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Protecting Your Ideas
by Rieva Lesonsky
May 9, 2022
Joyful young designer testing 3d printing

Today is National Inventor’s Day. When you hear the word “inventor” what comes to your mind? Images of American’s most accomplished inventors like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Edison? Or do you think of the silly characters in movies, like Maurice, Belle’s father in Beauty and the Beast or Dr. Emmet “Doc” Brown of the Back to The Future movie series?

Obviously, inventors are not all as prolific as Edison and Franklin or as incompetent as Maurice and Doc Brown. Yet most people don’t think they have what it takes to be an inventor, to turn ideas into products, to build something from nothing.

But inventions aren’t all about scientific or mathematical formulas. Sometimes they’re just about the same entrepreneurial adage—find a niche and fill it.

Retailers can be inventors, too

Of course, retail and e-tail success is all about selling merchandise. But all too often you’re selling the same stuff like the store down the street or dozens of websites around the country. One way to stand apart from the competition is to sell unique products. These can be hard to find since so many retail businesses source from the same places. So to really stand out, why not create your own exclusive products?

Yes, you can be an inventor. Here’s how:

1. Identify the niche.

The best place to start is figuring out what the market needs. Don’t waste time and money creating a product you think consumers will love, only to find out too late, they don’t. Start by reviewing your best-selling products. Then check your results against industry trends. Is there something you can create—an offshoot—that no one else is selling?

For example, let’s say you sell fashion accessories and one of your best-selling products is cross-body handbags. After talking to your customers you learn women like them because they let them be hands-free. Think of other products you could create that have the same effect, like fanny packs.

2. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

You don’t have to create an entirely new product. The truth is only a small number of inventions are something that’s never existed before. Most new product launches are improvements or add to something that already exists. You can expand your customer base by creating a lower-priced or more expensive version of that product.

3. Market research.

Expand your initial research and ascertain whether there really is a market demand for your new product. Make sure it doesn’t already exist in the market. Learn more by surveying your customer base. Also, check into secondary research sources, like Census Bureau data, information from the Commerce Department, and industry trade magazines and websites. Go online and search for products that resemble what you’ve come up with. Go to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website, and do a patent search (it’s free) to see if anyone else has already invented and patented your idea.

4. Know your patents.

Depending on what you’ve invented, you may need a design patent, a utility patent, or a copyright. A copyright protects artistic expression such as a graphic pattern or design on clothing or home décor. A design patent protects a new, nonobvious ornamental design of products, and is mostly used for designs that are a slight variation or improvement on an existing product. A utility patent protects the functionality of an invention. You can find if your concept is patentable by going to the USPTO site.

It’s smart business to hire an attorney who knows the industry to make sure you’re protecting your idea and not inadvertently stealing someone else’s work.

5. Take notes.

It’s important to document the process from step one.

Just in case you later end up patenting your idea, you should document your idea generation and product development process. You’ll need a bound notebook with numbered pages that can’t be removed (meaning they’re not perforated). Computer entries will not work in this case. Write down your idea and everything you do to bring it to life. Date each page and keep it in a safe place.

These are the first steps toward creating and marketing your own products. Next, you’ll need to create a prototype and find a manufacturer. For help with that, contact a SCORE mentor today.

About the author
Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky is president and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog
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