4 Tips That Inventors Need To Know
I’ve been very fortunate to spend decades working with some of the biggest companies in the consumer electronics, industrial and medical worlds. But many of my most fascinating and rewarding conversations have come from sharing insight and guidance while listening to an inventor’s or small manufacturer’s engineering manager’s idea.
Conversations would almost always include a version of the following question.
To be successful and compelling enough to go from an idea on paper to revenue in the bank, it’s more important that your idea meet certain benchmarks beyond being cutting edge. Even a reasonably innovative concept or product can generate huge success if it has all the right “elements”. Bear in mind though, much of your success is directed by the choices you make early in the process of developing your concept into a marketable product.
So how do you really know if your idea has what it takes to be successful? Check out my 9 tips that will make a big difference when deciding if it’s time to go all in…or if it’s time to pivot. (Bonus: You’ll find additional resources for innovators and engineers at the end of this article.)
1. Does it fill a niche or solve a problem?
Really study the market that you want to capture or expand into. Are there a lot of companies selling similar products or services? If so, this forces you to take market share from established competitors, which can often be more challenging than filling a niche or solving a previously unsolved problem. Going the latter route assures that your competition will have to work much harder to take market share from you, rather than the other way around.
I had the privilege of leading the global team that supported Amazon with their innovative, world-class Fire tablets and Kindle eReader devices. With both products, Amazon brought new technology to an existing market. By filling a niche – the demand for an electronic alternative to books – Amazon captured the largest (and most stable) share of the market early on, while offering customers a new and convenient way to enjoy reading. Other device competitors tried to break into this market, but Amazon was so far ahead of the game that most other competitors eventually gave up and closed down.
You don’t have to have a big marketing and product development team like Amazon to study your niche potential. Google your idea and check out the US Patent Office. Go to retail stores that sell products like your idea to evaluate what’s currently in the market and how you can make improvements with your idea.
2. How passionate are you about your idea?
Never invest time or money in developing an invention you aren’t excited about. Passion goes a long way toward keeping you going when encountering the bumps in the road that all inventors face.
And let’s be honest, passion sells.
I recall speaking with one of the founders of Keurig during a product launch celebration dinner about how the idea of K-Cups and the Keurig brand were invented. Without missing a beat, he launched into the many challenges he faced in order to found such a unique, ground-breaking company. But through every obstacle, the thing that got him through was that he really believed in what he was creating. Yes, he got the right coaching and had a great idea, but most importantly, he had the willingness to work hard and make it happen.
3. Is your idea valuable in the lives of your future customers?
After all, it’s much easier for people to continue with what they know works than to take a risk on something new. Lack of a strong differentiating characteristic means the new product or service isn't likely to thrive. If there is a strong differentiator, supported by a strong marketing campaign, the invention has a much better chance of success.
I always suggest that clients take the time to invest in test marketing before launching at full scale and diving head first into an idea that may – or may not! – work. How? Built a prototype, beta version or test in a smaller market, and get the honest feedback of people who could be your future customers. Did they find your product easy to use? Do they understand the value you’re trying to communicate? Did they quickly understand, or did it require some prompting?
It’s much easier and much less costly to adjust a design based upon early feedback, rather than wait until a design is locked, tooling steel is cut, and you’re working with mass production manufacturers with heavy launch deadline pressures.
4. How quickly do your get your ROI?
We’ve already discussed the blood-sweat-and-tears equity built into all inventions and new ideas. Now here’s where the financial commitment comes in. Make sure you have high Return on Investment (ROI) potential. Innovations and inventions are never guaranteed with success, so save your time and energy for projects with high-reward potential.
I’ve seen a lot of projects big and small both really succeed…and really fail. A common thread of the more successful projects is bouncing ideas off a knowledgeable sounding board or good friend to steer clear of low-return inventions. This is an area where listening to good advice that you trust must overcome any emotional attachments inventors have with their ideas.
Another “golden rule of success” starts with building one product, learning from its customers, and iterating to make that product exceptional. Each step in the process is designed to refine a product and find the often elusive “product/market fit” that is the basis for all successful inventions and ideas.
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5. Is the design too complicated?
Don’t over complicate your product or idea, and definitely avoid unnecessary and wasteful “scope creep” that adds cost and development time. Stick with simpler features and designs that resonate with the end user (often learned from test marketing per point #3 above), as they are easier to execute and cost less to develop.
Ideas that are easy to explain also typically build confidence and trust, so the customer can identify and understand why they should buy from you instead of your competition. Ask yourself, how can I make my product or idea simpler?
6. Are paths to manufacturing and market well defined?
Do you have trusted manufacturing and supply chain partners in your network? How familiar are you with the path to the final buyer? Make sure your invention or product has a smooth “journey” to the market as it goes through proof of concept, development, testing and mass production.
Sometimes it seems easier to rush the process when selecting a supplier because of the excitement of trying to get the product ready to sell. But by not carefully vetting a supplier ahead of time, you may be walking into serious delays, lost revenue and a tarnished brand reputation.
Only work with companies that have a proven history of successfully launching innovation, technology and new products and who have the expertise to help support you throughout the logistics of getting your product to market. You can find more resources for how to vet potential suppliers at the end of this article.
7. How does your best customer look and act?
Save yourself time, money and sanity by clearly identifying who will be your best customer. Who are they? What gets them excited? Do they primarily buy online or in stores? Are they comfortable with technology? A customer avatar is an individual with a name, a picture, and specific demographics such as goals, objectives, needs, wants, pain points, etc. An avatar is not a real specific person; it is a composite of characteristics of many real people.
You are describing your target market, the people that you want most as your customers and who will most likely buy from you again and again. It needs to be specific and focused. A common mistake many inventors make is to create a customer avatar that is too broad and general. Your avatar needs to speak to your ideal customer in a way that when they do arrive at your website or see your product, it's almost like you've read their mind. You've identified their pain points, fears, frustrations, desires and dreams.
Spend the time upfront aligning the end customer’s needs and expectation with your invention’s features. You’ll see the benefit of your marketing dollars going further with better results.
8. How thin does it stretch your finances?
Walk before you run. Be realistic when evaluating if making your idea a reality is within your personal capabilities (both financially and technically). And if it isn’t, are you working with a team that completes the skillset needed? How confident are you that you’ll be able to raise funding for your idea? Something to think about: you may be ready to work hard, but are you prepared to not earn any income for a year or more?
Conserve your funds and always allow for spending more than you originally think to get your product developed and into the market. Join a group or a network that allows you to learn about the methods other inventors and innovators have used to get financing and where to apply funds. Financing and budgeting is filled with too many “gotchas” and is definitely not an area most innovators want to be working on alone.
9. Watch out for unknown “traps”...
The process of launching new products can have hidden “traps” you may not be aware of. I recall one of my earlier projects with Google/Nest. My team and I were asked to help “fix some problems” created by the previous supplier, after materials and tool designs didn’t perform as well as anticipated. We had to scramble to help this customer make up lost time. The problems could have easily been prevented if the former supplier had proper knowledge of how materials changed dimension after molding, which altered the tolerance stack-up.
Before you enter into a relationship with a supplier, ask yourself questions such as:
- Does your idea or invention need UL or FDA certification that takes extra time and money? Did you plan for these requirements?
- Does that “special component” in the design only have one supplier who may go out of business when you are in a critical launch phase?
- Is the cost of shipping or packaging a lot more money than you expected?
- Are there unknown regulations preventing you from manufacturing in certain regions?
To avoid disasters like these, do your research, seek out the opinion of others and ask those who are experts in areas that impact your project.
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