What to do first when you have an idea for a new product.

Posted on March 28th, 2023 in Learning, Reference

This is intended to be one in a series of articles on the not-so-well understood area of what first steps to take when you have a new product idea that your are considering to offer to the market. There are many things to consider and like many complex topics, it can be broken down into manageable smaller parts. We are starting at the very beginning and will explain the different pieces of the puzzle of new product ideas and how they become real, sellable products.

When you have a new idea for a product, there is excitement in the air. You think you might just have something that might sell to the masses. It is and can be exciting when you think of something new. But then some reality needs to set in to determine how new and novel, and attractive to the market your idea really is.

There are two things that need to be done before anything else. These can be done in any order, but both should be done thoroughly, without cutting corners, before you spend much more time and money on a new product idea. Said another way, don’t fall in love too deeply with an idea until you do the work we explain below. Even after some of this hard work, try to be optimistically skeptical, as we are in the work that we do for clients of all types (large companies to single person startups).

Try to think like, “It may be a pretty good idea, but why has it not been done before, and is it really a good and new idea?” Sometimes the answer is that it just has not been done before and you might be the first one doing something in a novel, unique way. However, sometimes it is just a bad idea or an idea already done many times over. Be positive, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Professionals in product development and legal areas can help you progress from any idea that initially may be simple and somewhat weak, to an idea that can later become much stronger and much more competitive and valuable. If it is a bad idea, or one that should not proceed for one or more valid reasons, try and learn that earlier than later, and move onto the next idea. Don’t give up too easily, but don’t hang on too long if it is not warranted. Like many things in life and business, it is a balancing act.

As an important disclaimer, we are not intending to provide legal advice. We are not attorneys and are not acting as attorneys. However, we do prepare many patent drawings each year for and with attorneys, based on the products we develop, and do help prepare a lot of the content that is used for filing both very technical patents, and simple ones too.

We have been involved in the new product design and development market and have assisted with generating patents for several decades. We have learned that people struggle with knowing what to do and wanted to help people try to gain an understating of some of the basics in the process of creating a new product and pursuing a patent for it. Like many things, and in trying to develop a new product, just knowing where to start and what to do is of great assistance.

One of the two first things is to conduct a patent search at the USPTO (Unites States Patent and Trademark Office). The USPTO site can be difficult to use, but the search can be done quite effectively without a professional searcher or patent attorney using Google Patents. This search done by you is intended only to get started, and familiarize yourself with this process and the patents themselves. It is often recommended to have a law firm or professional searcher perform a search for you before this step is considered complete.

Do your best to type the description of the idea using Google Patents. Change the description to use different terms so that different patents may be identified (in the event the category assigned varies for a similar invention). Save the PDF patents wherever you normally save your electronic documents. Consider using in the file name the inventor’s last name that the patent office uses at the top left on page 1, because it is easier to remember or reference than a long patent number. You can print them but it can become a mountain of paper that is difficult to manage. Do what suits you best.

If the inventor is James Smith, as an example, this is referred to as the “Smith” patent. The patent number in the upper right corner is also important. There are many things to consider in these patents, and one to make note of is the filing date in the upper left corner of page 1. This is important because for a Utility Patent in the United States, there is a 20 year life of the patent, with few exceptions. So, make note whether the patent is still active or if it has expired. If patents appear active, they may not be, if the maintenance fees have not been paid. Just consider them active as a conservative approach, if at the time you are doing the search it is less than 20 years for the filing date. If it is expired, (older than 20 years from the filing date) it means there is no longer patent protection on it, and you will not be able to patent anything disclosed in that patent. You most likely could commercially produce what is in the patent, unless there is some other reason preventing its use.

The claims in the patent are very important. Go to the last page of the patent and work backwards to the first numbered paragraph, usually on the last page or pages, where it states “what is claimed is” or similar language. Following this, are the claims, which are the numbered paragraphs of sorts, which are important words describing the uniqueness of the invention. For the best outcome when and if you file a patent, a patent attorney should craft these on your behalf after they fully understand the invention. These may seem confusing when you first start reading them. They are confusing, until you start to learn what some of the words mean. Do your best to read through and try to get a sense of what the patent is covering or trying to specifically protect.

Part of your job, with help of others in developing a competing product, is to dodge these claims with a different invention and your own patent. Read the patents from start to finish for those you might find most important and closest to your invention. Highlight important information you might find, which could be particular claims, a drawing, some of the background in the early writing of the patent, or anything that might be of interest. Discuss this information with the product development team or firm you hire to help you develop your product, and your patent attorney to help establish the direction you and your product can take for the best possible outcome.

The second thing you need to do is to conduct some competitive research to determine which companies have similar products at what prices. It is said that business is war, and your competitors that preceded you in the market or product category are the enemy of sorts, because they are pursuing the same market share you are. Who wins the battle or the war? You are all vying for market share with similar products. All products have functions, features and benefits and are offered at a price in some currency. Who is the winner or considered best, and why? It is often a certain combination of features and price that is considered one of the best, which translates to significant sales of a product.

You want to evaluate all of the products you can find on the internet, in a store, or anywhere you can find a product for sale in the category you intend to target. If you know how to use spreadsheet software like Excel from Microsoft, or Google’s Sheets, then enter at your preference the company name, product name, brand, price, the most prominent features and any other information you should know. Try to determine how you stack up to these products. Be honest with yourself. Try to be the best, whatever that best is.

The country of origin (where it is manufactured) is an important attribute because if every one of your competitors is made in a particular country in Asia, you will likely have to do the same to be competitive, unless there are some very unique circumstances.

If you cannot use spreadsheet software, or are not computer savvy, make a list on a pad of paper and maybe use a page for each product. Printing pages from the internet can be useful and then summarizing by hand-writing the summary details like price and features. Think like you are a marketing or product manager because this is what they do. If printed pages are better for you, get a 3-ring binder with dividers for patents, competitors, and any notes, drawings, sketches or the like for your ideas or inventions. Do not share this with anyone you cannot trust, and consider using an NDA or Non Disclosure Agreement to be signed by anyone that reviews your confidential information, even after you have filed for a patent. Keep you information close to the vest and protect your hard work.

After you have looked at enough of the available products that are similar to your your product idea, you will have a sense of who might be some of the more dominant companies or products in the target market you have your eyes on. Look at the number of reviews on Amazon, as that can be a great indicator for a product with a longer selling history. However, a new upstart could have a great product but not that many reviews yet so use your judgement and resourcefulness to find as many places as you can where the products are being sold.

Keep checking over time the same sources because things change and markets are very dynamic entities, just like biological plants, growing and dying, thriving or struggling, based on wet or dry, hot or cold conditions around them. Enlist people to help you if they are more familiar with using a computer or can multi-task, or divide and conquer with you to reduce the time it will take to search and find valuable information, or to widen the search net for competitive products and companies.

The prices of products is very important because it largely dictates the price at which you have to offer your product unless your are more featured at a higher price, or if lesser featured, at possibly a lower price. Just because it is more featured, does not mean those purchasing will pay a higher price, as it may be over-featured. People are tight with their money and make buying decisions very carefully. The market is the dictator of pricing.

Along with price, a product’s cost is very, very important, in part because the difference between the price and the cost is the profit, which is the life blood of any company (which is leading into another topic for another article). Try to determine if all of the product is being sold direct to the consumer, or are they going through a distributor of some type, which requires a markup. Product Cost and Channel to Market expenses are some of the most important aspects of products, old or new, and will get more attention in another article. Be smart, strong and persistent in your work.