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Winning at Inventing Is a Numbers Game Inventors too often focus on patents and expensive prototypes when what they really need is proof of demand.

By Stephen Key Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


When I left the startup Worlds of Wonder to bring my own ideas for toys to market, I quickly learned I would need to come up with a lot of ideas to land on a winner. There were just so many variables. I didn't have the resources to do market research; I just wanted to be creative. Working at WOW had hooked me on the licensing model. I wanted to be the guy who was kicking back, collecting royalty checks. I had some early success with a toy idea, but ultimately, it wasn't meant to be, so I moved on to other industries. Along the way, I taught myself how to bring my ideas to market in an incredibly low risk way.

If you want to be a successful inventor, you need to reduce your investment in any one idea. The more you can do to move fast and test quickly, the better. Trying to license an idea is an efficient way of testing the market. You ask the people who know best: What do you think of this idea? Maybe a company is willing to pay to test it. Maybe it's willing to pay for prototyping, even intellectual property. You both benefit by focusing on what you do best.

Want to test your product concept quickly and affordably? Do the following.

1. Search Google Images.

What else is out there? Is the idea actually new? You need to study the market. This is extremely easy to do; it doesn't even require leaving your home office. You'll probably find something similar. That's okay. Take notes.

Related: What to Do When You Need Inspiration But It Just Won't Come

2. Search Google Patents for prior art.

Look around at the landscape of intellectual property filed. Are you going to step on anyone's toes? There's a good chance you'll find similar ideas. Make note of these too.

3. Hone in on your idea's uniqueness.

What sets it apart from existing products? Your idea does not need to be radically different. In fact simple improvements are the easiest ideas to license. What benefit does your idea offer that others do not? Is the prior art strong? Has an aspect been overlooked?

4. Create a one-page sell sheet.

Sell sheets are fantastic selling tools. Describe the main benefit of your idea in a short sentence and why consumers will care. List a few additional benefits. Hire a graphic artist on Elance for less than $100 to create a 3D rendering of the idea and include that as well. Include your contact information, of course.

5. File a provisional patent application.

Doing so will run you between $65-$130 depending on which classification you fall under.

Related: Before You Crowdfund an Invention, Consider Patent Protection

6. Make a list of potential licensees.

When you were looking at images of similar products, you undoubtedly kept coming across the same names of manufacturers. Those manufacturers are your potential licensees.

7. Start contacting those companies.

Submit your sell sheet to a few companies online. Pick up the phone and call a few others. You need to get your sell sheet in front of someone who's willing to look and comment on it.

What those steps accomplish is a singular goal: To see if there's any interest, and really nothing more. But that's a lot! Now it's time for lunch.

Of course, I can move that quickly because I have decades of experience. I also have help, in the form of my longtime assistant James who is fantastic at making sell sheets and filing provisional patent applications.

Importantly, this is what I don't do.

1. Overthink it. It's just an idea. I don't let myself get too attached.

2. File a patent. Getting a patent is extremely expensive. At this point, I don't have enough information. I definitely don't know anyone even wants it.

3. Build a prototype. To be honest, I love building prototypes. But given that I'm just trying to determine whether there's any interest, it's too early. Why expend the effort? I don't have any proof of demand.

But if a company calls back in response and is asking to see more… now I do! Now it makes sense to get in touch with a contract manufacturer to ask for a quote. Or if I need to, study up on manufacturing practices on YouTube. Sometimes I discover a manufacturing issue that can't be overcome. That's okay. It happens quite a bit actually. I'd still rather know there's interest first.

Related: Lower Trademark Filing Fees Coming Soon

The process I've described above is a strategy. It's a way of getting the crucial feedback you need before moving forward. It's about reducing the amount of time and money you spend on any one particular idea. At the end the day, licensing is a numbers game. I don't fall in love with my ideas. And because I haven't spent that much money, I'm not financially attached either. Try it! Teach yourself the steps. You aren't going to license every idea you come up with, not even close. When you get that call back, you'll be shocked — and delighted.

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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