It can be successful, if you do a lot yourself and spend wisely

Illustrators are generally very inexpensive, and patent drawings are the best and most economical way to expand any patent disclosure.


If you are an inventor who is new to the process, you may have begun  researching how to patent an idea but have become bombarded with information from a variety of sources. If you don’t know where to start and have a limited budget, read on.

The first step

The patent process can be complex. Before proceeding, ask yourself: Why do I want a patent?

The road to invention riches may or may not include obtaining a patent, although at least filing a provisional patent application can be and usually is a wise first step for a variety of reasons.

Inventor coach Stephen Key refers to the filing of a PPA as attaining “perceived ownership”—because if you follow the patent process to completion, you can own the invention you’ve described in the provisional application. Perceived ownership is generally very important, because with an application pending you can use the term “patent pending.” Potential partners and licensees can evaluate what you claim your invention is as defined by a proper filing with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Find the funds, research

Inventing and patenting will take some financial resources. Unless you qualify for the pro bono assistance program through the USPTO, no patent attorney or patent agent will be able to help you if you have no funds. To qualify for the pro bono assistance program, you must have income of no more than three times the poverty line—and even then the pro bono program does not cover licensing assistance or trademark assistance, for example.

So, there is no way around the fact that the invention and patent processes require a financial investment, and it is virtually impossible to find anyone to invest in an idea or nascent invention prior to the filing of a patent application.

The typical independent inventor has little funding with which to pursue commercializing his or her invention. Inventors must  realistically consider the size of the market to determine whether moving forward with the investment of time, money and energy is warranted. If so, protect the invention—typically via a patent application.

The more limited available funding is, the more inventors will need to do on their own. This means reading and becoming as familiar as possible with the patent process and legal requirements. I strongly recommend IPWatchdog’s “Invention to Patent 101: Everything You Need to Know to Get Started.”

Be realistic

Next, work on a realistic budget is an absolute necessity.

I have worked with independent inventors and small businesses during the past generation and have helped many with limited budgets make the most out of the money they have. If you follow inventor coach Key on LinkedIn or Facebook, you know it has worked for many of his students; the same is true for Trevor Lambert.

Starting the patent process on a limited budget means you are being responsible. Of course, you cannot expect highly qualified professionals to work on your behalf for free, and you must be willing to put in a lot of sweat equity. Invest a little. If it makes sense and you start making money, invest more.

Conserve resources in a responsible way, while laying the groundwork for obtaining the benefits and protections offered by the patent laws. The scenario you must avoid is spending too much on one invention that winds up going nowhere. Then you not only lose what you invested, you also potentially lose funds that could be used to pursue the next great idea you have.

Patent drawings essential

If you do not have the funds to hire an attorney or patent agent, you must work to create the best provisional patent application you can yourself. That should mean hiring a skilled patent illustrator who can draw your invention and the various parts and pieces.

Illustrators are generally very inexpensive, and patent drawings are the best and most economical way to expand any patent disclosure. Also consider the Invent + Patent System, which guides you step by step through describing your invention.

Creative people rarely, if ever, create just once. So don’t invest everything indiscriminately all at once! That is also why Key encourages his students to move on after they’ve filed a provisional patent application if there is no licensing interest. It is why many entrepreneurs talk about the benefits of “failing quick.”

To search or not

Do you start with a patent search to see whether it makes sense to move forward, or do you start with a provisional patent application?

A lot of inventors do their own patent search first, and if they find no previous prior art they file a PPA. If you want to do this—which is a good idea—read IPWatchdog’s “Patent Searching 101.”

Inventors will never be able to find as much as a professional searcher or a patent practitioner, but trying to find what can be found is very helpful to the overall learning process. Reading patents to get a sense of the level of detail necessary can only help.

Ultimately, have a comprehensive patent search done by a professional searcher so you can understand the obstacles, and so you can describe your invention in a way that accentuates the positive differences to the greatest extent possible over the prior art (i.e., what is found in the patent search).

File first!

The United States is a first-to-file country, which means you must file your patent application first.

It is preferred to do the best job describing the invention that you can and file a provisional patent application as reasonably quickly as possible. Then on the road to filing a nonprovisional patent application, have a professional patent search done and reviewed by a patent attorney or patent agent who can help you understand the implications with respect to your invention.

Although it will cost an additional provisional patent application filing fee, there is nothing wrong with filing a second PPA. An advanced strategy is to file the best PPA possible and then do a search. Based on the patent search you will learn what the prior art contains, and your description of your invention will need to become more nuanced.

File a second PPA with that more nuanced description of your invention and subsequently file the nonprovisional patent application within 12-months of the first provisional patent application.

This strategy is explained more fully in “Provisional Patent Applications the Right Way, the Walmart Way.” Walmart filed 39 PPAs  on a single invention before filing a nonprovisional patent application claiming priority to all the previously filed PPAs. That is an extreme example, but it shows how you can and should protect your invention as you make important improvements along the way.