Four Ways to Fail as an Inventor

Most success comes after repeated failure. For that reason it's important for us to fail in such ways that we can fail again and again and again, until, eventually, success is achieved.

We start with a flash of inspiration, an itch we need to scratch, a problem to be solved, but our first steps in doing something are usually in the wrong direction and always can be improved upon. In the inventing of his vacuum cleaner Sir James Dyson says he built 5,127 failed prototypes over 15 years, roughly one prototype per day, for a decade and a half. That's a lot of failure, a lot of time and a lot of work. He didn't give up and eventually achieved great success. Is he a model for average inventors? Yes for a few but not for the vast majority. There are better and worse ways to fail. Following is Dyson's way and three alternatives.

  • The Dyson Way - Fail forward to eventual success... or not. Most success comes from dogged pursuit, BUT, you must be careful in what you choose to pursue. You need to have a well founded belief that your invention solves a problem that people will pay for and that it can be (eventually) made and sold for a profitable price. For every James Dyson there are thousands of unknown inventors who spent lifetimes pursuing invention ideas that went nowhere. The way to avoid this is to constantly seek confirmation that your assumptions about the market and the premises for your invention are correct. Unfortunately, long term investment into your invention can turn into a kind of love and driven by emotion you will likely find yourself continuing to push long past the point that a purely logical person (or Vulcan) would have quit.
  • The DRTV Way - Test and if the numbers don't work, move on. Direct Response TV companies have a sense of what products might work, but they don't know what will work. So they test. Before investing money in actually manufacturing a product, they build a finished prototype and make a 2 minute spot. They air the spot in a few small markets to see if orders come in (purchases are refunded since there is no inventory). The goal of the test is to estimate the Cost Per Order (CPO). If the CPO is less than the cost of product + air time, then the project goes forward. If not, they quit and find another product to test. Sometimes they try tweaking the spot and retesting. But the decision is pure numbers. Good CPO, I love you. Bad CPO, I don't know you anymore. Not all products are appropriate for DRTV, but the unemotional attitude of DRTV testing can be applied by everyone and comes down to this. Before you spend a lot of time and money, confirm you have customers. Do a survey as soon as you can, maybe just using 3D images and animation. If the results are negative, accept the failure and work on something else. Fail cheap so you can try, try again. It is important, however, to spend as much as necessary to insure that the benefits of your invention are communicated fully and clearly. You don't want the excuse that the test or survey was poorly done. This process, with human intervention, is embraced by Invention City and embodied in our Brutally Honest Reviews.
  • The Scaredy Cat Way - Don't put your finest idea forward ("I'm saving my #1 idea for later") so you have a fallback for your ego. Not just inventors, but many creative people and even athletes choose this path. Failing with your second best hurts less than failing with your best, but you may get only one chance, so it's wise to take your best shot when it comes. In a business where great ideas fail much of the time, second best almost always fail. A different kind of Scaredy Cat is one who actively sabotages success to guarantee failure and avoid uncertainty. The basis is the same: preserve your ego by holding back and failing, rather than investing yourself 100% to get the deal and then being crushed later if the deal doesn't work out or the product fails in the marketplace. The Scaredy Cat Way is the path of long term failure where you will never realize the fullness of your dreams.
  • The Primadonna Way - Arrogantly believe there's no way you'll fail. You have a great idea and praise from acquaintances, friends and family has gone to your head. You feel that you are doing a favor for anyone allowed to work with you and count your money before even one sale has been made. No one else has your insight into how big the market really is and good offers, even great ones are refused because they don't match your singular view of reality. In your arrogance you make your odds of hitting a home run or even a solid single much lower. 

Sometimes success comes easily. People do win lotteries. But you can make your own luck and increase the likelihood of success a hundred times and more if you view failure as a stepping stone toward your goal rather than an end point. Make the cost of failure affordable, fight the fear, welcome critical feedback, recognize market realities and answer the door ready to say "yes" when opportunity knocks.

- Mike Marks

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