You Have An Idea. Now What?
As an entrepreneur, small talk is rarely small. Once you’ve told someone you invented a product and built a business from the ground up, the conversation is never a short one.
When people hear my story, they often tell me they too have an idea for a business or a product, but they don’t know what to do next. That’s understandable; bringing a product to market is a daunting task, and having a checklist of steps can help inventors and entrepreneurs navigate the uncertain waters of moving from idea to product.
GOOGLE. GOOGLE. GOOGLE.
My first recommendation is always to do your due diligence and research your idea. Before I started 10th Avenue Tea, roughly once a week, I came up with a “brilliant” idea that no one had ever thought of… or so I thought.
With just a quick Google search it became clear that many people had already thought of my brilliant idea, and turned it into a product that is now in my shopping cart. It can be disappointing to learn from Google that you weren’t the first person with an idea, but it’s far more disappointing to figure it out much later in the process.
If you make it through the Google process, it’s time to get serious about research. Serious is determining if there is any intellectual property value to your idea. If your idea is a product, you can start by visiting the U.S. Patent and Trademark website to search for existing patents. This can be a tricky process because your search terms matter.
It is important to start with a very broad search so you do not miss any existing patents due to being off by one word or letter. The most thorough searches, however, take place in person at one of the regional U.S. Patent libraries around the country. Chances are there is one in your home state, so it may be worth the trip to make sure you are doing the most thorough search possible.
MAKE A PROTOTYPE
My first invention was a reusable dry cleaning bag. It was not just a typical garment bag, but a bag that transformed from a tote into a garment bag. I assumed at some point I would have the product made in China, but I needed to see if the idea in my head would translate to something functional for users.
I’m no seamstress, but my neighbor was, so I grabbed some fabric (AKA the bed sheets in the laundry basket next to me) and knocked on her door. As I talked her through what I envisioned, she sketched the bag on the back of an envelope that was sitting on her counter.
I watched my design come to life in seconds. She created a prototype out of my bed sheets later that day, and I began the long process of revision. I spent day and night working with it and tweaking the design – the final of which did not include bed sheets.
TEST THE MARKET
Just because you think something is a good idea, does not mean anyone else will agree with you (perhaps there’s a reason there are no existing patents for a hands-free toothbrush?). Start by taking your prototype to your most brutally honest friends and family (I started with my infamously blunt mom).
Gather their feedback and make changes as necessary. Then expand to less certain subjects – friends of friends and distant neighbors are a good place to start. Give them samples to take home to along with a questionnaire. I find it’s useful to tell them to be brutally honest so you can modify your product and grow from this experience.
Sugar coating feedback will only hurt you in the long run. This testing phase is a stressful and sometimes discouraging part of the process, but it must be done. It can save you from even more costly consequences down the road when you launch your product.
SELL. SELL. SELL.
Before you completely hit the market, sell everything you can in less high-risk settings. This requires some creativity (and maybe a little awkwardness), but it is worth the effort. When my co-founder and I got our first shipment of bottles of 10th Avenue Tea, we each had boxes of product in our homes. Each of us would bring a few bottles everywhere we went.
I started by selling the tea at the holiday fair at my kids’ school. She took it to her favorite yoga studio in LA, and I had a friend put them out on the counter at her costume shop in Chicago. I gave bottles to my family and friends too, and they sold it everywhere from their monthly book club meetings to Facebook swap sites.
Is it possibly awkward to lug product with you everywhere you go, asking friends, family and strangers to buy said product? Maybe. But if it’s a good product, people will be excited to get in on the ground floor, and you can generate buzz before you even make your first cold call.
More importantly, this will give you an idea on pricing, whether or not there is a demand for your product, your target demographic and your target sales channel. Once you have those sales under your belt, you have the foundation to scale up.
I have a business… Now what?
The truth is, starting a business is hard work. We have weeks where it seems like we are on the brink of realizing all of our tea mogul dreams. The very next week will bring some misfortune that seems sure to drive us into the ground. The title CEO has a glamorous connotation, but neither my co-founder nor I would describe our life as such.
Most nights I am up long past my preferred bedtime, engaged in some menial task that one would never associate with the CEO who sits comfortably in a corner office, wearing a perfectly tailored power suit. But the fact is many successful CEOs were once scrappy entrepreneurs, navigating the uncertainty of building a business from the ground up.
When it seems like you are miles away from that “corner office CEO life,” remember that all businesses started with an idea and a person who believed in it enough to bring it to life.
The youngest of seven children, Ann Foley has entrepreneurship in her blood. 10th Avenue Tea is the second green company founded by Ann, who also invented a reusable dry cleaning bag that was designed to eliminate plastic bags at dry cleaners. Ann lives in the Chicago area with her husband and four children.