You've come up with a great idea that you cannot stop thinking about. You're excited and nervous at the same time. Maybe it's just a sketch on a napkin at this point. Maybe you've made a prototype or even filed for some type of intellectual property. Regardless, the question is always the same: What do I do now?

You think, if I could just get this in front of the right people! People who will recognize its brilliance. You hear different stories from different people about what it takes to get discovered. It's all very confusing. Trust me, I get it. I know how you feel because I've been there. I created products and licensed my ideas for decades. Once, I even started and grew a small company to bring uniquely shaped guitar picks to market.

Before you rush to do anything, I implore you to pause. You need to stop, think ahead, and plan carefully before you take action.

One of the best ways to gain an understanding of any marketplace is by attending the industry's trade shows. This is true if you're attempting to license your idea or venture it yourself.

Over the years, I've been to many different trade shows and to my dismay, I always encounter inventors who have purchased a booth to display their invention. Typically, what they're displaying is only a prototype, meaning the item is not in production yet. This is a huge mistake. These inventors stay locked in their booth all trade show long, waiting for someone to come and discover them. That's what they've been sold on: That the right people will walk on by, that there will be pitching opportunities.

But commercializing a product just doesn't work like that. It never has. For one, the people you need to talk to about licensing your invention are staffing their own booths! They're not out walking the show. Suppliers and retail buyers are the ones walking the show.

When approached correctly, trade shows can be enormously beneficial for independent inventors. In fact, I highly encourage product developers who are serious about commercializing their inventions to attend the trade show their concepts pertain to.

That said, there are significant risks in sharing your invention for all the world to see before the timing is right. If your invention is in the prototype stage, I strongly advise against displaying it at a trade show. The same goes for products that have been manufactured, but aren't quite ready for retail or have limited distribution.

The experts I interviewed agreed: It's an amateur, rookie move -- one that can have disastrous consequences.

Simply put, it's dangerous from a protection standpoint to publicly display a prototype of your invention at a trade show. It's like asking someone to rip you off.

Sara Farber's company Galactic Sneeze invents toys and games. Three party games she licensed to Kikkerland Design -- Goat Yoga, Maskarades, and Clock Block -- hit the market this fall.

A former director of content design for Fisher-Price, she's also brought two games to market on her own. In a phone interview, she pointed out that it's not only risky because there are bad actors, but also because people are inevitably inspired by what they see -- whether they realize it or not.

"No, I wouldn't recommend just sitting at a booth with all your ideas. There probably are people who would intentionally rip stuff off, but there are also people who wouldn't intentionally rip stuff off, but sometimes you don't know where you see something, it gets into your head, it's in the ether, and then you come up with something similar, and you might not even know that you got it from seeing this other item," she explained.

She continued: "The whole point of having an inventor relations person is so that an inventor is not going in and pitching to all the actual designers; they're pitching to a person who's the gatekeeper. It's the gatekeeper's job to weed out some things and bring other to very specific people internally, with the understanding that it's an external concept and that if they do this concept or something similar to this concept, then they will need to work with the inventor or give them a royalty."

Good point.

George Michaels has been in the packaging industry for 40 years. Currently he's a sales executive at Accraply, a global provider of label application equipment that was acquired by Barry-Wehmiller. At his industry's trade shows, companies typically show only equipment that is available for purchase, he said. Was there was any danger in showing a prototype that was not in production yet, I asked?

"Yes," he replied. "Someone's going to take the idea and run with it. If you have a prototype, you wouldn't share that at a trade show, you'd do so privately."

His company only brings items to shows that it's ready to sell because protection at trade shows is impossible. "The whole idea is that we want as many people as possible to see our new innovations," he added. Even when taking photos and recording videos is unauthorized, it happens all the time.

Michael Weinstein, president of digital at Bluewater Media, has attended more than 100 trade shows. As the former chief marketing officer for DRTV company Allstar Innovations, he was responsible for launching one of the most successful products in the history of As Seen on TV. Unfortunately, he has "absolutely seen examples where inventors have presented prototypes to people at shows and then magically seen the same item called something else make its way to the market six months later. So yes, there is risk. If you don't have a patent and you're not ready for the market, I would very much agree it should be shown privately."

Before he cofounded Grand Fusion Housewares four years ago, Brendan Bauer worked in the kitchen industry for more than two decades. He estimated he's attended more than 200 trade shows. Does his company bring prototypes to trade shows, I wondered?

Sometimes, he said. When they have a prototype, they generally keep it hidden, bringing it out from under the table only when engaging with customers that they already have a good relationship with.

"I wouldn't literally put it out for the whole world to see, because you really shouldn't do that until you're ready to sell," he said. "You have to move an item to market quickly before the imitators start to follow." He just got back from a trade show in China, he added, where he saw items that his company had launched this year.

Back in the late '80s, when I was in charge of product design at the toy startup Worlds of Wonder (which launched Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag, two number-one hit toys) I remember building prototypes for Toy Fair in New York. How could I forget gluing the eyelashes on our talking Pamela doll at the last minute? Boy was that stressful. We built prototypes to test the market to see if there was interest, but we only let buyers see what we had; we never let the public. That strategy was smart 30 years ago and it holds true today.

Exhibitors large and small don't display prototypes at trade shows. They keep what they're working on confidential and private until they're ready to launch. Why would you risk the exposure, when copycats are able to move faster than ever? A trade show is not the place to test the waters or practice pitching your product. It's true that you need good feedback about your invention. The place to get it is privately. If you're seeking a licensing deal for your invention, I recommend approaching potential partners (also known as licensees) at trade shows booth by booth to introduce yourself and begin forging a relationship.

Here are a few tips.

1. Do not purchase a booth to present a prototype or limited production run of your invention, regardless of whether your aim is to venture or license. Until you're truly ready to ship product on a wide scale, this is to be avoided.

2. Before you plan to attend a show, verify the companies you're interested in licensing your invention to will be in attendance. Trade associations maintain lists of exhibitors.

3. File intellectual property protection first. Filing a provisional patent application, trademark, or copyright is easy and relatively inexpensive.

4. Bring a sell sheet and be ready to show it privately. A video or small prototype could be extremely helpful. But please realize that obtaining the contact information of the right person at the companies you want to work with is a win too.

5. Approach companies cautiously. Ask them if they work with outside inventors. If not, move on.

This is the first in a new series of articles about trade shows and inventors I will be publishing. Stay tuned!

Published on: Nov 18, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.