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Jun 4

I just got back form taking 10 new products to the National Hardware Show.  What a wonderful experience for the inventors.  We had garden products, snow shovels, fun new home gadgets and even something for the swimming pool. 

After attending the show a few times, the only thing I can’t remember seeing is women’s fashion (as long as flip flops don’t count) and baby products.  This show is perfect for inventors with new products.  There is a lot of attention paid to new products and inventors.  Our booth was in the Inventor Spotlight section and we were busy all of the time.

The inventors were able to work the floor for their product and bring potential buyers to the booth.  It was a very successful experience for our inventors and their products.  I always tell inventors that a professional tradeshow is the best way to launch a new product.  All of the people you need to meet are at the professional level shows.

We are busy planning for next year already.  We learned how to better present the products in the booth for the various awards that are given.  We had a good show on two months of preparation.  With a full year of getting ready, I am sure we will have an absolutely incredible experience.  We already have six products reserving their spot in the booth under our affiliated organization, The Inventors Roundtable.

Apr 26

A few weeks ago someone commented on one of my blogs.  I was about to reply, indicating that I strongly disagreed, but instead I decided to wait, to think about my reaction, and to ask some of my seasoned inventor friends (and a few patent attorneys) before responding.  After considerable deliberation, I decided it was important enough to write a new blog about the subject of the comment.   

Here is the comment that was sent to me:  “A decent patent attorney should be able to see if a product is marketable and profitable and he should be able to offer advice on this. If he simply writes claims to collect your cash then you need to work with a different attorney and not use him again”.

In my opinion (and the opinion of everyone I polled) not only is the advice in the first sentence of this comment wrong, it is completely WRONG!   Most decent patent attorneys wouldn’t presume to offer you marketing advice; and, if they do, in most cases you’d be best advised to find another attorney.  Patents attorneys go to school first to study some type of science or mathematics-related course, and, then subsequently, an education in the law with, where possible, a specialty in patent law.  For most attorneys, nowhere along the way are they taught about marketing.  In fact, most attorneys are not good at marketing even their own business, let alone yours.  When I told my seasoned inventor friends (and patent attorneys) about the comments, they were all amused by the naivety of the writer. 

Marketing is an illusive concept.  The first part is market research.  Do you have a market?  What are the demographics pertaining to your product?  What industries and markets do you need to be concerned with or target?  Why would you want to pay an attorney his/her hourly rate to do this research?  If you need to hire someone to do this for you, hire someone who’s knowledgeable and who knows how to obtain the necessary information.

Next, there is the actual marketing/selling part of the invention.  How are you going to make your target market aware of your new product?  This is way out of most attorneys’ area of expertise. 

It is NOT your attorney’s job to tell you if you have a good idea.  It is your responsibility to make this determination with the help or others. 

I do agree with the last part of the statement about when to find another attorney.  A good attorney should ask you whether or not you’ve had a professional search done (you shouldn’t have an attorney do your patent search for you, either), who your engineer is, and whether or not you’ve established that you can make the invention at a price that the consumer is willing to pay.  If you don’t have this information yet, talking to the patent attorney at all, is premature.

You should expect to hire a variety of experts to help you.  Your attorney is only one of these experts.  If you are looking for a “general practitioner” who can do everything, you are setting yourself up for lots of disappointment and as well as buckets of wasted time and money.

Feb 21
I get asked this question all the time, “Can I patent it myself?” Technically, yes, you can. However, my answer is always No. No! and Absolutely NO!! Doing your own patent work is like doing your own brain surgery. By the time you realize you’ve made a mistake, it’s too late to fix it.

Let me explain.  I do recommend that you read about the patent process.  The book “Patent It Yourself” is a good one.  You don’t want to pay the Intellectual Property (IP) attorney to educate you.  That you can do yourself.  However, that said, there is a reason why these professionals go to school for years and take several exams.  Writing a good patent is a unique and specialized skill set. 

I had a gentleman call me last week and ask about filing his own provisional patent application and then his own utility patent application.  If you’re going to bet your financial future on an invention, why wouldn’t you get the very best help and follow the steps that will give you the best opportunity for success?  Why would you risk everything on doing something that you are not trained for or had any experience doing. Would you really do your own appendectomy?

Honestly, unless you have the money to pay for a professional to file that patent application for you, you shouldn’t be going down this path at all.  Inventing is expensive and hard work.  Don’t cheat yourself by cutting corners on the important steps.  There are other ways to “bootstrap” that won’t put you at risk.

