Understand your place in the market before beginning your development journey

market_researchBy Jack Lander

Many years ago an inventor I know fairly well applied for a job at a large corporation and was told by the personnel director that he had the best résumé they’d ever seen.

He figured he was on to something and started helping his friends and business associates to write their résumés and wage job searches. The many successes were encouraging and after several years he decided to write a book. His self-published book was a colossal flop. All of his advertising failed. Bookstores didn’t then, nor do they now, sell books that are self-published. In today’s money, he had wasted close to $20,000.

At the time, Ted Nicholas, the extremely successful CEO of Enterprise Publishing, received a copy of the inventor’s book. Nicholas considered republishing it on one condition: the inventor had to visit a number of bookstores and write a brief synopsis on each similar book. He found 17! Nicholas turned down the deal, of course. He said that if there had been three or four books — maybe even five — he could have competed successfully. But any number more than five or less than one would almost assure failure.

Zero books? That’s right. Without at least one or two books in the bookstores, the probabilities were that the market either wasn’t yet ready for such a book or the market had come and gone. In any case, Nicholas knew that being the first of its kind is inviting disaster. Even when the market appears favorable, 90 percent of books published by traditional publishers either lose money or break even, according to a 2007 article.

Now, the question is why hadn’t I thought to do this simple market research myself? You may have guessed that you are the inventor in this story. In retrospect it seems so obvious that whenever we have an idea for an invention — no matter how sure we are that “there’s nothing like it on the market” — we should research the market and find out. Above all, don’t rush into a patent search until you do your marketability search. Based on my 13 years of working with inventors, I’d say that the majority of them fail to do any kind of practical marketability evaluation.

A Google keyword search will usually uncover your competition, if it exists. And sometimes such a search will reveal a market opportunity. Not long ago, I got a bright idea for a small-tree puller, one that would extract foot-high maples and oaks from clayish soil, tap root and all. My hands were sore from failing to do so. So, I went to Google and keyed in “small tree puller.” To my surprise, two were for sale at around $100.

Ah, but these two would extract trees up to one inch in diameter. I was thinking of gardeners who have ground cover in which little trees love to get a roothold.  There had to be a market for a very small tree puller that would sell for maybe $19.95 or so. I had found a niche market.

Then I did a patent search, and found the exact design I had dreamed up. In any event, finding two tree pullers on the market and several in the patent files, tells me that there probably is a market for the invention. It would have been a testament to my creativity if I found no competition or existing patents. But it is also a sure sign that I’d have to pioneer the market. And neither I, nor the vast majority of inventors, can afford that. We don’t have that much time, money or persistence.

Whatever the level of confidence in your invention, get online and find out what’s out there. Assess your chances for competing before you spend a lot of money on patent searches, prototypes and so forth. If you don’t think that is a really good idea, contact me. I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.