I'm not quite sure that I ever considered myself a professional inventor. I have invented a few inventions, but most of the ideas that I licensed were just simple improvements on existing products.
This I know for sure: I have always been motivated by the desire to be creative and my own boss. I wanted to wake up every day feeling excited. I wanted to be curious. That's why I pursued entrepreneurship and in particular, product development. Looking back on my career, I was able to make a nice living by being creative. Seeing my ideas become products featured in television commercials and watching people use them has given me great joy. I still feel like this today -- that I want to be doing what I'm doing for the rest of my life. Retirement is not an option when educating inventors is this much fun.
So, let's get back to that word, inventor. When you say the word "inventor" most people think of legendary innovators like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. But what about the rest of us? What about people who like to dream up simple solutions or create items that make others smile and laugh? I've never identified with the label inventor in part because it carries so much weight. It doesn't have to be that way. I think each and every one of us possesses the capacity to be inventive -- it's innate. If you have creative ideas, you can bring them to market.
Because I never identified with being an inventor, I had no problem breaking all the "rules." Meaning, I didn't file expensive patents. I didn't build expensive prototypes. And I definitely didn't start a company to bring my ideas to market.
Instead, I flipped the traditional process on its head by focusing on selling the benefit of my ideas first. If no one was interested, why go any further? If a benefit generated interest from a company that I showed it to, I would begin investing in that product idea a little bit more. I've always tried to spend as little as possible on each of my ideas, because inventing is a numbers game. If you want to become a professional inventor, you have to find ways to increase your likelihood of success.
To be honest, becoming a professional inventor has nothing to do with how great your ideas are. Anyone can have a great idea. It's about how you conduct yourself. To me, it also means that you have created something new and unique that people truly want -- and had enough determination and persistence to actually bring it to market. The tough part? Bringing it to market. Commercialization. There are many inventors who have patented their inventions, and they should be extremely proud of that. It's an accomplishment. But personally, to me, having a patent is not enough.
After interviewing nearly 30 experts across 17 industries that license product ideas from independent inventors, this is what I've learned: For companies to want to work with you, you need to be perceived as a professional inventor, not an amateur. If you make rookie mistakes, companies won't take you seriously -- and as a result, you'll have much more difficult time getting a licensing agreement. These interviews are featured in my new book Become a Professional Inventor: The Insider's Guide to Companies Looking For Ideas.
At my company inventRight, I've been coaching inventors for the last 20 years. Across a wide variety of categories including toys, hardware, kitchen, pet, As Seen on TV, novelty gifts, automotive, fitness, and more, independent product developers are licensing their ideas using a provisional patent application only. Meaning, no patent. Our process for bringing a product to market has reinvented the invention process.
So, what do you need? You need to build relationships with companies that practice open innovation. You need to be perceived as an asset. You need great marketing material. You need to understand their business from their perspective. In essence, you need to become a professional inventor. These companies don't have time to take amateurs seriously.
Here are nine essential steps to becoming a professional full-time inventor.
1. Create professional marketing material. Your marketing copy needs to convey the benefit of your product instantly.
2. Take the time to build relationships. This isn't speed dating. Companies know that they probably won't license your first or second idea. If you stick with it long enough to start to receiving good feedback, though, there's a greater chance you will get a licensing deal. Basically, if you invest time with them, they will invest time with you.
3. Study the marketplace. Most industries don't want to license me-too products. Your idea must be unique and new. The only way to determine this is by studying the marketplace. Many companies complained to me that upwards of 80 percent of all of the ideas they receive they can find using Google within a minute. And when that happens? They put you in the amateur camp. So please, be sure your product has a point of difference.
4. Understand manufacturing costs. In some industries, this is especially critical. If your product cannot be manufactured at the appropriate price point, it will never see the light of day.
5. File the appropriate intellectual property. For most simple consumer product ideas, I highly recommend filing a provisional patent application. Learn how to do it well. This gives you, or the company you license to, the option of filing a non-provisional patent application later on.
6. Find ways to get proof of concept inexpensively. To speed things along, you're going to need a works-like prototype at some point. The question is when to invest in one. Like I said, my strategy has always been to sell the benefit of my product idea first using a sell sheet. Know that when they're interested, they're going to want to see a prototype. Be prepared for that.
7. Get good feedback. Without feedback, you won't be able to redesign your initial submissions so that they're a better fit for licensing. You're always going to have to redesign or tweak your original product. Really listen to the input you receive from the companies that review your submissions and use it to your advantage.
8. Be prepared for hard questions when you begin to negotiate. You need to understand the landscape of intellectual property related to your idea, so you can answer the question, "Why should we pay you?" In practice, this means familiarizing yourself with the prior art, meaning patents that have been issued that relate to your technology. There's always prior art! So, don't let the fact that it exists stop you or discourage you. Instead, learn as much as you can from what's been issued, making note of the inventions that made it to market.
I actually love it when potential licensees ask about the prior art, because you can turn this question into a great selling point by stressing your point of difference.
9. Never embarrass your champion. Don't give them any reason not to bring you into their family! Polish your LinkedIn profile and be mindful about what you post on social media. You never know who is watching. If they determine that you're going to be unreasonable or are a wildcard, they will avoid you like the plague no matter how great your ideas are.