Turning an Invention into a Business
By Eric Corl, Idea Buyer LLC
The way most people (and infomercials) portray inventing, it seems like building something is the endgame. Create the widget, the logic goes, and your job is done. All that remains now is sitting back and waiting for fame, fortune and orders to pour in. This extends at least as far back as Henry David Thoreau, who famously declared “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Indeed, what could be more appealing from an inventor’s point of view? Unfortunately, this is not the way it usually works in practice. As marketing guru Perry Marshall countered, “Henry David Thoreau never built any mousetraps, and the world never beat a path to his door.” Marshall’s point – and our point today – is that inventing is a business. Like any other business, money is not made merely by developing a product. To truly cash in, you will need to create demand for what you invented and monetize that demand in a life-sustaining way. Several ways of doing this are discussed below.
Above, we said that turning your invention into a business starts with creating demand for the invention. But demand from who? There are actually a few routes you can take in generating demand for the invention. Perhaps the most obvious and intuitive is creating demand among customers. If your invention is a consumer product that could be sold on a store shelf, this is certainly something to consider. However, if you are going after the consumer market, their desires must be taken into account during the inventing process. Rather than merely inventing what you want, you must design, prototype, and develop what the buying public will pay for. It is possible that the latter might be something slightly or entirely different than what you imagined at the outset. Don’t let this stop you. Remember, your goal here is turning your invention into a business. Business is about finding needs and filling them.
That means it is far wiser to gauge demand for your invention at the beginning (by conducting market research or surveys) than to invent whatever you want and try to force it down people’s throats later. Many unhappy inventors have taken this path, only to find that their dreams of market success were doomed from the start. The phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” comes to mind. Even if you are certain your invention has demand in general (for example, a new kind of bike tire), you can boost your odds of market success even higher by figuring out what current versions are lacking. What are some common complaints about alternatives to your invention that are already out there? Such questions will help you create something that people are already eager to buy without a whole lot of selling and hype. In fact, that is the central lesson of this entire article. The surest way to turn an invention into a business is to invent something for which there is much known, obvious, ready-made demand. If you have to convince people that they “should” want your invention, you’re looking at an uphill climb from day one.
Of course, inventors can create demand for their inventions from people other than consumers. Maybe your personal strengths and weaknesses are ill-suited to marketing your invention personally. It is not for everyone. An alternative strategy is to create demand among manufacturers, who would buy or license your invention and bring it to market themselves. Several advantages stem from this strategy. For one, you have the luxury of focusing on decision makers at a small handful of companies, rather than trying to juggle the logistics of selling in stores around the country. Conceivably, you could spend a few weeks creating a presentation, booking appointments and conducting product demos and close a deal rather quickly. The terms of the deal are completely negotiable by you and the manufacturer. For instance, the two of you could enter into a licensing agreement, whereby you get $50,000 immediately and 2% of gross product sales for 20 years. Or, you could agree to sell the invention outright for a larger up-front sum.
The main difference between creating demand among consumers vs. manufacturers is in how you promote the invention. Selling an invention in stores, again, demands publicizing the benefits of the invention to the consumer. Keeping our bike tire example, you would likely want to advertise how durable the tire is, how it is more puncture-resistant than the leading brand, and how it offers better traction over rocks, branches and mud. This is the information pertinent to a consumer’s decision making process. Manufacturers, of course, have their own decision making process. Rather than product benefits, the manufacturer is concerned with profit margin, production costs, short and long-term demand and the likelihood of the product triggering lawsuits, among other things. Pitching to manufacturers, therefore, requires having pleasing answers to these questions.
Again, the overall idea is that turning an invention into a business centers around demand. Without demand from others, money never changes hands. We cannot stress enough, therefore, that you are not inventing simply what you want. While this is a great starting point, what you personally want to invent must always take a backseat to what consumers or manufacturers will pay for. Luckily, there is often room for both to co-exist. If you have spent your life working with a product category, chances are you are one of its consumers who knows what you and others will pay for. Keeping these principles in mind will go a long way towards turning your invention into a feasible business.
Eric Corl is the founder of Idea Buyer LLC, an Ohio Limited Liability Company. Idea Buyer LLC runs and manages IdeaBuyer.com and is a leader in new product development and commercialization practices. You can email him at EricCorl@IdeaBuyer.com. If you have a product that you would like our feedback on, email info@IdeaBuyer.com
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