Common Sense Inventing - Educational articles to help Inventors make informed decisions

Contacting companies for the first time can be scary and uncertain for Inventors. You want to do it right and get the company interested in your product and see it on store shelves. My invention submissions have resulted in licensing deals in toys, tools, eyeglass products, kitchen utensils, and even a device used in the nuclear industry. I did it spending less than $100 on each and some as little as $8. I utilized an NDA and Sell Sheet only, no patent or PPA. My major investment has been my time.

I have been a serial Inventor, a licensing agent and reviewed thousands of Inventor’s products. In short, I see and hear all sides of the inventing process. What I’ve discovered is sometimes inventors can be their own worst enemies. Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to submitting pitches or new products to companies that can help you make a better first impression:

1. Don’t send hand-written submissions. Even if you don’t own a computer most libraries have one you can use for free. If a library isn’t an option, go to a FedEx Office (formerly Kinko’s). If you send your submission via snail mail, include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Don’t assume your target company will pay postage.

2. Do put your contact information on each piece of paper you send. That includes samples and prototypes.

3. Don’t waste a product reviewer’s time detailing how you came up with your idea. Focus on the benefits of your product/technology and why it will make the company money. Companies don’t care if your second cousin twice removed worked on your project for two years once he got out of prison.

4. Don’t use the phrase, “My idea is worth millions.” Let the company decide that.

5. Don’t use the phrase, “There is nothing else out there like my idea.” Most of the time you will be wrong.

6. Don’t say you have researched your product idea thoroughly when all you did was walk into a Walmart and didn’t see it on the shelves.

7. Don’t use the phrase, “Everyone will buy one.” This gets back to being realistic about the size of your market. Know who the target customers are. (See Rule #6)

8. Don’t send a prototype to a company unless they asked you to and are expecting it. Companies do not want to keep track of or be responsible for items they did not request in the first place.

9. Do be realistic about your expectations. Understand licensing royalties usually are about 2% to 5%. Greed can kill an otherwise profitable deal.

10. Do read and re-read everything a company sends you to make sure you understand everything in the documents. Don’t assume everything is fine and sign it. I send people my two-page non-disclosure agreement to read and sign prior to sending me anything for review. I have to include in my email an explanation to make sure they fill in their address on the top of the first page, because so many people don’t do it. This is in the first two paragraphs of the first page. So, if they are missing that what else are they missing in a longer document?

11. Don’t write a novel to explain your invention. Be concise and factual. No one wants to read a novel to get your idea. Be able to explain your invention over the phone or in person in 30 seconds or less. Practice your pitch until you can say it in your sleep. Look at the short blurb on the back of a book. It gives you an overall idea of the 300 page book. Your pitch needs to be that short.

12. Make sure you know your product. You should be the expert on your product. Never assume companies will just “Get It.”

13. Don’t send your submission to a company on Monday and call Tuesday to ask when they will be sending you a contract.

14. Do your research before submitting anything to a company. Make sure your submission actually fits their target market. Don’t submit a lawnmower idea to a soap company.(this happens more than you think)

15. Don’t send your invention submission in care of the general bulk mail of a company. Get a specific person’s name in charge of that department – new product development, marketing, inventor submissions, inventor relations, etc. Don’t send “To Whom it may concern.” The most likely place it will find is the trash basket.

16. If you call a company asking for the person in charge of invention submissions, make sure you are ready if you’re put through. This is not the time to forget pen and paper or fumble your pitch. If you get voice mail, leave a short intelligent message with your call-back number.

17. Make sure you know the time zone difference of the location you are calling.

18. Don’t send a company any package that has special storage requirements, contains a live animal or flammable liquids. Real example: An Inventor sent his new food-sealing device with samples of food sealed inside. It was not opened until a week later, by security due to the smell of the leaking packages.

19. Don’t send a company anything you can’t afford to lose. Accidents happen and things can get misplaced. If it’s a one-of-a-kind item, you may want to send a DVD or link to a video showing the product in action. If you post it on Youtube and you have not filed for any patent protection make sure it is set on Private and not Public.

20. When sending email attachments to companies, do make sure it is in a program they have installed on their computers. Not everyone has Filemaker Pro or Microsoft Office 2010. Ask if the company has a size limit on attachments. Moreover, some software automatically kicks out any email with an attachment that is not on a safe email list.

The more you do upfront to make sure you are prepared the better your chances of success.

Do You Really Look At Your Product When You Come Up With It? I ask this question because I see more and more invention ideas that clearly the Inventor did not consider their product and its environment. Once you come up with your product and you believe it is marketable that is not the time to stop working on your product.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

If you have designed a new type of silverware shouldn’t one of the aspects in its design be how will the consumer clean it? If it will not go in the basket of most dishwashers do you think most consumers will be willing to hand wash them if they own a dishwasher?

Will your product fit on a standard store shelf? Will it stick out into the aisle?

How many will they be able to get on a shelf?

Is it so tall it will require to be displayed on a top shelf?

If you package them 12 to a case, but they can only get two on a shelf at a time is it worth it to the store to sell it?

Is your product so big and bulky the only way it can be displayed would be on an endcap display? Endcaps are considered prime money makers in stores. So your item has to give them a good return for investing that much space for it.

