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Invention – the Most Commonly Asked Question

Help for Inventors. Another post in a huge Series of Articles to Help Inventors!

By Jeffrey Dobkin

I have a passion for creative people, and inventors are certainly in this group.

Before becoming the President of the American Society of Inventors – a non-profit self-help group for Philadelphia inventors, I have served on the Board of Directors for the past 14 years. Each month the group has met and offered free invention evaluations and advice to area inventors. Here are just a few tips on the process of invention from the most commonly asked questions from inventors.

The Number One Question:  What’s the Best Way to See If Your Invention Will Sell?

There is only one way way to see if your invention will sell: sell one.

If you have a prototype, show it to an acquaintance or better yet, a stranger. Since you’re standing there with a big grin on your face saying how you are the inventor, everyone will tell you how great it is! After you’re finished your short under 3 minute presentation offer it for sale. Yes, ask they if they want to buy one. Tell them you have one in the car and give them a price. If they reach for their wallet, you have an invention that will sell. Congratulations. If they balk, hem or haw – it’s no sale. Either rethink your price — or invent something someone really wants to buy.

Pricing 101

The price of your invention at retail will be 4 or 5 times your cost, at best. While you may sell some product yourself at a 2x markup, you’ll need help to move any big numbers. Retailers like to double their costs (what they paid for your product) — so if you’re planning to sell through a retailer, kindly factor this in. Distributors mark-up everything 1/3rd. And you need to make money, too!

Here’s what it looks like: Your cost to manufacture: $5.00. You sell to a Distributor for $10. They sell to a Retailer for $13.00. Retailer lists it for $26.00. They then put it on sale for $24.95. So, yea — your $5 product sells for $ 25 bucks at a store.

Catalog Cut

Catalogers are distributors and retailers rolled into one. As such, they command more markup and generally like to make 4 to 5 times their cost. But most will settle for much less of a cut if they like your product. It pays to negotiate.


It’s the big dream of every inventor – sell it to QVC.

Can you do this? Yes!

They have open buying days once a month, just come in and pitch them! If they like your product – presto, they’ll offer it to their customers.

Note I didn’t say they’ll buy it…

If accepted, they’ll offer your product to their viewers — but… it must be packaged or boxed for shipping, and have their special UPC code on the box. And you’ve got to deliver it to their distribution facility in West Chester, PA. You’ll make 40% of the selling price — which is pretty darn good, but you’ve got to take back all the product you’ve delivered that doesn’t sell. In fairness, they’ll pick of the shipping on the way back.

And yes, there will be returns.  Depending on your product match to the market, the timeslot, the host, and the pitch and price.
Don’t forget, you’re not going to knock out Joan River’s Diamonique Jewelry line at the 8PM time slot. Your product will get the new host – with one lazy eye – and a limp – who may not be the best pitchman. And did I mention you’ll get insomniac airtime somewhere between midnight and 5AM. So be prepared for returns.

Catalog Considerations

Do you need an acutal product to show catalogs? Yes. You will need to send a catalog house an actual product to photograph for their book. I say this because no catalog house buyer in his or her right mind will take a product on pure spec that “Customers might like it when it comes in!” and also chance, “If it comes in.” They even won’t go for “I hope it looks like this when they go into production.” They’ll need to see a real sample.
Face it: if you were a catalog merchant would you want to print 500,000 Christmas catalogs hoping the product you’ve never seen will look like the drawing, and will be delivered on time and ready for you to ship to your customers in time for their Christmas orders? No, I think not. And would you want to hope it’s of good enough quality that you don’t get them all back. No way.
But, catalog houses love to boast about their new products. So pitch them to discover if you can generate some early interest and probable numbers of anticipated orders if the product is of good quality.

