The feeling you get when you build a prototype of one of your ideas is truly magical. Suddenly, something that only existed in your head you can now touch, see, and play with. I've been licensing my inventions for decades, and I still feel that way.
But here's the question: Should you build a prototype for every idea you have?
I'd like to say yes. But in reality, if your goal is to become a profitable inventor, my answer is no. Most of your product ideas will not get licensed, which is why it's smarter to use an inexpensive sell sheet to gauge how much interest there is in the invention first. (An effective sell sheet is a simple one-page advertisement that highlights the benefit of the invention.)
I learned very quickly that prototyping every idea I had was not sustainable when I was making a living as an inventor.
I'd have gone broke, and wasted my most precious resource of all--my time.
Because if you cannot get anyone interested in the benefit of your invention, why bother building a prototype, filing an expensive patent, or starting a company? Most inventions fail because they aren't marketable.
My strategy of selling the benefit first is just practical, and will save you a lot of heartache in the long run.
Sooner or later, if you stay in the game, one of the companies that you submit your idea to for licensing consideration will tell you that they like it and ask to see a prototype. Understandably, they need proof of concept. Perfect! Now is the time to build one.
However, I must warn you: Without taking the right precautions, sending your prototype to a potential licensee can backfire on you. I cannot tell you how many times a prototype I've sent in the mail has broken before anyone even used it. If the people who receive your prototype don't know how to use it correctly, they may just decide it doesn't work, leaving a bad impression. These are not unique experiences. In fact, they're quite typical.
You have no control over how your prototype is received and tested, let alone pitched, when you mail it off.
So, keep the following advice in mind when using a prototype to help you license your invention.
1. Ask the company what type of prototype it would like to see. There are different types of prototypes; some are much more expensive than others. Maybe you can Frankenstein a prototype by cannibalizing and combining elements of existing products.
2. Make sure your prototype is built durably enough to be used multiple times. Remember, people will use it incorrectly.
3. Always shoot video of your prototype in action. You will be able to share this video over and over again. Sometimes, video is all you really need to show proof of concept. I call this a video sell sheet.
4. Show recipients how to use your prototype before they even take it out of the box. This could be with written instructions, or even better, video.
5. Demo your prototype yourself. If at all possible, I highly recommend that you demonstrate your product in person. This way, you control the pitch. Given that trade shows are on hold and many employees are working remotely, pitching your invention using Zoom or Skype is not a bad option either.
6. Don't expect to get your prototype back. Unfortunate, but this has been my experience.
7. Use your prototype to strengthen the intellectual property you file. What is working well and what isn't about the current design of your invention? This information is priceless, so make sure to document it.
8. Get a price quote for multiple prototypes. That first prototype is always going to be the most difficult one to make. So, if there's an option to purchase multiple prototypes at a discounted price, look into it--you might need more than one.
9. Make sure that whomever you hire to help you build a prototype has some actual knowledge of the real production of products. If your prototype cannot be manufactured, you've just shot yourself in the foot. Because when a company likes your prototype, the next question they will ask you is, "What is it going to cost to manufacture?"
Kick the tires on anyone you are thinking of working with. Will they be able to fulfill all of your needs? Find out before you get under way.
I know inventors just want to see their product ideas come to life. I completely understand that, because many times, so do I! My background is as a sculptor; I have always enjoyed working with my hands.
The real question is not whether you should build a prototype, it's when.