Feb 12

Inventors frequently swing to two extremes when it comes to their business plan.

The first one is simply: have idea – get patent – make money.  I can’t even tell you how many ways this is a flawed plan.  This plan is relevant only in fantasy land and real inventors can’t afford to live in fantasy land.  You have no proof of concept, no numbers, no packaging, nothing to sell and no customers.

The other extreme is equally flawed:  have idea – buy a piece of business plan software – go to a class – fill in the blanks – make money.  It doesn’t matter how much dreaming you do at this extreme, you can’t have accurate numbers without doing the hard work up front.  Again you have no proof of concept, no numbers, no packaging, nothing to sell and no customers.  With this plan all you are doing is guessing.  Real inventors don’t guess.

Honestly, the first stages of inventing do not require a business plan.  You have to do your homework first.  In fact, unless you are presenting to a bank or an investor, you don’t need a business plan until you are in business.  And then, a business plan serves as a road map for you. 

A more useful exercise is to develop a marketing plan after you know you have a product.  After all, if you can’t sell the product to a consumer, it doesn’t matter how good your business plan is.

The first inventing steps require your time and energy.  Do you own searching for like and similar products.  Search online, in stores and on the USPTO website.  Build a cheap version of a prototype.

The first thing you have to pay for is the professional patent search.  All of your business decisions will be based on the results of this search, but that is discussed in another blog.

FYI: You are still a long way from needing a Business Plan.

Jan 24

rita_crompton-1Inventors often ask me about their chances of success.  I can’t give an absolute answer.  There are lots of products on the market that I don’t buy.  There are lots of products on the market that I think are really stupid.  However, somebody is buying them.  I thought pet rocks were pretty stupid but lots of people thought they were cute enough to buy. On the other hand, I always endorse my clients’ products.  By the way, having friends and family tell you “it’s a wonderful idea” doesn’t count either.  You need better market research and feedback. 

The most valuable advice I can give an inventor is to arrange to have a focus group done.  This is a powerful tool for inventors of consumer gadgets.  Some focus groups are very expensive; however, there are some that are more reasonable.  A focus group can answer many questions about your invention regarding pricing, names and trademarks, functionality, appeal and others.

Most focus groups allow you to direct the questioning so you can gather the specific information you need.  Be aware that you should not be in the room while the focus group is taking place.  You want the focus group to be about the product and not about you.  Make sure you have good prototypes.  The attendees need to see and touch in order to fully understand the concept of the product.  

Also, don’t limit the demographics.  Some of the best feedback comes from the consumers you don’t think will be your primary market.  For example, I had an inventor who wanted only women in the focus group because he felt that women would be his primary buyers.  What he found out was that the men liked the product better than the women and had better suggestions.  Try to have enough people in the focus group so that you can have a wide range of demographics.  Twenty-five or so will work.

A good focus group will help you make better business decisions.  Just because you think your idea is worth a million dollars doesn’t mean that enough consumers agree with you to actually put money back in your pocket.  You can go broke without taking the time to gather the right information.

Good Luck.

Jan 24

Inventors struggle with marketing for lots of reasons.  It’s expensive, difficult to understand and hard to measure.  Attending a tradeshow is the fastest and least expensive way to gather the critical information that you need to successfully get your product to market.

When you are looking for the right tradeshow, it should be a professional show, one that is not open to the general public.  You are looking for the professional show that is for your particular industry, not an inventor convention (these are a feeding frenzy and you are the main course).  Don’t plan on being an exhibitor.  You are going to walk the floor and to learn.  At some point in the future, you may decide to exhibit; but, for the first and maybe second time, you need to walk the floor and learn about other manufacturers, distributors and products.

I travel to tradeshows for or with my clients.  We have our strategy mapped out before we go to make sure we get the most from the show.  Different shows have different requirements for attending.  Remember, at the early phase, you are not going to try to sell anything.  You simply want to learn. 

Learning how to get into these professional shows can be a challenge; however, a good tradeshow will provide you with all the contacts and information you need to start successfully marketing you invention.  Your other alternative is to spend millions of dollars on advertising or months, maybe years, of time trying to get past the gatekeepers to talk to the decision makers.

Nov 22

Your trademark can be as valuable to you as a patent and possibly more.  Consumers identify with your trademark, not your patent.  Most consumers don’t care if you have a patent as long as you have a great product.  When was the last time you went into a store and looked for a patent number?  Consumers look for names and/or websites.  Keep this in mind when you decide on a name for your product.  

