Put ‘Opportunity Scouts’ to work for you, then analyze chances for invention success.

It’s easy to discover needs, wants, problems and annoyances that form the basis of our inventions. And it’s often easy for us to come up with inventions that satisfy those four criteria. What’s difficult is objectively evaluating opportunities from satisfying those criteria and finding the one best for making a profit. Let’s face it. The vast majority of inventions go nowhere. Even those that are novel enough to qualify for a patent usually end up as a nice idea, but with no monetary gain. This is not because we inventors don’t create good solutions. It’s because circumstances beyond our invention work against us.

For example:

• Timing. We’re too early or too late.

• It’s been done. We’ve overlooked an existing product or patent.

• Our solution does not appeal to potential licensees.

• Our solution does not appeal to potential sellers or their customers.

• We let our optimism and enthusiasm blind us to the obstacles.

We can learn to overcome all of these impediments, but it is disappointing if we keep rejecting opportunities and never get around to the fun part—inventing. The answer is to work with a large number of opportunities, and sort out the few that meet a high standard for investment of our time and money. Sounds good, but you may not be one of those prodigies who has two good ideas for inventions before breakfast. Many opportunities for inventions are discovered by ordinary people who do not consider themselves inventors. They stumble on and identify needs, wants, problems and annoyances often, but nothing comes of it because they don’t create a solution. Again, most of these opportunities should be analyzed and ruled out. We’re panning for gold, and nearly all of the nuggets in our pans are stones.

Plato’s idea holds up

Ah, but Plato had an answer for us way back in 380 B.C., which he called the “division of labor.” Let those persons who discover opportunities for inventions specialize as scouts, and let the inventors sort out the opportunities and invent solutions. Everybody gains.

Here’s how it can work: Print up a few hundred business cards with your contact information and the following statement in large type: “Tell me about serious needs, wants, problems, annoyances, etc. that you discover. We’ll share resulting income, if any.” I would add the word “inventor” after my name, but you might resist that tag.

Now, pass these out to people with whom you have ongoing contact: your dentist, hairdresser, club and church friends, even your lazy cousin. I’ve had friends and associates come to me with ideas for inventions many times over the years because they knew I am an inventor. And that happened without any coaxing from me. Imagine the feedback you might get when you expand your circle and ask for ideas.

Still, this plan can be a problem if you don’t clarify the conditions and terms that cover the sharing. Here are some points that should be covered in a letter of agreement that both parties should acknowledge.

1. The inventor has no obligation to follow through with a solution or invention if in his/her opinion the need, want, problem, annoyance, etc. presented to him/her would not form the basis for a feasible invention.

2. The inventor may invest his/her time and money in the design, development, protection and marketing of an invention that arises in response to a need, want, problem, annoyance, etc., hereafter referred to as the “opportunity.”

3. The presenter of the opportunity, etc. has no financial obligation for, or investment interest in, a resulting invention or solution to the opportunity presented.

4. The inventor will share any profits from a solution or invention that arises in response to the opportunity presented to him/her in the following ratios: 10 percent to the presenter and 90 percent to the inventor, unless another arrangement has been made after the inventor evaluates the opportunity. Standard accounting rules will be applied for the determination of profits. (The percentages are examples only, not intended as fixed.)

Bear in mind that the four points above are only suggestions for an agreement and should not be considered a model agreement. I am not a lawyer and cannot create a document that fully covers all of the points that should be considered. I urge you to have your own agreement prepared by a lawyer. At the very least, if you decide to go ahead with an invention, you should have a lawyer draft an agreement specific to the project.

Assess the Opportunity

We have to kiss a lot of frogs before the prince or princess appears. But that’s our fate as inventors. The key to success is a critical evaluation of an opportunity for an invention, even before we spend money on a patent search or a prototype.

To conclude: Our rate of success depends on eliminating most of the invention opportunities we encounter by being critical and honest about their prospects for earning a profit. That means we might wait years before we discover the one great opportunity that might succeed. The person whose DNA has “inventor” etched in it will find it difficult to be patient. The answer is to multiply our opportunities by enlisting “opportunity scouts.”

Now, pardon me while I go kiss a very attractive frog.