Who are inventors, entrepreneurs, and founders? My thought: all of us. I am certain we all have qualities that can lead to innovation, a process improvement, a new product, a new method, a better short cut, an improved life hack. Get the idea? There are so many areas that each of us can influence. Even if it’s not the next raging global product or instant viral sensation, your idea may make a difference to someone and that counts. Very few of us are going to come up with our own Hyperloop, but we may end up contributing to a project, cause, or movement that could influence others. And that movement can and does lead to positive change.
I joined an inventors group, IASCK, a few months ago. This group frequently brings in people to discuss their paths and methods that led to their product or success with the idea of helping others learn to do the same. By listening to them, its clear there is no one size fits all, but here are a few suggestions from each guest that may help you realize your own next great idea.
Ralph Lagergren, a serial entrepreneur and inventor whose latest venture, RageBall5, which may forever change spring break, talked about finding a way to get the idea outside of yourself. Many people have an idea but keep it contained and it doesn’t move beyond the inventor’s thinking. This can be a challenge because of intellectual property and patent concerns, but if your idea falls into that category, then at least take the step to protect it. You could perhaps start with a provisional patent so you can move on to the next step and keep the cost down. Ralph also discussed getting help where and when you need it. We are not all marketing gurus, engineers, machinists, or social media experts. If you want to learn those things, great, but Ralph and others suggest that you can lose a lot of time trying to become proficient in all the areas necessary to get an idea or product off the ground. Of course cost is an issue, but start searching your area for options such as maker clubs, university programs, and even state programs designed to help entrepreneurs move forward.
Here in Wichita we have MakeICT, whose mission, from their website, is to “provide resources and activities to help members of our community create.” Network Kansas is a statewide organization that helps entrepreneurs and startups grow. Wichita State University also has many resources for entrepreneurs, one of which is a service to help with patents and trademark searches. Sara Butts, who happens to attend our ISACK meetings, helps entrepreneurs with these searches as well as many other useful tools for a business idea; I would never have learned about this service nor would I have met her had I not joined the inventor’s group. The Kauffman Foundation is another broad and excellent resource for entrepreneurs. The point is, make an effort to reach out to these types of organizations. You will be amazed by the people you meet and their talent and willingness to help you move forward.
John Harrison, an inventor who completed numerous technology, musical, and entrepreneurial projects, also gave a great talk on his experience crowdfunding his project. Filimin is a Wi-Fi enabled touch light that lets you connect with the people you love. Interestingly, he originally created this project just for his family; it only later grew into a commercial success. This is a reminder that an idea may start small and then grow into something else. John stressed community and communication, not only for building momentum for a crowdfunding campaign, but also for inventors to consider using the local community to build their product. He also discussed options for inventors getting help from freelancers through websites like Fiverr and Upwork.
Josh Malone, creator of Bunch of Balloons, a rapid fill device for water balloons and nominee for 2017 Toy of the Year, gave us some great insight on his process. Bunch of Balloons is every inventor’s dream product. It went through the roof in terms of virality, consumer appeal, and sales. But being super successful can also bring problems. He discussed his decision to partner with a well-known and reputable toy manufacturer, Zuru. This gave him many advantages in terms of ramping up for production and distribution. Because of the toy’s popularity, the company has been the frequent target of copycats, and some blatantly so. In my opinion, this gives inventors reasons to think about the necessity of a patent. I still believe in patents, but you may want to consider your market and the life of your product before making the application. It’s possible you might want to go full steam ahead as soon as you can to capture market share, regardless of a patent. If you think the life of your product is short, a patent might not do much for you in that short amount of time. And if you had to litigate a copycat, could you afford it?
The main takeaway from listening and questioning these inventors is that it takes more than just you, the entrepreneur, to make a product venture successful. It does take that one person to get it off the ground and to a certain stage, but learning from others who have been in similar situations is invaluable as you progress. Consider the areas in which you have fewer skills and think about getting some help. You may still be leading the charge and that is great. It may mean getting the provisional patent in order to protect yourself while you shop the idea to partners. Or it might mean finding somebody besides your buddy’s buddy to build a website to match your needs. Find a way to get that idea out there so you can make progress and so the rest of us can enjoy, benefit, learn, watch, get cured, be safer, breathe cleaner, be healthier, and work smarter by benefiting from your idea.