Over the years, I've made a lot of mistakes. Naturally: I'm an entrepreneur.
To succeed as an entrepreneur, you must be willing to fail -- over and over and over again. It's part of the process. If you're failing, you're learning.
Mistakes are painful, yes. That's why there's so much to learn from them.
I don't mind making a mistake. But I never want to make the same one twice.
Now that I have a little hindsight on my career as a product developer, I want to share about the mistakes I made licensing my ideas. For many years that's how I supported my family. Some of my ideas were more lucrative than others. I enjoyed myself greatly throughout it all.
Nearly 20 years ago, I co-founded a coaching program, inventRight, to help other people license their ideas. Since then, it's become even easier to pursue a creative idea using the 10 steps I outlined in my book One Simple Idea. I appreciate getting to speak with inventors every day. They're passionate and determined.
That's important, but these traits can also hold you back. Even though it's easier to license an idea today -- partly because open innovation has become the most popular form of research and development -- obstacles to success still abound. That's just the nature of doing anything new, like bringing a product to market.
To achieve your goals, you must be willing to keep learning.
These are the mistakes inventors make the most along their journey.
1. Thinking they have to do it all themselves. I am not an illustrator, but I wasted a lot of time frustrating myself in an attempt to be early on in my career. Eventually, I decided I needed someone who could bring my ideas to life for me. Luckily, I knew just the person. I had met Russell Hicks, who illustrated Teddy Ruxpin, at the startup WOW. He could draw my ideas wonderfully, and fast. We split revenue 50-50.
Honestly, I'm surprised I waited as long as I did to bring him on. I was coming up with a lot of ideas, because licensing is a numbers game. The more feedback you get the better. I knew I needed to get more of my ideas to more companies. Our partnership was crucial.
So, for example, if you're not great at cold calling companies about your ideas, find someone who enjoys it. Don't want to build prototypes? Find someone who does.
I'm all for DIY inventing, but you need to respect when to hire a professional.
2. Listening to other people. The minute I had more confidence in myself, I stopped relying on other people for their opinions about my ideas. We want to rely on "experts." But in reality, a lot of people are willing to give you their advice for free. And when that advice is bad, it's not actually free -- it costs you.
Early on in my career, I shared my ideas with people who I thought could help me. But actually, they didn't have the right experience. Because ideas I declined to move forward with based on their recommendation I later saw on television and store shelves! They were wrong, basically. Why had I listened?
Before you take anyone's advice, "kick the tires" on the person. Have they done what you want to do more than once? Seek out repeat success stories. That's the only way you gain perspective. Make sure that person has accomplished enough to guide you. And even then, take what they say with a grain of salt -- they could be wrong.
3. Letting their stubbornness get the best of them. For a long time, I thought I had to do it all myself. Finally, in my late twenties, I joined the startup Worlds of Wonder -- and immediately wondered why I waited so long to team up with other people. It might not be your dream job, but talk about an opportunity! Why not raise your hand and learn on someone else's dime? I learned so much about product development so quickly working at a startup.
Another time in which I experience inventors letting their stubbornness get the best of them is during contract negotiations. Not infrequently, a product developer who has already licensed an idea signs up with inventRight. When I ask why, the answer is invariably that they left money on the table.
When you get some interest, please, find someone with experience who can advise you. Do not sign an agreement without having some form of help.
I have heard from so many people who regret handling the entire process on their own because it's obvious to them now that their deal is done that it could have been better. If they neglected to insert performance clauses and improvements clauses, they're truly in a bind, because their invention is most likely just sitting there.
The negotiation table is not a good time to try to save money. Without having someone on your team who is experienced, you will lose. Don't kid yourself. On that note, please recognize that there's a difference between business strategy and legal strategy. Get business advice from someone who has profited from licensing agreements many times before and legal advice from a licensing attorney. (Full disclosure: My company inventRight helps inventors negotiate licensing agreements.)
4. Failing to follow through. When my big idea -- which was for a label that rotated, providing more packaging space -- started to become profitable, I walked away and took my children out of school for six months so my family and I could drive around the United States. Did we have a great time on vacation? Yes. But I should have paid more attention to what was going on with my licensee for longer. When you license an idea, you need to stay involved.
