Step 1: A Great New Invention Idea

All too often inventors feel that a problem they have is shared by everyone else. We will discuss how to confirm that your idea is truly great in a following section. For now it is only important to understand that a great product idea has nothing to do with brilliance, complexity, or social benefit and everything to with need, practicality and profitability.

One of the most hyped inventions in recent memory is the Segway scooter made infamous in "Mall Cop". The Segway is a two-wheeled, electrically powered, gyro enabled platform that moves you where you want to go by sensing how you shift your body weight. Undeniably brilliant and complex, it was heralded as a revolution in transportation that would change how we build our cities. The claim was foolish. The Segway solved a problem that everyone experiences, but it did so in a very expensive and cumbersome way. The odds of market failure were always high and market failure is what happened. Were consumers really going to spend $3000 (in 2002 dollars) to have one? Where were they going to use it? Would they buy a Segway instead of a car? Or a bicycle? Because it was so risky the only way Dean Kamen could develop the Segway was to finance the development on his own at a cost of many millions of dollars. Dean Kamen had already made a fortune before embarking on the Segway project. He could pursue it simply because he thought it was cool. He still has a fortune even though it failed.

Ask yourself this: am I independently wealthy or do I need to make money from my invention?

Inventing requires investment of time and money. Just like any other investment you should be careful to reduce risk whenever possible, minimize costs at every turn and take the necessary steps to maximize the chances of success.

Inventions that address social ills such as pollution and poverty can be evaluated in the same manner as private enterprise inventions. With these inventions the goal is not to maximize profit but to maximize the social benefit per dollar spent. The likely customer is probably not a profit driven corporation or individual consumers but rather an organization sponsored by a government or a non-profit group.

Where to Find Great Ideas

Great ideas are all around you. Pay attention every time you feel annoyed by something. Ask yourself, “Why am I annoyed?” When you identify the cause, think about how you could eliminate it. Wasted time and wasted money are common sources of annoyance. Saving time and money are consequently the basis for many inventions.

Pay attention when friends complain about something. Ask them about what happened and what they did. You are an investigator looking for clues that lead you to a great idea. The complaint may not be even presented as such. For example, your friend could say, “sorry I’m late, I was stuck in traffic.” This presents you with the opportunity to ask general questions, such as “what do you do when you’re stuck in traffic?” You want to understand how people live their lives and use that information to create inventions that will make lives easier and better.

The first step to creating a great invention is identifying a problem that needs solving. The problem may be one that people are not aware of… yet. Most people accept things as they are today and do not imagine how they could be in the future. It is the inventor’s job to imagine how things could be better. As you identify problems you can think about solutions. Brainstorm with your friends and ask if they like your ideas.

Exploiting and combining new technologies is a classic way to develop inventions. When you read an announcement about a new product or technology, think about how it might be used. Jerome Lemelson (1923-1997) did exactly this. One of the most prolific American inventors of all time, Lemelson amassed more than 500 patents, including patents used in the VCR, camcorder, Walkman®, cordless phone, fax machine, data and word processing systems, and industrial robots. Lemelson made a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars through licensing deals. Learn more about him here:

Lemelson’s inventing method was to consider how a new technology could be used and then file patents on all of the new applications. He was two steps ahead of corporate R&D departments. His patents were keyholes that a corporation needed to unlock to commercialize exciting new products. Lemelson did not seek to commercialize new products himself. Instead he profited by being in the way of others. When he learned a company was making a product that used one of his patents he would have his attorneys send the company something very much like a ransom note. The company was presented with a choice of either paying a reasonable royalty or entering into lawsuit. Most companies simply paid up. Those that went to court almost always lost – Lemelson had good patents. Ethically dubious but perfectly legal, this form of inventing and licensing is very much alive today.

Jay Walker of Priceline fame took a page from Lemelson and filed a multitude of business method patents. His patents cover all kinds of ways of doing business that use the Internet. Patenting ideas isn’t supposed to be possible. But Walker learned that when an idea is digitized and interfaces with the Internet the patent office thinks of it as a method, and patents ARE possible. Walker holds 18 patents on Internet business ideas and has about 250 more pending. In the years ahead the successful Internet companies that survived the dotcom meltdown may be candidates for a polite ransom letter from Jay Walker.

In 1990 Tomima Edmark launched a very hot product called the Topsy-Tail. A simple plastic product that cost just pennies to make, the Topsy-Tail enabled women to quickly and easily create a new and attractive hairstyle – an inverted ponytail. This product achieved over $100 million in retail sales and made Edmark, her partners, and distributors lot of money. Where did she get the idea? It turns out that long before Edmark brought Topsy-Tail to market a nearly identical product was used for prettying-up horses. Maybe Edmark found her initial inspiration at a horse show.

