This is how it usually goes: Someone observes a problem. He or she crafts a solution. Then an expensive prototype and an even more expensive patent application. The result? Thousands of dollars spent, with nary an indication that there's even a market for the product. For years, people have been going about the process of product development this way. Simply put, they're doing it wrong.
Bringing a product to market through licensing or venturing is no easy feat. Your resources are extremely precious. Don't waste them! The reality is that while making a beautiful prototype might be fun and rewarding, it's also completely unnecessary. The same goes for rushing out to file a patent. Inventors become so consumed with fear that their ideas will be stolen that they fail to properly vet them before investing their time and money. Instead, your goal should be: How can I determine that there is significant interest in this idea as soon and as cheaply as possible?
To achieve that end, do the following.
1. Test the market. First and foremost: Is anyone even willing to pay you for this idea? You must find out. The easiest way to test the market for an idea is to create a sell sheet. A sell sheet is best thought of as a one-page advertisement for your product idea. It should include a statement that concisely summarizes the benefit of your idea, a visual depiction of your idea, a few bullet points describing the features of your idea, and your contact information.
In my experience, sell sheets that include video do incredibly well. The video you link to in your sell sheet should be short and sweet--just the problem and your solution. You can use your iPhone to film it, and don't bother including music. Most importantly, does the viewer instantly grasp the benefit of your idea? Cannibalize existing products to create your prototype; it doesn't need to look perfect. You are demonstrating proof of concept. Hiring a graphic designer to create a 3-D computer-generated model of your idea is ridiculously affordable these days. Of course, make sure that anyone you hire or work with signs a non-disclosure agreement that includes a provision that you own all improvements and changes made to the idea.
2. File a provisional patent application (PPA). A provisional patent application protects your idea for up to one year and allows you to label your idea as "patent pending." I am a huge fan of PPAs. For one, they're inexpensive, unlike patents, which can easily cost thousands of dollars in legal fees depending on the complexity of your idea. And I think inventors should and can file their own PPAs. Do enough homework, and you will be surprised at how easy it is. Use the 12 months of protection afforded to you to shop around your idea. Is there any interest? (As a disclaimer, I am not an attorney, and this is not legal advice.)
3. Reach out to companies that support open innovation. Many inventors I encounter take far too long to start doing this. Speed to market matters most! Identify the companies that are selling products that are similar to yours. Determine whether or not they accept outside submissions, which is easily accomplished over the phone. Always make sure to read the fine print. Do you understand the nuances of their submission process?
I've met too many inventors who have wiped out their savings trying to get an idea off the ground. It's not worth it. You must determine that there's interest in your idea before investing significant amounts of money and time. Wait too long--say, for a perfect prototype to be made or for a patent to be issued--and there might not even be a market for your idea anymore.