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How to Launch a Product Without Starting a Business

Harnessing the power of open innovation to bring your ideas to market.

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BY Stephen Key - 03 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

There has never been a better time to pursue a product idea.

I really believe that.

You don't have to drain your savings account or quit your day job to get a concept off the ground. You don't need co-founders, investors, or even to write a business plan.

From the advent of rapid prototyping and crowdfunding to the widespread affordability of digital tools and technologies, the opportunities available to creative people today are fundamentally different -- and enormously exciting.

I'd argue that barriers to participating in technological, social, and creative innovation and entrepreneurship are at an all-time low, actually.

One major reason why? Technology has enabled the phenomenon known as open innovation to thrive. Open innovation is a paradigm shift that embraces the benefits of transparency and collaboration as they relate to idea-sharing. Dr. Henry Chesbrough, a professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, first described the concept at length in his 2003 book of the same name.

According to the Innovation Benchmark report published by PwC this year, open innovation has become the most popular operating model around the globe. That's the conclusion reached by a survey of over 1,200 executives in 44 countries. More collaborative forms of innovation, including open innovation, design thinking, and co-creation, have outpaced traditional R&D. I'm not surprised.

"Innovative companies aren't going it alone," the report states. "Instead, they're pushing the boundaries of innovation both inside and outside their organizations by breaking down traditional barriers, tapping a much wider ecosystem for ideas, insights, talent, and technology, and incorporating the customer throughout the innovation process."

The benefits of practicing open innovation are many and have been written about at length. Over the years, I've sung its praises. Of course, many industries have been putting the principles of open innovation into practice for a long time, like the toy industry. That's where the concept of licensing as a business model -- which is predicated on open innovation -- first sparked my interest.

I had ideas for clever and novel consumer products that I wanted to bring to market. Why not try to license them? I applied the same process to bring a much a more complex idea (that required nearly two dozen patents and defending said intellectual property in federal court) for the labeling industry to market.

As a longtime proponent of licensing as a business model, I'm thrilled that companies are waking up to the benefits of open innovation.

The traditional model of entrepreneurship that continues to be taught today is to write a business plan, raise capital, source manufacturing, develop marketing materials, and fulfill and distribute orders -- to do it all yourself. Clearly though, not everyone has the time, financial resources, experience, or even the desire to start and run a business. And what about those who have many ideas for new products? Not every idea needs to become a business.

You can harness the power of open innovation to bring your ideas to market by following the simple 10-step process I wrote about in my book One Simple Idea.

1. Study the market. When a product idea dawns on you, first you must situate it. I recommend searching through Google Images and Google Shopping. Do similar products exist? Study them carefully. What benefits do they offer? Consider your point of difference. Does it offer a benefit consumers truly need or want? Read Amazon product reviews for further insight. Search for prior art as well. (Your goal is to understand the history of innovation as it relates to your concept, not to prove it's never been thought of before.) If you find your idea in a patent but not on the market, do further research. What happened?

2. Invent for the market. There are many ways of coming up with new ideas. Many inventors focus on solving a problem or meeting a need. I like to look for sleeping dinosaurs. By that I mean, products that have remained relatively unchanged for decades. For example, I created a profitable business by adding personality to guitar picks. The easiest ideas to license are those that make simple improvements to existing products. So, where can you locate opportunities for innovation?

3. Select a relatively simple idea to focus on first. The process I am laying out here is a test in and of itself. Without spending very much time or money, you can determine if your idea is worth pursuing further. That said, I highly recommend selecting a simple idea to focus on first. Complex ideas require more time, money, and work. Can you describe how your idea will solve a problem quickly and easily? Can it be manufactured using existing technologies? Will you be able to create an initial prototype inexpensively? Does it have a wow factor? Does it have mass appeal? Licensing an idea is all about risk reduction. You need to make it as easy as possible for a potential licensee to say, "Yes, that fits in perfectly, we need that product."

4. Use existing materials to create a rough prototype. At this early stage, you do not know whether your idea is marketable yet. So, it doesn't make sense for you to spend much time and money on prototyping. You do not need a works-like looks-like prototype -- far from it. Prototyping is useful, but yours is not a selling tool. I used to make my prototypes out of paper. These days, you can hire graphic artists online to create incredibly lifelike renderings.

5. Capture the big benefit of your concept using a few highly impactful words. This is what I refer to as your 'one sentence benefit statement.' It needs to pack a punch! Your goal is to pique the receiver's curiosity quickly. Yours should make the receiver think: "I want to know more about that."

6. Create a sell sheet and, if need be, a short video. A sell sheet is essentially a one-page advertisement. They are frequently used to showcase new products. A good sell sheet will actually do the selling for you. It's difficult to convey the benefit of some products statically though, which is why filming a short video may assist you (or, sometimes, be essential).

7. File a well-written provisional patent application. You can license an idea with a provisional patent application alone. I know because I see it happen week in and week out at my company inventRight. Most patent applications are written in such a way that they can be easily worked around. To write intellectual property that has value, you need to outthink your competition. You should try to steal your idea from yourself, in other words. Filing a well-written provisional patent application, which is inexpensive to do, establishes enough perceived ownership to get you in the game. (To be clear, I'm referring to simple product ideas. Big ideas require a wall of intellectual property.)

8. Approach companies that manufacture similar products professionally. Some companies that embrace open innovation outline their submission processes on their websites. Others rely on third party software and forms. For many years I called to get in, which is still very doable. These days you can also use LinkedIn! Companies that manufacture similar products are your potential licensees.

9. Practice win-win negotiation strategy. Familiarize yourself with basic clauses and what to expect first. Remember: You're forging a partnership. Focus on getting to a term sheet first. Don't bring your attorney in too soon. Be a team player. More here.

10. Move on to your next great idea. Licensing is a numbers game. You have to keep getting up to bat to land a home run. When a company rejects your submission, you must inquire why. You may be able to redesign your product to meet their needs. When you approach a company that rejected you with your second idea, you're a professional. They'll respect you for it.