HOW TO TURN AN IDEA INTO A PRODUCT

One of the hardest processes of becoming an entrepreneur with a new product idea is getting that idea all the way from your head into an actual finalized production worthy prototype and then from a prototype through manufacturing, packaging, shipping and into retail.

When I tell people about my invention, they get so excited and seem to think that I can just go on Shark tank and my product will magically appear on the shelves of every retailer.  I also constantly get the question – is your product available yet? I will NEVER think of this question in a negative light because that means people are thinking of my product!   However, its hard trying to explain even a small part of this process and get people to understand it.

Therefore I’m going to blog about it. Here is the journey I’ve taken thus far.

Step 1. You have an idea, make sure no one else thought of it first –  

So you suddenly (or over time), have this bright idea and you think if this were on the market, it would sell! The first step is to make sure this idea isn’t already available on the market! You wouldn’t want to spend all your time creating something that’s already available for retail sale and use.  Turn to your friend Google and search for everything that describes your idea. I once had this idea to make a “knife-pal” product that had a handle with prongs that would go into your fruit and assist with knife cuts and chopping. I thought this would be great for people with arthritis and kids to more safely learn to cut.  I couldn’t find anything like my idea on the web but then when I searched for the description (handle with prongs for chopping) Amazon.com returned an onion slicer that looked very much like my great idea.  So I purchased one and we love it! We use it for all kinds of chopping, not just for onions.  But, someone else made it first so I became a customer.

The second place to search is the patent database on the USPTO website. Someone may have patented this idea already but not put it into retail.  In this case if you wanted to use their patent to go to retail you’d have to pay them to license their idea to you.  Again, search for description words, not a product title.  When looking for SiftEase I searched “sifting litter box”, “sifter”, “litter box”, etc. Within each patent, read the claims and look at the drawings to ensure they don’t cover what you’re trying to invent.  Claims in patents are meant to be very broad in language to make sure no one can change one small part of an invention and create a knock off without penalty.  Does this prevent people from creating a knock-off? No, but it does allow the inventor to sue them for any profits or losses if they do.

Ok, so you’re pretty sure this is your idea first and you are ready to put it into action.  The next rule is to keep your idea a secret. I know you’re so excited about your idea and you want to tell everyone about it.  It has nothing to do with whether or not you trust someone to keep your secret, if you disclose your idea to someone before filing a patent application they are free to use your idea however they like.  Therefore you need to ensure you only work with people you trust AND they first sign a confidentiality agreement before any discussion ensues.  The website IP Watchdog has a great article here about why this is necessary along with some free confidentiality agreement templates.

Step 2: Put your idea on paper –  

Now is the time to put your idea into action.  put your idea on paper. Start sketching out the parts and pieces of your idea.  It’s recommended by the patent experts to do this on a bound notebook so you can keep everything together and later prove all of the sketches are your own.

You don’t have to know for sure right now what a part will be made of you just need it to function. Left is an example of my first sketches of SiftEase.  You’ll want to draw your invention at many angles and get an idea of the general shapes and functions of each part.

Step 3: Build a prototype

From your sketches you should have a basic idea of the parts of your invention and the shapes of those parts. Now go to the nearest hardware store and look for materials to make those parts.  Alternatively, if your invention is electronic or technical you would look online to enlist the assistance of an engineer to help make your design a reality.  If you are an engineer you might put all the electric pieces together and enlist the help of a 3D printer to design and print out the outer frames for your electronics.  There is an awesome television show on the History channel called Million Dollar Genius which shows inventors going through these processes from start to finish.

When making the first SiftEase prototype, I first found a waste bin for the lower bin in my design.  I picked out what turned out to be way too large in the long run, but was great for facilitating my first prototype build.

I also needed some type of mesh. In the gardening section I found hardware cloth.  I then enlisted the help of a store associate and asked how I could attach the hardware cloth to this bin in a removable fashion. I didn’t discuss the utility of what I was making, just that I wanted help with a means to attach this hardware cloth to a frame which fit over this waste bin.  We walked through the store together and came up with a wooden frame with some corner brackets, handles, and a snipping tool to cut my cloth.  I brought all this home and built what you see here.

Step 4: Refine your prototype

Now you need to refine your prototype to its final version which you will use for injection mold design (more about this later).  The process of refining your prototype can be a long one. You need to use it, ensure it works the way you want it to, and if not, change it slightly and try again.  When I used my first prototype, I was getting litter everywhere! I needed a way to prevent this. So I went back to my sketches and sketched some sides into my sifting basket.  Since I had no means to build solid sides on my own, I enlisted the help of an engineer who could turn my drawings into 3-D printable designs.

This process is called rapid prototyping and you can turn to google and search for “rapid prototyping near me” and find an engineer who can help you in this process.  Before discussing your idea with anyone, send them a non-disclosure agreement and have them sign it and send it back to you. You can accomplish this via email and any reputable design or engineering firm will want to do this to prevent any problems. If not, just move on, this is not a reputable agency.  It took a few months of re-printing and re-designing before I had a prototype that did everything I imagined and more. I even had amazing animated pictures of my design that come from the 3-D design software.

Step 5: Injection Molding Design

What is that? I’m glad you asked. Most products you see in retail are created using injection molds.  Injection molds are giant hunks of steel into which your design is carved.  They then insert the materials needed to form your product, for example, SiftEase will require the metal mesh to be inserted into the mold, then the mold will be closed up and plastic material poured in to create the sides of the basket. This is then quickly cooled off and hardened and the product is removed as one unit.  Can you imagine me having to manually assemble every single product? This is necessary for some electronics but it is much easier to use a tool for larger plastic pieces.  For example, the waste bins you see in the stores are made using injection molds. The plastic is poured into a mold and a final product is almost instantly created.  Here’s a youtube video on this process.