So how do you pick a name?  This is tricky.  On one side, the USPTO has guidelines and requirements.  They want something “fanciful”.  That’s great if you have a million dollars to spend on marketing a name that has some kind of new spelling or is a new word all together, like Xerox (who had ever heard of this before they spent millions on commercials?).  Most of our clients don’t have that kind of budget.  For example, I doubt that 30 years ago anyone looked under “Apple” in the phonebook to find a computer.  They had the budget.

On the other side, you need to have a name that is reasonably easy for the consumer to find and won’t cost you multiples of millions of dollars in advertising.  Deciding on the right trademark is a delicate dance of words.  Try to find something that makes sense and then combine the words with something fanciful.  Make sure that you can get the domain name as well.  If you are going to market a product, you should make it as easy as possible for someone to find it.  Having a different name for your website than your product makes it very difficult to get the message to the consumer.  Try to make your message as clear and as simple as possible.  If consumers can’t find you, they won’t buy your product.

The name you give your product is part of your intellectual property.  As soon as you determine the name you are going to use, you should start using a ™ beside the name.  This is telling the world that you claim this name.  Most often you wait until you are selling product to go ahead and file your trademark with the USPTO.  Once you are granted the trademark, you will use ® to show that according to the USPTO, you own this trademark.

Bottom Line:  Spend time working on your trademark. It is worth it.  If you are having doubts, have a focus group done.  People will tell you if are on the right track.  Get help; do it right.

Sep 27

rita_crompton-1

Inventors are frequently afraid someone will steal their idea.  Some paranoia is good.  Too much is crippling.  You have to find a balance between protecting your idea and being able to get your idea incorporated into a tangible product that you can get to the marketplace.

 Here are some guidelines:

1.    You can talk in general terms about your project without giving an “enabling disclosure”.  An enabling disclosure would be when you give enough information for someone else to make the product. 

2.   If you want or need to talk about the details, use a non-disclosure agreement or a non-disclosure / non-compete agreement.  This is your due-diligence, your responsibility.

3.   Keep in mind that even though we have all heard stories about someone’s idea “being stolen”, most ideas are not stolen.  Ideas are like belly buttons, everyone has one.  People want to steal market share.  It is your market share that you have to protect.

Sep 25

One of the most critical steps in the inventing process is establishing market viability. Sometimes people think they have a great idea, but the consumer doesn’t agree. And, after all, if no one will pay for it, why bother, unless, of course, you have lots of money to burn.

Establishing market viability includes obtaining favorable answers to two basic questions: Can you make it at a price someone will pay for it; and has it already been done (yes, in the first case, no, in the second). I hear people say all the time “I’ve never seen this.” Well, that’s a start…but only a start. It’s good idea to learn how to search beyond Google, and a good place to start is the USPTO website. However, even this won’t give you a complete search result or a basis for going to the next step. It’s easy to fall into the trap of not wanting to find anything disappointing, so inventors often tend to look “with blinders on”.

However, it’s always in your best interest to get an objective point of view. Most inventors don’t realize that if a product has been patented at anytime in history anywhere in the world, it cannot be done again. It’s nearly impossible for an individual, acting on his or her own, to do an exhaustive search, both from a historical as well as an international perspective. This is why you need help. My recommendation is to consider using a reputable company that specializes exclusively in conducting product and patent searches, and not writing patents. And, believe me, if you follow this approach, it’ll be worth every penny. The good news is that unless you have a very complicated product, it shouldn’t cost more than $1,000.00.

Once you have the product search done, it’s time to determine if you can make your product at a price someone will pay for it. The world is full of expensive patents on products that should never have been produced because they’re not cost-competitive. Don’t forget: price is an issue for consumers. If you’re capable of making a good prototype, then make one; otherwise, you’ll need help. There are companies that specialize in this type of work. Be careful, some are reputable and some are not. And, as always, ask what it’s going to cost you. Also, it’s critical to begin establishing what the cost per unit will be, based on mass production.

Once you have an idea of cost, you have to face the hardest question: will anyone buy it? I know, you say, “well, my family and friends love it!” Unfortunately, they don’t count! You need to know from objective consumers if anyone will put cash on the table. Try to find a focus group so that you have a good cross section of consumers who might be interested in you product to give you honest feedback.