Does your product need batteries or plug into a wall socket when all the other products in that category are hand powered? If it does, will this extra expense give the consumer something back in return for this added cost?

Does your product require huge counter space in the household and if it does is it something the consumer might only use twice a year? So, is the counter space taken worth what your product does?

Will your product need to be sold via a J-hook in the store aisle so consumers will see it as an impulse buy?

Will your product have a learning curve requiring a commercial be made in order to get the consumer aware of its benefits?

These are just some of the questions Inventors need to ask themselves about their product before they start shopping it around to companies. You need to think as an Inventor, a retailer and a consumer when you are coming up with your ideas. You need to satisfy all three groups for your product to be successful.

I thought this thread would be a great way to get you to think even further outside the box and stretch your skills. Lets say that a company contacts you because they heard you are good at coming up with new products and they have a short deadline.

You are male and they make purses and woman’s hygiene products or you are female and they want product ideas on mustache trimmers and weedeaters (I know some women use weedeaters, but it is a very small percentage. The same could be said for men and purses. Work with me on this).

The question is where do you start, since these are traditionally areas you may not have any foundation to pull from to get your ideas?
It is a great way to stretch your imagination when you think outside your comfort zone. Plus, looking at an area you know nothing about sometimes gives you a perspective others familiar with that area don’t see.

Don’t try and lie your way through a company’s submission process. It will catch up to you and will destroy any chance of a working relationship with them. What is the point I am making? Easy, this is how a number of Inventors approach their product presentation to a company. They will say it does everything but fly to the moon if it will get them across the goal line. What they don’t realize is at some point you WILL have to be able to back it up. Or be exposed for lying.

Below are some things I have seen Inventors state that when pressed turned out to not be true. How do you think the company feels when they find this out and do you think they would be willing to take a chance on you? Should they? You are better off just giving accurate facts and adding this is where you are trying/working to get the product to in order to increase its marketability. Or you just don’t have the capability to get it to the next level and hope with their help they see the value the product can have with a little more effort.

You can’t tell a company or customer – your product is waterproof when it is really water resistant or not even close.

You can’t tell a company – you can run your product on a battery for 8 hours when the average is really around 4 hours and that is in controlled conditions.

You can’t tell a company – everyone loves it and will buy one. No matter how perfect you make something not everyone is going to love it or need it. And in most cases you are talking about family and friends.

You can’t tell a company – we did an extensive survey and the favorability is through the roof. When all you did was survey your friends and family. And half of those are not even in your target market.

You can’t tell a company – I have a factory finished product when you are still working the bugs out of it and don’t really know if it will perform as you expect it to.

You can’t tell a company – you have an issued patent, when you don’t. Especially when they state that part of their policy is to only look at patented ideas and you just wanted to get your foot in the door and hope they will make an exception in your case.

You can’t tell a company – you have taken your product to trade shows and everyone loved it, but it still doesn’t work. And you got plenty of interest but no purchase orders. (Would you buy that scenario if you were the company?)

You can’t tell a company – you do quality work, can meet purchase order numbers and have a product you want them to distribute and then turn around and say it is not market ready just yet, you just wanted to gauge their interest.

You can’t tell a company – your design is ready to make and put on the market when you are still redesigning the shape, size, weight and components of the product. Wait until it is ready to present or at least don’t portray it as a finished product because it is not.

If you want a company to spend thousands of dollars on your idea/product you need to approach them honestly so they know where they are starting from and where hurdles may be they have to address. Companies are in business to make money. If you bring an idea/product to them that they see can be profitable with some effort of their part most will take up that challenge. If you lie to them from the start they are not going to be willing to take a change on you.

I have had a couple of Inventors this year contact me saying company X is ready to sign a licensing agreement, but now I am not sure what to do. Because I really like company Y more and am waiting for them to review my product. Don’t expect companies to put up with you being indecisive when it comes to making a decision on a licensing agreement. You can let the first company know you have other interest in hopes of getting a bidding war going, but in most cases the company will either drop the offer or stick with the current offer and put a time limit on it. Especially, if they were under the assumption that they were exclusive to you.

Some Inventors are stuck in the “Grass is Greener” mode and are always looking for the better deal and end up destroying all the deals and get nothing. There is a fine line between going for what you want and being so greedy no one wants to deal with you.

You need to decide up front what your goal is in a licensing deal and what is the least you will accept and work towards the best goal first. But you need to make sure you are being realistic in your goals. Asking for $100,000 advance on a plastic comb is probably not going to happen.

Update: One of those Inventors contacted me yesterday to say they were disappointed to find out company X withdrew their offer and company Y has passed on their product. So now they are back to square one and the other companies they have available to approach are most likely going to offer much less than the first two and have a significantly smaller distribution network.
Their solution to the problem is to approach company X again and offer to take a much lower royalty and advance in hopes they will have renewed interest.
What would you do and why?

To many Inventors have the grass is greener issue combined with the unrealistic expectations issue. A deadly combination that normally does not end well.

Update: The Inventor contacted me today saying they went back to company X and said they would take a lower royalty rate and advance if they were still interested. He was shocked they declined the offer and they wished him luck with his future ventures.
So now they have no offers on the table and company X and Y were the top of their list of prospects since their market was only a few major players.
What would you do?