3D CAD example

In order to create an injection mold your design must be finalized in 3D CAD by an engineer who specializes in manufacturing.  Every detail of the design must be executed in a way that works for manufacturing your product in a cost effective manner. For example, each plastic piece must be hallowed out on the back side to reduce cost and be molded. Left is an example of my product going through this process. You can see there is a difference between this and the above 3-D printing design.  This may take weeks. You want this to be done right because once they make a mold out of steel, there’s no going back.  You’ll also need to find a manufacturer who can create your injection mold.  Again, a search on google for “injection molding near me” can help or your designer may have some useful contacts.

Step 6: Creating and Shipping your Tool 

An injection mold is also referred to as a “tool” by manufacturers because its  a tool that makes your product. Once you find your injection mold manufacturer and submit your final design the real cost and time commitment begins.  Most molds are made in China either stay there for manufacturing or are shipped back to a local manufacturer for production.  The cost of the two molds (tools) required to make SiftEase is over $60,000 after creation and shipping. It will take 14 weeks to create the tool and another 4 weeks to ship it back.  It’s hard to explain this to your backers who may not understand how a product is made.

Step 6.5: Don’t forget to file your patent 

Intellectual property is what separates a small business from a large growing business. It allows you to create and sell something separating you from your competitors.  Work with a patent attorney to file your patent. They can explain the difference between a provisional and non-provisional patent, do a complete global patent search to ensure no one else has thought of this idea, and write claims that will stand up when the patent office reviews your application.  It would be terrible to go through the entire process of filing a patent on your own to have it rejected and all of your hard work and money wasted. Therefore pay a patent attorney to do it right the first time. I found my patent attorney on upcounsel.com.  I posted a job and got several offers and free consultations from attorneys and was able to choose the person I felt best fit my needs.  This will cost you around $2000-$5000 depending on your needs.

Step 7: Manufacturing

Once your tool is created 1000 units can be made very quickly and cost effectively.  For example, the manufacturer can make 1000 SiftEase in only 13 hours. This is pretty amazing.  Although you might be able to make each unit for a few dollars, you’ll need to use the “profits” made on each unit to pay for packaging, shipping, marketing, and any debt you might have incurred in paying for the tools. Make sure to calculate this into your cost of goods sold.  If you ever make it to Shark Tank they’ll want you to understand these numbers.

Step 8: Packaging and Shipping

How will you sell your product? Solely online, in retail stores, on your website? You’ll need to determine this and set up accounts with each vendor, apply retail packaging, and drop ship to the vendor or directly to your customers. Some manufacturers will also drop ship for you.  Again, turn to google and search for “drop shipping near me”.  Put some thought into packaging design. Work with a local packaging company to design your packaging for the type of sales avenues you’re entering. For example, if I’m just selling on Amazon, I might not need expensive packaging that would stand out on a retail shelf. A local packaging company can help you with inner and outer packaging.  You can then provide this printed packaging to your manufacturer and they can assemble and drop ship your product. There are many other methods to do this, its best to discuss options with the companies you’re working with.

Step 9: Business Filing, Banking, Payments, and Insurance

First you’ll want to register your business. The type of business filing and tax benefits should be worked out with a business attorney and trusted CPA. These are people you’ll want on your team to ensure your personal assets are protected separate from your business.  I was able to hire a local attorney to file everything for me and draw up all the necessary legal documents for around $1500 plus a very informative free consultation after which I could have filed on my own if I chose to.  I found my business attorney by attending free business classes offered by my local Small Business Association.  You can go to SBA.gov and find lots of free resources near you to assist you in starting or growing your business. Next, you”ll want to start your book keeping and find an accountant to assist you in filing taxes.  Most accountants recommend Quickbooks software and will help you set this up.  You’ll also need to have a means to accept payments and keep your business separate from your personal finances.  Find a local bank that works with small businesses and open an account in the name of your business. To do this you’ll need your state business filing and a EIN from the IRS.  You can apply for an EIN yourself in just a few minutes on IRS.gov.  Last, you’ll want to consider purchasing business insurance.  Business insurance is fairly inexpensive but protects you if you are sued by a customer or competitor by covering the costs to fight a legal battle. Your bank may have an insurance expert to help you. If not, Google is your friend.

The most important step: Mentoring, counseling and learning

No one person can possibly understand everything about manufacturing, sales, production, patents, and business. Many businesses fail because entrepreneurs fail to seek the help of an outside expert when they don’t completely understand something. Maybe you feel you can’t afford an expert. I’ve had many people tell me to file my own business docs instead of seeking an attorney’s assistance. “It’s easy, they said, just pay the $300 and fill out the one page form”.  But if I had followed this advice I would have filed an assumed name for my business that was tied back to my own personal name instead of my business, and in litigation, someone could come after my personal assets.  Therefore the $1500 I paid to have everything done properly with my originating documents could protect me from losing everything I worked for in the future.

Also take advantage of the free expertise already offered. There are free business counselors and mentors available through the local Small Business Association that will help you along from start to finish. You need to have a solid business plan and update it often. Especially if you want an investor to help you financially. There are many free templates available through sba.gov.  Failing to plan is planning to fail.  Learn everything you can about sales, marketing, online presence, search engine optimization, business planning, and legal requirements and execute what you can but hire out what you can’t.  There are so many resources available to you, you just have to take advantage of them.   Some believe a good idea is enough to gain riches, this is simply not true. If you don’t have a plan or a means to sell your idea to the world, it remains just an idea.

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