I couldn't make it to the International Home + Housewares trade show in Chicago this year, so I sought out interviews with eyes and ears on the ground to report on the state of open innovation. If you're serious about licensing your ideas for new products, attending the right trade show can be one of the most efficient ways of getting your foot in the door. Featuring more than 2,200 exhibitors of cooking, cleaning, storage, and home décor products, the show in Chicago is staggeringly large.

Dan Koval, founder and president of Clean Design Company, told Sylvia Pomazak he has worked with countless outside innovators during the 20 years he's been bringing new products to market. Pomazak is an inventor who works for my coaching program inventRight.

"We live off of open innovation," he revealed. The company receives submissions from inventors, designers, and "everyday people who have found a problem that is not being solved properly."

First, Koval takes the submission to his company's designers and manufacturing partners. The questions he seeks to answer right away are: Is this something we can make? And is it actually solving a problem? He also asks the creator for proof that they've shown it to potential customers, meaning it's not just an idea on paper.

"Like they say, no idea survives its first contact with a customer," Koval said with a laugh. "Everything gets refined through iteration." Few ideas are licensed as is, which is why opening up a dialogue is essential. 

Specifically, the company is looking for "simple solutions to problems people face every day." Koval emphasized that less is more, meaning no bells and whistles are needed. "A lot of people are trying to add and add to things, but we like products that are really elegant and easy to use."

For the company to consider making a deal, the market needs to be large enough. This may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised. Inventors frequently share with me their ideas for very niche markets. Those don't tend to be a great fit for licensing, for the following reason.

"A lot of money and time goes into bringing a new product to market. Not just refining the idea and its design, but putting it into production, marketing it, financing it, and finding the right customers," Koval explained.

About 15 years ago, UK-based product developer Tim Brennan invented and licensed a minimalist shoe that is still in production today after formally studying engineering, innovation, and design.

On the phone, Brennan told me that it's taken him "quite a bit of time to get a feel for the housewares industry and start producing ideas that are relevant to it. I know what's relevant to me and think should be successful... but you really have to listen to the industry, no matter what your background is and how good you think you are at this!"

Last year, he attended the show in Chicago and one in Germany to get a better feel for which companies he should approach. In the past, he would pitch as many as 100 companies on an idea. Now he can't quite believe he was using such a scattershot approach.

"I couldn't really tell that some of the companies weren't a good match from their websites alone," he told me. On a trade show floor, on the other hand, you can quickly determine whether a company does the kind of manufacturing required by your idea -- just by glancing as you walk by.

"You could do the same kind of research online, but it would take you forever. So you end up taking shortcuts and make bad calls." Brennan ended up having very lengthy conversations with two big companies, which pleased him.

At the same time, approaching more companies (and not just market leaders) about your idea is one of the best ways of significantly upping your chance of finding a licensee

Nathan Neumann, vice president of export sales at UK-based EasyDo, clarified that although the company primarily manufactures and sells household cleaning products using injection molding, those aren't the only kind of products it is interested in hearing about.

"We do have wider capabilities and we're always open to new ideas," Neumann said. "If you have any household, cleaning, or even ideas in different product categories, we're open to receiving them and discussing them."

Brennan's advice for fellow product developers who want to use trade shows to license their ideas is to focus on being positive and friendly.

"Having a great attitude can get you so far in this industry, and others. I came here expecting to share two new products and ended up receiving positive responses for more like six to eight." Rather than distribute copies of his physical one-page sell-sheet, which could end up anywhere, he showed employees videos of his ideas on his phone.

Attending trade shows can also help you identify categories that have become oversaturated and thus difficult to invent for, Pomazak pointed out. The largest segment of new products on the market was in the hydration category, with more than 60 new hydration and water bottle products.

"Other than a water bottle that can walk and talk on its own, every type of water bottle imaginable was at the show. Water bottles with lights, sounds, and gizmos a-plenty. Many of them looked similar and offered the same benefit, though. Holding water, wow! What a revelation," Pomazak joked.

Study where your industry is heading so you can catch trends before they take off. At that point, carving out a point of difference in your provisional patent application becomes nearly impossible.

When you devote time and effort to developing closer relationships with the companies you want to invent for, they begin telling you what they're looking for -- which is absolutely priceless. Without a target, it's hard to know where to aim.

For more guidance on how to use trade shows to license your product ideas, check out:

Published on: Mar 19, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.