Types of Prototypes

What State is your Invention In?
Napkin drawing? — This means it looked pretty good last night at 2AM at the bar after a couple of beers.
Homemade Prototype, also call an early “Proof of Concept” prototype to see if the dang thing works. Made from materials you found around your house, your neighbor’s basement, Home Depot, CVS, and the Garden Center down the street to see if it’s feasible, and to show around. (Be careful not to disclose it publicly at this point.
Working Prototype. Delivers a real “proof of concept” that it works.
Professional Prototype. Looks good and works well. Polished, but may not look exactly like the final product.
Manufacturing Prototype. This is actually how the invention will be manufactured, and pretty much looks like the final product. All kinks have been worked out – so you think.

What is your Goal?

Do you want to market your invention? License it? Manufacture it? Market it? Get it on TV? Sell it to others, and let them market it? Do you want to do nothing commercial – and just say, “I invented this!” which is OK, too. Or just get a patent so you can say “I have a Patent!” Whatever you select here will reflect your path. Choose wisely, my son.


Everyone has that Eureka moment where the flashbulb goes off and the invention idea is created. Wow, good work. Now for the hard part – you have an idea that no one has heard about and no one has seen. Now comes the thousands of hours of work that you need to do afterwards that makes it a successful, commercial product that is accepted in the marketplace.

Commercial Feasibility

In the review process, our organization (The American Society of Inventors) sees lots of inventions that are great ideas. Unfortunately, many are not “commercially feasible”: they can’t be manufactured and sold at a profit. This doesn’t mean they aren’t great ideas.
There are many reasons you can’t sell your invention in the open marketplace. Here are a few:

· Your manufacturing costs are too high, driving the retail price too high and the retail pricing way over your competitors.
· No way to exclusively target the people who would be the MOST LIKELY buy it. You can’t advertise to everyone, it’s too expensive.
· You need to educate everyone about how to use it and why it’s better. You can’t educate a market, it’s too expensive.
· Your invention is too similar to another product. There’s no way to differentiate your product from the others.
· Other products in your market have tied up all the distributors and all the retail stores. No way in.
· Similar products are well entrenched in your market place.
· You have no budget. Yes, admit it – it’s expensive to bring a product to market.

Although you can give it a good shot with Jeffrey Dobkin’s cult-classic book, “How to Market a Product for Under $500!” Learn about marketing in a few nights of easy reading. More practical advertising and marketing advice than you’ll learn in 4 years in college. If you’re thinking about selling or marketing your invention, you need to buy this book – it’s awesome. In fact, you can order it here: “How to Market a Product for Under $500!”.

And Now a Word About Patents…

Getting a patent on your invention involves a substantial investment in both time and money. For a utility patent, probably $5,000 to start.
As with any investment, you would like to have a return greater than the mount of your spend.

Before initiating patent work, every inventor should search the internet (e.g. Google, Amazon) to see what solutions are already out there for the problems your invention resolves. If your invention is not much better than solutions already suggested; if your invention isn’t faster, better, cheaper, or more powerful — your chance of getting a good return on your investment is reduced.This doesn’t mean it’s not a great idea, it just may be more difficult to sell. And a patent may not help you – it may just be an expense that takes away from your marketing and manufacturing budget. I’ve seen lots of inventors who blow their whole budget on a patent, then come to me and whine, “They need to market their product at no cost because they spent all their marketing money on a patent…”

You don’t need a patent to market your product. It is at times wiser to invest in making a small inventory of your product and doing a market test. A market test does not prevent you from filing and obtaining a patent if you file within one year after your first commercial use or public disclosure.
If you have a patent search completed (either your own or a professional search), you may find a prior patent (called Prior Art) which addresses the same problem as your invention or resolves the problem in a way-too-similar fashion. If you can get ahold of the inventor of the prior patent, or the patent shows an licensed to a company and you are interested in selling the product to the industry it serves, I’d recommend you first contact the inventor or company and ask if the product is available. If not ask why.

If the patent is not assigned, call the inventor and ask whether he (or she) tried to sell the invention or sell the product. If he did try and wasn’t successful, tell him that you have a similar product and ask for his suggestions. Some people will be glad to help. Of course, some people are just jerks and won’t. If the product was licensed and not on the market there’s probably a reason, and it may be really helpful to you if you find out what that is.

Hope you found this article helpful.  Jeffrey Dobkin