Most people believe that in order to become successful at inventing, they must simply patent, prototype, test, and then market their inventions. But this advice is incomplete and outdated, at best.
Let's review the facts. The vast majority of patents never generate enough income to cover the cost of getting the patent in the first place. Prototypes are great for establishing proof of concept, but they don't sell.
Testing and marketing a product before you know there's demand can be expensive and time-consuming. When you don't know if anyone will ultimately purchase your invention, patenting, prototyping, testing, and marketing it is foolhardy. Because if you fail, there's a significant chance you'll never partake in this costly endeavor again.
Here's my advice, after making a darn good living for more than 30 years commercializing everything from simple novelty gift ideas to complex packaging innovations.
1. Understand that you're playing a numbers game.
You're going to need more than one great idea to become a successful independent inventor--a lot more. Commit to becoming an idea factory. When you receive evidence that one of your ideas isn't marketable, be ready to move on to your next one.
2. Study the market.
Your product idea needs enough of a "wow" factor to warrant the time and energy required to commercialize it. Does it truly offer a point of difference compared with similar products? And is that point of difference significant enough to entice customers to pay for it? To help you find out, use Google Images and Google Shopping to study the market.
If you don't find anything like your idea, that's concerning, because it indicates a lack of consumer demand.
3. Search for prior art.
Doing a patent search is another important way of studying the market. Play around with different search terms using Google Patents. Is your invention actually new? Make sure you're not stepping on someone else's toes. Don't exhaust yourself trying to find every piece of prior art, though--uncovering all of it is an impossible endeavor and not the best use of your time.
When you find a similar invention, read the patent very carefully. You might be able to redesign or tweak your concept so that it doesn't infringe.
4. File an inexpensive provisional patent application (PPA) to help you establish perceived ownership.
Don't fall into the trap of believing that you need a patent to become a profitable inventor. You don't. Most products aren't patented, and most patents aren't profitable. To give yourself (or your licensee) the option of filing a non-provisional patent application later, file a comprehensive PPA first instead, which creates the perception of ownership. You can teach yourself how to write and file your own PPA. Consider using the power of copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets as well.
Perceived ownership is necessary for raising money or securing a licensing deal.
5. Test the waters by selling the "benefit."
The best way of doing this is with a sell sheet, which is essentially a one-page advertisement. At the very top, list the main benefit of your idea. This is your value proposition. Next, create a 3-D computer-generated rendering of your idea. Include a couple of bullet-pointed features and your contact information.
This is a simple, affordable way of getting in the game. If the benefit doesn't sell, why bother doing the rest? This is also why I don't believe in spending a lot of time or money on a prototype right away. It's not a question of whether to build a prototype, but when.
6. Sell first and sell fast by licensing your invention.
One of the fastest and easiest ways of commercializing your invention with no financial risk is by licensing (a.k.a. renting) it to a company in business. They already have shelf space, manufacturing, marketing, and fulfillment in place. Plus, they take on all the financial risk.
7. Protect yourself by working with companies that value inventors.
Become a member of the inventing community to help you discern between companies that value the contributions of inventors and those that don't. Your loyal peers will provide invaluable support on your journey. Plus, they'll celebrate your wins.
This process works because it allows you to test the waters and identify which of your ideas have the most potential quickly. You can stay in the game longer, because you're spending very little on each product idea.
Finally, only take inventing advice from inventors who've profited from their inventions repeatedly. Not once, not twice -- but those who have actually made a living as an inventor.