Recognizing that a product used in one environment might also be used somewhere else is a very legitimate form of inventing. Crossover products are hot. In-line skates evolved from ice skates. They became possible when technology enabled new kinds of wheels that rolled on rough roadways. Snowboarding may or may not have descended directly from surfing but surfers and surfing attitudes certainly played critical roles in the development of the snowboard.

Pay attention to the world around you. Watch look and listen.

When thinking about inventions it is sometimes useful to ask what would be ideal. Try imagining a world that isn’t constrained by the laws of physics or the reality of economics.

The Segway scooter mentioned above seeks to solve the age-old problem of personal transportation. My fantasy idea for a perfect transportation device is the transporter machine from Star Trek. I would commute daily from my home on Cape Cod to an office in New York City in less than 10 seconds. No more pollution or commuter traffic. Imagine what people would pay to travel instantly to anywhere on the globe. For local transportation I would like a pair of levitating shoes that could float me up hills and enable me to hop across traffic. Thinking along these lines I might come up with a great new idea for sneakers.

Now think of your own fantasy ideas. Maybe it is a cooking machine or a dictionary that is implanted in your brain. It is entirely possible that the technology already exists to implement your fantasy. Do not worry about whether or not the idea is feasible. Simply think about ideas you would like to have in your own life, or things you know your friends and associates would like to have.

Write your fantasy ideas on a list. Do not edit yourself.

In the early 1990’s Joel Marks, Brad Golstein and Mike Marks were sitting in the Marks family living room trying to decide on their next new product. They had previously launched a well-reviewed but commercially anemic tool called the SqueezeDriver, a squeeze-powered rotary screwdriver. Their company WorkTools, Inc. was running out of money and needed a hit. They were talking in general about tools that needed improvement when Mike remembered his unpleasant past experiences working with staple guns. He walked into his old bedroom, rummaged around, found an Arrow T-50 staple gun and brought it in to show the other guys. “I’ve always hated this thing,” he said. Joel, the inventor of the group, looked at it for a while and observed, “it’s backwards.”

At that time a typical staple gun worked by pushing down a squeeze lever toward the back of the tool and causing a staple to shoot out at the front. Joel quickly saw that a staple gun would benefit if a user pushed the squeeze lever down toward the front of the tool over the staple exit point.

The WorkTools team called their new staple gun “CounterPoint” and set about turning it into a product. At first they planned to launch the tool on their own. But, out of money and feeling beaten up from their SqueezeDriver experience, they decided to try and license it. It turned out that Black & Decker was looking for a new staple gun at that time. When Mike contacted them they were interested and eventually licensed the new staple gun from WorkTools. WorkTools’ CounterPoint became the Black & Decker Powershot Forward Action staple gun. PowerShot was (and is) a huge market success. Joel received a prestigious Design of the Decade Gold Award for his invention, an honor shared with the inventors of the Apple iMac and Volkswagen New Beetle. Learn more about WorkTools at

Once an inventor closes one licensing deal with a company, it becomes much, much easier to license future products to that company. Trust has developed and basic terms for a deal have been established. This presents a great opportunity to invent additional products that can be sold by the same company.

This is exactly what WorkTools did with PowerShot. WorkTools subsequently created four additional forward action staple guns so that PowerShot would be part of a complete product line. One of the designs became the Sears EasyFire The existence of a complete product line helped keep PowerShot (and WorkTools’ royalties) alive when Black & Decker decided to sell it’s staple gun business. The new business, called PowerShot Tool Company was able to retain key accounts like Home Depot because they had a complete product line.

Your greatest strengths as an inventor come from the things you enjoy and find interesting. Build on your strengths by going to trade shows devoted to your interests. Trade shows are places where professionals devoted to a particular industry meet to learn about business opportunities. They are fantastic places to check out the competition.

As an inventor you can walk the floor of a trade show wearing several hats.

  • Student – you want to learn everything you can about the industry
  • Analyst – you want to identify potential partners, companies that might be interested in licensing your invention. It is amazing how much sales people will tell you if you ask. The people you meet at a company’s trade booth represent the company. If you like them you will probably like working with the company… and vice-versa
  • Prospector – you are looking for inspiration. Understand that when a company shows a product at trade shows it is an invitation for distributors to look at it and consider whether or not they are interested in selling it. When a company shows at a trade show it also knows that competitors will be watching as well.

If you see a stand with a big crowd around it make sure to check it out. It is possible that they are just giving away great freebies. It is also possible they have one of the hottest new items at the show. Knowing what's hot and what’s not will help you find the ideas that are most likely to be successful.