So, after you sign an agreement, take the time to meet with the people who will be working on your product idea. Sit down with sales, marketing, and engineering and get to know one together. They need to know who you are. If you have a working relationship, you'll be able to spot problems earlier. People like to walk away from problems, I've observed. When you know about an issue, you can try to help fix it.
5. Designing the wrong ideas. I started out in the novelty gift industry, which I loved. Usually hard plastic and sometimes plush, the dozens of ideas I licensed were fun and whimsical. But they were all seasonal items, so the royalties I earned were never going to be very significant. I should have asked someone: How do I make some money doing this? Sooner or later, if you're creative, you will need to ask yourself: Where am I going with this? At that time, I didn't have a mentor. If I had, he might have told me to start inventing novelty gifts for events that occurred every day of the year, such as birthdays and anniversaries. I never reached that conclusion on my own, so I made okay money.
6. Giving up too easily. After three or four companies told me they weren't interested, I used to walk away from an idea and begin working on something else. Now I know I was hardly giving myself a chance to succeed! I encourage my students to get at least 30 rejections -- in part, so that they can ask the company why, and in doing so, open up a dialogue. "What else are you looking for, so I can come back to you with my next idea?"
Don't give up on an idea too soon. You only need one yes.
7. Not staying in the same industry long enough to establish mutually beneficially relationships. This is crucial. If you're serious about licensing your ideas, stay in the same industry long enough to make relationships with the companies you want to design for. I was offered a lot of freelance work, which was helpful, because companies knew and trusted me. So don't jump around too much, at least at first. Start attending trade shows and introducing yourself.
8. Getting too stressed out. Love the act of designing and love the industry. Please don't count on one of your ideas to be the windfall you need to fulfill a specific dream. That's too much pressure. You don't have to quit your day job to succeed at licensing. Make sure you have other income coming in. Keep your sanity. Treat your love of design with respect; it's precious.
9. Not doing enough research. Before you dive into a new project or relationship, do your homework. You must take the time to educate yourself. Go deeper and further. Don't merely seek to confirm what you suspect. Keep an open mind! Identify people who have become successful doing what it is you want to and learn from them. With the Internet, there's no excuse not to be careful. To bring a product to market, you need knowledge, not money.
10. Rushing to file a patent. This is probably one of the worst mistakes you can make because of the expense. Fear is a powerful motivator. There are plenty of people who will enjoy telling you your idea is great and that you should file a patent on it. I hear it all the time: "But so-and-so (usually someone who has no business experience) said I need a patent." But it's smarter to determine if your idea is marketable first.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the value of patents. At best, you can use them strategically to further your business interests. The decision to file intellectual property should be part of your overall go-to-market strategy. At a minimum, search Google Images and Google Patents to study the landscape of prior art.
Asking your friends and family for their opinion is not the same as doing your homework.
11. Thinking someone else will do their work for them. No one is going to do the heavy lifting for you. No one is going to say, "Hey, this is a great idea! I'll take over from here." Sorry, it just doesn't happen that way. The only person who is going to make you successful is yourself. Not a shark on Shark Tank. Not an infomercial. Being on television does not guarantee success.
12. Not being reasonable. Try to understand where others are coming from. This is especially important during negotiations. Asking for too much (top loading a deal) and trying to leverage one company against another aren't wise. Get a sense of what's typical first.
13. Focusing on the short-term. To succeed in any business requires being professional, helpful, kind, a relationship-builder, and oftentimes, simply being the last person standing. Don't burn bridges.
14. Not listening to any advice. At the beginning, I told you to be wary of whom you listen to. But deciding never to listen to anyone else is also a mistake! Like I said, being very determined and passionate is absolutely important. But, sometimes, you must be able to sit back and look at things from a different perspective. Ask companies what they think. Get their feedback. Do not stop listening and learning.
I think it's perfectly fine to be a little naive. I was. It's more than okay to dream and attempt the impossible. I did. That attitude will carry you far!
You absolutely must protect your creativity at all costs. But you also need to acknowledge when your strategy isn't working and adjust accordingly. You can do this!