Stacking the Deck
By Jack Lander
When it comes to laying odds that a patent will earn more than its costs, the typical figure is 2%.
This paltry percentage is rumored to have come from a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office survey of several years ago. I’ve been unable to find evidence of such a survey.
Whatever its source, 2% has become an accepted “truth” due to widespread repetition. Assuming the study actually was made, it must have been done at least 15 years ago. That’s when I first started writing for Inventors Digest, and when I first heard that discouraging number.
In any case, we’ve learned a lot in the past several years, including how to dramatically increase your odds of inventing and market success.
But brick-and-glass stores favor only products that sell well enough to meet their profit targets. A chain may carry three or four popular hair dryer models on its shelves. A search of Amazon.com, however, will reveal about 177 models.
Those chains that have both retail stores and catalogs may carry the slower items in their catalogs. Staples, for example, lists #9 envelopes in its catalog, but doesn’t carry them in its stores. Searches in retail stores alone are misleading.
Conduct your own patent search. It’s easy to miss a pertinent patent, so don’t base your patent application on your own search. Pay for a professional search, preferably with a written patentability opinion that compares the potential claims of your invention to the existing claims of prior patents and published patent applications.
But for market evaluation purposes, your own search may reveal an invention identical to what you believe you have invented. You’ll find www.google.com/patents a very friendly site. By clicking on “description” and then “PDF,” located at the upper right section of the page, you can print any or all pages of the patent including its drawings.
The Patent Office website also is helpful, but more difficult to use. Find it at www.uspto.gov. The quantity of patents that are similar to yours is also a clue to past activity, and possibly a market that has come and gone.
Keep Love at Bay
Don’t fall in love with your invention early on. Chances are another inventor has already thought of it. Moreover, your invention may not pass the patent examiner’s “unobviousness” test. An invention must be “unobvious to persons skilled in the art.”
In the judgment of the patent examiner, an inventor must evoke an “aha, why didn’t we think of that” moment with his proposed invention when first exposed to a producer of similar products.
Stick to niche items that are not served by mainstream marketing. The typical independent inventor who aims for an invention that “everyone in the world will use” almost always strikes out.
Niche items are less attractive to the “big guys” and they leave us “little guys” opportunities that pay off. Niche products are ideal in another way: We can ease into the market. Many a small company has crashed and burned trying to satisfy demands for high volume and overnight delivery from giant retailers.
Practice Makes Perfect
Process lots of invention concepts. The more you practice, the more likely you will be to find a winner because you’ll sharpen your sense of how to identify and find niche market gaps.
However, finding a niche market gap and inventing a product to fill it doesn’t assure consumers will beat a path to your door or that you can convince a prospective licensee to sign an agreement.
Your next step: Try out your product on your target audience. You can use your prototype, virtual prototype or your sell-sheet for this.
One way is to approach would-be users and ask, “Do you think women (or men) who see this product in catalogs will buy it?” or “How much do you think they would pay for it?”
Avoid second-person questions such as, “Would you buy it?” This puts interviewees on the defensive because they think you’re trying to sell them something. And never reveal that you are the inventor. The more you act as an indifferent interviewer, the more objective your answers will be.
Shopping malls, strip malls and specialty stores are good places to conduct surveys. Contacting buyers at catalogs with your sell-sheet and a brief cover letter is another good way to test the market.
Now back to the question at hand: What are your odds of success?
It depends on a variety of factors, including: how thoroughly you’ve done your homework; how accurately you’ve guessed the mind of your would-be users; the availability of an appropriate market channel; the ease with which that channel can attract buyers; the effectiveness of your sell-sheet, catalog ads, retail box and display locations; and, of course, your persistence.
So shove aside the notion that you only have a 2% chance of inventing success. If you do your homework and put in the legwork, I say on a good day your odds of success could be 50-50.
Editor’s note: This article appears in the March 2011 print edition.
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