Do not be afraid to introduce yourself to companies that you like. Tell them you are an inventor and would like to create some new products for them. Ask them what product categories they would find most interesting. Large companies will tend to give you a cold shoulder. But smaller companies will generally be quite receptive and helpful. They do not have in-house product development departments and they need people like you!

It’s not important to be the first one with a great product idea. So do not be discouraged if you find out that someone else is already doing something similar. There is always room for improvement. Above all, how you execute, the details of how your invention works and how you make and sell your invention, matter far more than being the first in a category.

There’s an old expression in the product development business that says, “Pioneers end up dead with arrows in the back.” Being first may give you a claim to fame. Being second and better can make you rich. The Wright Brothers invented the first powered airplane in the United States (Europeans have their own firsts in this category) but made little money. A number two guy named Curtis made money on the idea. Same thing with the lightbulb. Joseph Swan was number one. Edison was number two (AND he gets the credit).

Am I saying it is okay to knock off someone else’s good product idea? Yes. Provided that the product idea is disclosed in a public forum where anyone walking by can see it and handle it… and provided you honor legitimate patents. But you should be careful. If someone is disclosing their idea the odds are good they took steps to protect it. You might start off copying the idea with a few twists and turns of your own only to find out that a prior patent prevents you from doing anything with your improvement.

At a trade show you may also find an Inventor who has a great invention or new product but doesn’t have a clue on how to proceed with it. If you have a business and sales orientation you might consider working in partnership with the inventor. Good ideas are relatively easy to find. Putting them into practice and making them into successful products is hard.

However (with two exceptions discussed later) it is most definitely not okay to knock off an idea that is disclosed to you in confidence.

Our intellectual property system establishes the rules for how inventors receive compensation for ideas. The reason a patent is published is to enable others to learn from prior art and improve upon it. The patent system defines the primary rules inventors play by. In general these rules are very favorable for inventors. We’ll discuss patents in detail later on.

Edison is credited with having invented the electric light. He did not. But he did make tons of money creating a lot of new products and a little company that is today called General Electric. The Wright Brothers get credit for the first airplane. They were certainly among the first, but a guy named Curtis made the money in early aviation. Henry Ford did not invent the car… he invented a better way of making a car and a fortune in the process.

Inventions can also be small things that don’t make a fortune but simply give you a little extra cash and the good feeling of having made the world a tiny bit better.

One of my favorite recent inventions is something called an Award Hanger. Marine Corps Sergeant Randal Neathery noticed that the process of giving out medals in Awards ceremonies was awkward. Pinning medals on the uniforms of 10 to 100 guys at one time took too long. So he thought of a simple little plastic hook to which the medal could be attached in advance of the ceremony. With his Award Hanger a medal is simply hooked over a button on the breast pocket of a recipient’s uniform. The Award Hanger was licensed by Invention City and was sold to Navy bases and ships all over the world. No one got rich. But everyone made a fair return on investment and Navy life was just a tad better than it was before.

In his book From Mind to Market Mark Davis tells the story of how God inspired him to invent the Eggsercizer, a hand held exercise device. Mark’s interest in fitness probably also had something to do with it. .

Inventions don’t need to be practical. 1976 saw the introduction of the most useless product of all time… the Pet Rock. For those who do not know, the Pet Rock was a... rock! It was packaged in a cute, brightly colored, cube shaped, cardboard box that looks like a cage. Printing on the box told the owner how to care for his or her rock and detailed the joys of Pet Rock ownership. In 1976 this was considered very funny and the product sold 1.5 million units in six months at retail prices in the $7.50 to $10 range (the item cost maybe $0.50 - $0.75 to "produce"). Then, as quickly as it arrived, the Pet Rock faded off the shelves and into cultural history... never to be seen again. Well, never is a word that should never be used in marketing. The 70's are back in style. Maybe we will soon see a resurgence of the Pet Rock!

But before you start thinking up wacky ideas that will be “the next Pet Rock,” be aware that Pet Rock falls into the product category of Fashion. And Fashion is a tricky business. What seems cool and funny today, when you are starting a project, can become ridiculous and even offensive six months to a year later when you go to introduce it.

Products that improve lives and save money will always be fashionable.

When you go to sleep at night you may find it productive to turn over ideas in your mind. Keep a notebook handy by the side of your bed to record your thoughts.


To find a great product…

  • Identify a problem that resonates with a target audience. They may not be aware there’s a problem until you tell them – but once you make them aware of it they very much want the problem to be solved.
  • Solve the problem. The solution may come from combining existing products in a new way or inventing something entirely new from scratch.

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trucking invention

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