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"An invention is one of those super strokes, like discovering a platinum deposit, or a gas field, or writing a novel, through which an individual..... can transform his life overnight, and light up the sky," so wrote author Tom Wolfe. He continued, "The inventor needs only one thing which is as free as the air: a terrific idea."

My apologies to Mr. Wolfe, but besides needing "a terrific idea," the inventor also needs to know how to turn the idea into a money-maker. To do so, the inventor must concern himself with four critical areas:

1. Invention Evaluation
This needs to be done first, but don't try to do it yourself. There are universities whose business departments offer new product evaluation services, usually for a small fee. A leader in this field is the Wal-Mart Innovation Network, or WIN program, at Southwestern Missouri State University. You can submit an invention, or simply a product idea, to them for their confidential review. WIN uses 41 criteria to assess the commercial potential of what you submit. They give you a 13-page feedback report with a cover letter that usually contains specific comments from your chief evaluator. Their fee is only $175. You end up with an objective "risk profile" of your project that you can show to vendors, backers and others. If your invention scores high enough, Wal-Mart may want to test your product in its stores. WIN's report contains professional advice that helps you decide if you should continue with, modify, or abandon your idea. Call WIN for a free information packet at 1-417/836-5671. Another leader in the new product evaluation field is the Wisconsin Innovation Service Center at: 1-414/472-1365.

2. Low-Cost "Patent Pending"
A "patent pending" notice warns the world, "Don't copy my invention, because someday I may stop you with an issued patent and collect damages." But, it's illegal to use this notice unless you first file a patent application at the U.S. Patent Office. This could cost several thousand dollars because you need to pay a patent attorney or agent to prepare a formal application, and then pay the Patent Office its filing fee of $395. But, you can postpone or avoid these big costs by filing what is called a Provisional Patent Application, or PPA. The advantages of the PPA are: It's simple enough to be filed by most individuals in a few hours without hiring help. The filing fee is only $75. And, it's quicker: The moment you mail your PPA (to the U.S. Patent Office) your invention gets the same valuable "patent pending" status as it would get with a NON-provisional application, except it lasts only 12 months. The purpose of the PPA is to give the inventor time to develop and test an idea ­disclosing it in safety to vendors and others­ and determine whether the invention merits further investment in a regular (non-provisional) application for a 20-year patent. For information on how to file a PPA, call the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to request a free brochure on its 24-hour toll-free line, 1-800-786-9199. (When you reach this number, you get a menu for a useful assortment of brief voice tutorials on patents and trademarks.) Or, on the Internet you can read the entire PPA brochure at: http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/provapp.htm

3. Product Development and Manufacturing
Product development is basically a matter of refining your invention into a product that can be manufactured and offered for sale at an attractive price. Begin with these three steps: 1. Produce a prototype, 2. Test it, and, 3. Find out how much it would cost to have various quantities manufactured. Once you've completed these steps, you will know enough to decide if your product is a candidate for further investment. For example, if you test the prototype and it won't do what you thought, or you find its cost to manufacture is too great, you may want to re-consider or drop the project. However, if your prototype works well, show it to vendors and backers and get it photographed for advertising and PR purposes. For help with your prototype, check the Yellow Pages under Model Makers. Don't set up to manufacture your new product in-house. Rather, use outsourcing. Look up likely manufacturers in the 28-volume Thomas Register of Manufacturers. It lists 150,000 manufacturing factories according to what they make. Find it at your library, or access it free on the Internet: http://www.thomasregister.com.Fax your requests for quotation to appropriate factories and ask for costs on quantities from, say, 1,000 to 100,000 units. Select the best factory by comparing costs, capabilities, location, etc. Use your manufacturer's quoted costs as the basis for creating your own wholesale and retail price lists. Set a big enough profit margin to allow for product promotional costs, packaging costs, and adequate profit. The end-user price should be about five to fifteen times your cost to manufacture, depending on the category of your product and other factors.

4. Distribution and Promotion
Negotiate with your manufacturer to produce a minimum quantity, say, a few hundred or a few thousand units for sampling. Use these samples to do informal market surveys to see what retailers and consumers think of your new product: Visit retail merchants of the type that would carry this kind of product. Demonstrate a sample to these merchants and see if they think it would sell. (Get the names of local sales reps that call on them.) Go to a shopping mall, politely stop pedestrians, demonstrate your product and ask for their feedback. (Meanwhile, prepare a single-page catalog sheet including your product photo and specifications.) If the product scores well in your surveys, line up local sales reps, arm them with samples, catalog sheets and your survey results, and hire them at 10-15% commission to sell to distributors and retailers. Have your sales reps write advance orders for quantities of your product. With orders to fill, there's reduced risk in placing that first production order with your manufacturer. Order extra units to maintain an ample inventory as you line up more sales reps and launch the product across the country. Send out a new-product press release with a photo to the appropriate industry trade magazines to get free publicity. Forward sales leads generated by this publicity to your sales reps for follow-up. And, finally, keep promoting and promoting and promoting!