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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Small business: Plan before marketing an invention

A great business idea is still 1 percent

A great business idea is still 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. Photo Credit: iStock

Looking to bring your invention to market?

Well, the road to commercial success is a bumpy one, considering that a great many inventions never see the light of day, experts say.

One of the biggest mistakes inventors make is underestimating the amount of work involved in commercializing a product and failing to plan beyond the invention stage.

"The invention part is relatively easy compared to the difficulty of getting the invention to market," explains Don Kelly, principal of Intellectual Asset Management Associates, an Alexandria, Va.-based patent agent.

To start, there's lots of competition and it can be an uphill battle convincing a retailer or potential licensing partner that your product is a step up from what's already on the market.

"You have to convince people that it's better than what they've been using all along," Kelly says.

In fact, for many companies considering licensing their products, it needs to be 25 percent to 30 percent better than what they already have, explains Stephen Key, co-founder of Modesto, Calif.-based inventRight, which sells educational materials for inventors.

Key says he has brought more than 20 products to market over the past 30 years either through securing licensing deals or manufacturing it himself.

Among the mistakes he's seen is inventors thinking they can rely solely on others to bring their inventions to market.

"You need to be in control through the whole process," he says. "Don't count on others. "

To start, do your due diligence and conduct a patent search to make sure your invention isn't already out there. If it's available, then file a provisional patent application, which affords one-year protection.

Before sinking your money into an expensive prototype, create a basic sell sheet with a one-line benefit statement that you can send to companies, Key recommends.

For instance, when he was trying to license a rotating label for beverages, he sent a sell sheet that simply said that his technology adds 75 percent more space to a label. He also promoted that benefit when he spoke directly to companies.

"Companies want benefits," says Key, whose rotating label technology will be used on a new children's fruit drink called Twist 'n' Chill, which will feature Disney characters.

So work on perfecting your pitch and be prepared to knock on lots of doors, says inventor Brian Fried of Melville, founder of the Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club of Suffolk County and author of "You & Your Big Ideas" (Wingspan Press; $12.95).

"The biggest mistake some inventors make is doing nothing at all," says Fried, who is in negotiations with retailers to bring several products to market. "You have to get out there and talk to people. "

You also have to make sure your product is marketable, he says.

Conducting market research is a critical part of the invention process, adds Walter Reid, a business adviser with the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State College.

The SBDC can help a company with market research for free, but Reid also recommends that inventors do small focus-group interviews with their desired demographic.

"This will tell you whether or not your idea has value," says Reid, noting that the SBDC also does free preliminary patent searches.

You don't want to overestimate market demand for your product, cautions inventor Daniel Weiss, who heads the New York Society of Professional Inventors in Farmingdale.

You also don't want to risk your nest egg on an idea that may never fly, he notes.

"Some people think they have the best idea since sliced bread and are willing to mortgage their house for it," Weiss says. "That's a very dangerous thing to do. "

Be business savvy.
"You have to take a step back and remember you're starting your own business," Fried adds.

So proceed with caution -- you're life savings may depend on it.

PROTECTING YOUR IDEA
Inventors are often concerned about someone stealing their ideas. To help safeguard your invention, file a provisional patent application, which offers one year of protection.

Beyond that, keep good records. The early dates of conception and invention-development stages can be critical. Inventors should have clear and witnessed journal entries in a bound notebook.

Also keep nondisclosure agreements handy for discussing your invention in public.

Source: Don Kelly (Find his list of top inventor mistakes at patentagentplus.com)

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