The Innovation Game

The Innovation Game

Got a great idea for a new invention but don’t know where to start? Read on.

By Whitney Homans

Many women are inventors – whether by profession or just through the fantastic ideas they come up with in traffic or in the shower. But most don’t pursue their ideas, believing they lack business savvy or the courage to overcome the bureaucratic process of bringing an idea to market.

Sandy Sandler created the Bowdabra when she couldn’t find a fast and simple bow-maker to use for her gift basket company. Since she debuted the product in 1998, Sandler has also created the Mini-Bowdabra and launched a website that offers information about how to develop an idea and eventually patent a product.

She recently spoke with PINK and offered steps women should take once they have an idea.

Research, research, research. Until you do your homework, you’ll never know if a product already exists or if someone else already has a similar product in the works, Sandler says. You’ll also want to get an idea – based on what’s already out there – if demand will be large enough to garner adequate sales of the product. And research will help you determine what your initial market will be.

Get help. Chances are good that you won’t have the skills to design your product on your own. If that’s the case, Sandler suggests hiring a design engineer. For the Bowdabra, she introduced her engineer to the inefficient products already on the market, then explained her concept and how it could be better than existing versions. Use any connections you have, she suggests, and don’t be afraid to reach out to people, but only go into business with people you trust – and make all of them sign a nondisclosure (and perhaps a noncompete) agreement.

Invest in a provisional patent. This gives you a year to research and develop the product before spending thousands on a real patent. (A typical product patent costs around $5,000, while drug patents can cost as much as $100,000.) Then you can label your prototype as “patent pending.” Most lawyers charge around $1,000 for a provisional patent, but offers them for around $300.

Develop a thorough marketing strategy. Sandler has an MBA and an extensive business background, but she says such experience is not necessary. Mini-focus groups are a great way to gather input from potential consumers. “You want to become a sponge, soaking up information from everywhere you can,” she says. “And take the time to become an expert on the market you wish to enter.” This means not only knowing your direct competitors, but also developing a unique strategy that allows you to win shelf space in stores.

Go global. When Sandler had trouble gaining interest in the U.S., she took the Bowdabra to Europe and shopped it around at trade shows, eventually partnering with a European ribbon company. When she brought the Bowdabra back to the U.S., she sold it directly to retailers. Marketing strategies should be tailored to specific markets, so she suggests researching other popular products in each country you target, as different methods sell better among different cultures. Her biggest mistake? Producing the Bowdabra in the U.S. instead of a country where production is much cheaper (i.e., China).

Keep going – and don’t get discouraged. The Bowdabra went through countless research and development stages and at least three designs before perfection. Once you have a finished product, keep developing it. Since experiencing success with both the Bowdabra and Mini-Bowdabra, Sandler has continued to extend her business by trying out new uses, developing new but similar projects, and discovering everything the Bowdabra can do – even things she never considered before.

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