Concept to Reality: Take Your Idea to the Bank

Are you brewing the next big idea? Inventors share six ways to successfully navigate the invention process, from testing your idea to getting a product mass produced.

June 1, 2007

Think you'd like to bring your new product idea to the masses? Real estate practitioners who've invented novel products share their tips for navigating the invention and patent process:

1. Think big, think marketable.

Obviously, before you can become an inventor you need an original, fully developed idea. Consider all the details, including how your product works, what it looks like, and how it’s different from other products on the market. Not sure if your idea is unique? Search the patent database at www.USPTO.gov, the Web site of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. “Make sure there’s a market for your idea and there’s a buyer on the other end,” says Greg Hart, real estate practitioner in Columbus, Ohio, who invented a candle safety device, Candlewatch. “People have spent life savings on products that nobody wants to buy.”

2. Let the testing begin.

Develop a prototype — a 3-D object — to determine if it’s feasible. You can start with a homemade prototype or go the more professional route with the help of developers, a seamstress, engineers, designers, or a manufacturing company. On a tight budget? Consider hiring a handyman or student at a local college.

Before beginning work on the prototype, be sure to have a descriptive illustration. Consider what products and materials you want used to develop your product. Remember, the point of the prototype is to get a professional mock-up of your invention so you have something tangible of your idea, which will then be used to go forward on getting it patented, mass produced, and sold. By testing the prototype, you’ll discover what needs to be tweaked or improved before you begin producing the product en masse.

3. Check your finances.

What use is great idea if you’re lacking the funds to make it happen, asks Jean Newell, a real estate professional who created a unisex organizer bag, the Personal Utility Pouch. In her product’s beginning, she and her business partner invested a total of $20,000 in creating the PUP, but soon they were bringing in more orders than what their initial investment could support.

The bank didn’t want to loan them money because they’d only been in business for a few months. “Many banks want you to be in business at least two years — and they don’t care if you have 10,000 orders from QVC waiting,” Newell says. She ended up using home equity to pay for the orders, but it was a risky route. For others, she suggests looking into loans and finance options before you begin production.

4. Protect your invention.

Once you’re certain about the design of your invention and you know there’s a market for it, it’s time to consider a patent. You don’t need one to sell your product, but without one you’ll have no protection if others decide to copy it.

Patents prevent anyone else from making or selling your invention for up to 20 years from the date you file your application with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Take note: Getting a patent requires time and money. The process takes an average of two years and costs anywhere from $3,000 to $12,000, says Hart, who’s been through the patent process three times. He recommends working with a patent attorney.

“A patent attorney is the most important relationship during the process of developing a product,” Hart says. “You want someone who can give you advice every step of the way.” The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office includes a directory of registered patent attorneys.

5. Get it made.

If you plan to sell your product to a wide audience, you’ll need to get your invention manufactured to sell to the masses. One resource: ThomasNet.com, which provides a database of more than 650,000 manufacturers, distributors, and service companies, including prototype developers.

Most of the real estate practitioners featured in REALTOR® Magazine Online’s June 2007 story, “Why Didn’t I Think of That?” had their products manufactured overseas, where they found production costs to be much lower than in the United States. For example, the PUP organizer bag would have cost nearly four times more produce in the United States and would have had to retail for at least $60 to make a profit, Newell says. The PUP currently retails for $19.95.

6. Show it off.

Draw from your marketing skills as a real estate professional to market your invention, and be creative about ways to get the word out. Real estate practitioner Bob Visotcky set out to brand his ListingLight invention under the tagline: “Your real estate night light.” He promotes the ListingLight on its own Web site, at real estate trade shows, and through e-mail publicity blasts. He also uses testimonial advertising with other agents talking about his product’s benefits and he visits offices nationwide to do product demonstrations. Other inventors also use product giveaways and media publicity to gain attention for the product.

The invention process can seem daunting, especially for a novice. That’s why Newell cautions new inventors to be careful about companies who offer quick ways to get your invention patented or get loans for your invention. “There are so many scams that try to take advantage of peope who aren’t sure where to start with their invention,” Newell says. “You get excited when you hear someone will help, but be careful.”

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