Stores Spotlights the Limits of Big Brands

I was fortunate to license ideas for just about every season. When I walked into Hallmark and saw "Sweet Darts," darts inscribed with the words "I'm Stuck On You," or "Hooray," little owls with mortarboard caps on their heads, I smiled. Seeing my name on the back never got old.

Stephen Key

Co-Founder of inventRight; Author of One Simple Idea Series

Stephen Key is an inventor, author, speaker and co-founder of InventRight, LLC., a Glenbrook, Nev.-based company that educates entrepreneurs in how to bring ideas to market.

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