Start with an Idea—But Don’t Expect to Sell One
Laine Caspi, a California mother of two, stumbled on a simple, fashionable baby carrier when traveling abroad in Israel—long fabric, ingeniously wrapped around to hug a baby comfortably to the mother. When Caspi returned to the US, she set out to create and market the product herself. Caspi started by buying yards of fabric, sewing up the carriers and selling them out of her car trunk. Today you can find Caspi's Ultimate Baby Wrap at Target stores. She also founded Parents of Invention in 2002, a company devoted to bringing other parents' designs to the marketplace.
"Only 15 to 20 percent of independent inventors who try to bring their ideas to the marketplace ever succeed," explains Robert G. Lougher, Executive Director of the United Inventors Association of the USA. But if you've ever had a great idea for a product, maybe yours could be among that 20 percent. The road to inventing takes time, but it's not difficult or impossible if you know how to get started.
"The common mistake many new inventors make is thinking that they can sell an idea," explains inventor Barbara Russell Pitts, who along with her sister Mary Russell Sarao authored, The Everything Inventions & Patent Book and Inventing on a Shoestring Budget. "Ideas are like bellybuttons—everyone has one. An idea must be developed into a protected invention before it can be sold to a company."
Pitts always explains to would-be inventors that the simpler the idea, the better. Look around; what frustrates you about parenting? What kind of products might make parenting easier? Once you have your idea you're ready to start researching.
Step One: Is Your Idea Original? Is It Marketable?
Before you get too excited that you've come up with the perfect invention, you need to find out if indeed it is a new idea. Caspi says to start online: "A simple Google search will tell you if your idea is already out there." After you've searched the Internet, visit a baby superstore or specialty boutique where you might expect to find an invention like yours. Get a feel for the market and where you think your product might fit.
Once you've looked online and checked out the stores, you're ready to do a preliminary patent search. A patent gives you a legally binding way to protect your idea and any profits that your product may generate. A patent search will help you discover if anyone else has already obtained a patent on the idea you're considering. Visit the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) at www.uspto.gov to conduct your search. Even typing in a simple product like pacifiers yielded 11 results, from the innovative to the downright strange.
Step Two: Create a Prototype
You can create your product prototype at home, explains Pitts. Many newcomers assume that they have to spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to create a prototype. You can use cardboard, tape, anything else that you need to create crude, working model of your product.
Remember that you're making your prototype to ensure it works. For instance, say your invention is a pacifier holder with a magnet so that it sticks to a stroller. You wouldn't have to go to a plastics maker and have a mold made of the holder. Instead, you might use some sort of plastic shaped item, like an Easter egg and glue on the magnet. Maybe the magnet size is too small. Maybe the stroller bars are made of materials that don't attract magnets. A crude working model of your product will help you perfect the idea (or even realize you should abandon it altogether). Later, you can choose whether you want to try to manufacture, market, and sell your product on your own or whether you want to license your idea to a company that will then fully develop the product for the mass market.
Step Three: Get a Professional Patent Search
Even if your own patent search doesn't turn up similar ideas, a professional search may. Before you spend the time and money pursuing your own patent, get a professional opinion. A patent attorney, patent agent, or patent researcher understands the complexities of patent searches. To find a trustworthy patent professional, visit the official website for the United Inventors Association (www.uiausa.org), or Pitts' website (www.asktheinventors.com). Better yet, get involved with a local inventor groups where you can get referrals for patent professionals nearby. Find a local group by clicking on Help Resources at the UIA site.
Keep in mind that patent professionals are ethically bound not to share your ideas with others, but you have no such assurances from anyone else you talk to about your idea. Pitts cautions that you should not discuss your idea with anyone (spouses and immediately family excepted) unless you have a non-disclosure agreement. The non-disclosure agreement (which you keep on file) keeps others from discussing and profiting from your idea. Keep an inventor's journal in case you ever have to legally prove when your idea originated.
Step Four: Get a Professional Market Evaluation
Sure you have a great idea, but will it sell? A professional market evaluation will tell you just that. Or at least it will tell any potential companies you might try to sell your product to. Just as with professional patent searches, you should look for professional market evaluations from a trusted source. Ask around at your inventors group, look online, or call major universities in your area. Many universities conduct market evaluation in conjunction with their business programs. These evaluations vary in price, depending on the complexity of the evaluation, and usually take at least a month to complete. Prices range from a few hundred dollars into the thousands.
Your market evaluation at a minimum will list your product's strengths and weaknesses along with the product's viability or the likelihood it will sell. The evaluation may also include a list of manufacturers and companies who may want to license your idea.
Step Five: Patent Applications
Although you can write and file your own patent, Pitts doesn't recommend it. Patent applications must be worded carefully to legally protect your idea. A patent attorney or patent agent will help you navigate the various elements of the application. Filing fees vary and are subject to change; go to the USPTO website for more information.
Your product is considered patent-pending once you mail your patent application. Once the USPTO issues your patent, usually at least three to five years after you apply, your patent is good for 20 years. After that, the idea becomes part of the public domain and anyone can use it.
However, if you're still not sure that you want to file a patent, Pitts points to another, less expensive, option: provisional patents. Filing for a provisional patent costs only $100 and can be done by individuals. The provisional patent is good for one year, during which you can talk to manufacturers and companies and see if there's a market and interest in your product.