Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Common Pitfalls of the Invention Process

Before we even jump into the list, Team Tesla needs to preface this post. We completely understand that inventing and creating a new product from scratch can be a time-consuming and exhausting endeavor. We also recognize how deeply personal producing a new invention is and how emotionally (and sometimes financially) invested you naturally become in the process. That being said, this list is meant as a gentle reminder and informative piece to help bring to light certain aspects of your invention you may not have thought of, or possibly certain issues you have trouble even admitting to yourself. Our aim is to help point out possible flaws for the betterment of everyone's creative pursuits. In addition to that. . .

Let's just get this out of the way right now. Some of these suggestions may seem obvious to us, they may seem obvious to you, but they aren't obvious to everyone. We receive an astounding array of invention ideas that come through the Tesla Team laboratory (la-bore-a-tory), and through the high volume a pattern of pitfalls and mistakes has emerged.

Seek a Broad Audience (or more honest criticism)
It's a common phrase that we hear a lot around here, or some variation of it. "All my friends think it's great." "My neighbors said they would buy it." And possibly the most cringe-worthy, "my mom said it was a great idea." Before you get unduly riled up and start a round of fisticuffs, we are not calling your sweet mother a liar. However, successfully marketing a new invention and negotiating a licensing deal is strictly business. Large amounts of money are invested and many people's careers can be affected by the failure or success of a new product. Your invention is going to be placed under serious scrutiny before anyone is willing to invest in it to any significant degree. Because of this, initial opinions and constructive criticism for your product need to be wide-ranging and as objective as possible. The more input you get the better. 

This doesn't necessitate said input's incorporation into your product, but a range of perspectives is always beneficial. People have a tendency to surround themselves with like-minded people, creating at times an insulated environment both intellectually and creatively. Soliciting advice and opinions from friends and family is a fine start, and truly their support is important to your efforts. But it cannot be the end, because no one is going to be more critical than the person dropping thousands of dollars to make your idea a reality.

Don't Make It Personal (Very specific problems)
This is good advice for any inventor who is seriously considering or pursuing a licensing deal, either through an intermediary or on their own. Investing so much time and effort into a product naturally develops a bond with that piece of intellectual property, so criticisms aimed at your product need to be separated from your own ego. This isn't what we are referring to here, however. As so many people have said in so many ways (I like to attribute it to Daffy Duck), necessity is the mother of invention. The problem arises in the universality of the necessity. 

Case in point: my refrigerator in my apartment is too close to my kitchen counter. There is barely enough space for me to fit between the two to get to my bathroom. True story. Solution: I invent an automatically self-greasing belt to allow me to slip past. True, this belt may have other applications that can be used, but the essential problem with the product is that it is in response to a personal problem that is either isolated to my own experience or environment, or applies to an insignificantly small population of renters. To be sure, there is something to be said for being an advocate for your own product and expanding the opportunities for its use. It's an essential part of successfully marketing yourself and your product, however, it is important to keep a perspective on the practical scope of your invention's usefulness and how applicable it really is to your target audience.

Don't Overthink It (complicated solutions for simple problems)
This and the previous piece of advice are somewhat related, in that they both have to do with becoming insulated inside your own creativity and thought processes. Honestly, this can also be one of the harder mistakes to avoid, simply because it often has to do with whether or not your solution to a problem is even necessary. It's entirely a judgment call, and not everyone will agree. 

Again, it's important to believe in your product, but it's also important to step back and honestly attempt to determine if your solution is far more complicated than any previous product, or if your product is superfluous next to traditional methods. I'm loathe to try and come up with an illustrative example lest I offend someone working on my made up product, but let's try anyway. Let's say I make a product that is a gripper which holds silverware while you wash it, and it also has a mirror so no one can startle you while you wash dishes. I have a provisional patent and a working prototype. The question now becomes, is anyone going to buy it? What portion of the consumer population needs a hand surrogate to hold silverware even though to use the gripper you need a fully functioning hand? 

Now that example is a little ridiculous (I am so sorry if you have one of these on your workbench), and going back through consumer products history shows quite a number of things which on their face just look pointless and stupid. And yet they were successful. It really is a subjective determination and everyone makes mistakes, but it remains an important aspect of product development to keep in mind. How necessary is it, or better yet, how necessary will the target consumer see it?

Fantasy Invention/Wish list
To some people this last entry may seem pretty obvious, to others ridiculous, but believe me, there are others that need to hear this. You need to actually have an invention to bring that invention to market. Let me elaborate. Not all inventions need a working, polished prototype. Design changes especially can and will happen during the course of product development. Issues will arise with efficiency, functionality, aesthetics, etc., but in the end something needs to be presented that you have developed to a degree that you know can be made and will work, and even how it will work. That last point especially is important. 

Which brings me back to the title of this entry. I use the terms "fantasy" and "wish list" for a very good reason. The kernel of a notion for something that would be revolutionary if it existed, is not in and of itself an invention. The most egregious offenders tend to be in the realm of advanced technology, and again, I'll attempt to use an exaggerated example. I have a fantastic idea, for a human teleportation machine, and it should be small enough to fit into your pocket so that you can carry it with you when you do want to walk around. The device will unfold into a little pad which will have preset destinations on it that are customizable, like a speed dial. It will also have a warning signal in case you are going to teleport to where someone else is already standing. There will also be an emergency setting that will detect fire or bad weather conditions that will then teleport you to a nearby hospital in case you need medical attention. Alright, I'm going to stop there. I've just listed a number of secondary features to a fantastical device, without once addressing the unimaginably complex issue of human teleportation. I suppose we can call this invention in the broadest sense of the term, but legally and financially speaking, I cannot claim credit for inventing the teleporter. If that were the case, there is a host of science fiction authors with the rights to almost every piece of technology we use today. Yes, it would be amazing if we had virtual reality simulation machines that projected video games to such a real extent that they were indistinguishable from real life, but how do you propose we do that? What would the software look like? How much processing power would that take? To sum it up, your invention needs to be more than a vague idea for something that you wish existed. 
Inventing a successful commercial or technological product is a long, difficult and arduous journey, and we admire anyone willing to see it through. These entries are just a few of the challenges that inventors face, but we hope this discussion helps to point out how important it is to keep an open mind about your invention, to be willing to take a step back and look hard at your product, and above all to be realistic and push yourself to make a truly great invention. 

About Lambert & Lambert:
Lambert & Lambert is a contingency-fee based invention marketing and patent licensing firm that specializes in consumer products. Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Lambert & Lambert provides services to inventors, product developers and small companies throughout the world and currently has products selling in numerous retailers.

Tim Sherman, Director of Customer Service

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