By Rieva Lesonsky
When you hear the word “inventor” what comes to your mind? Images of America’s most accomplished inventors like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Edison? Or do you think of the silly characters in movies—like Belle’s father, Maurice, in Beauty and the Beast, or Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown from the Back to the Future movie trilogy?
Obviously, not all inventors are as prolific as Edison and Franklin, or as incompetent as Maurice and Doc Brown. Yet most people don’t think they have what it takes to be an inventor, to turn ideas into products, to build something from nothing.
But inventions aren’t all about scientific or mathematical formulas. Sometimes they’re just about the same entrepreneurial adage: find a niche and fill it.
You don’t have to be Thomas Edison to come up with a new invention or business idea.
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Retailers can be inventors, too
Of course, retail and e-tail success is all about selling merchandise. But all too often you’re selling the same stuff as the store down the street or what’s found on dozens of websites across the internet. One way to stand apart from the competition is to sell unique products. These can be hard to find since so many retail businesses source from the same places. To really stand out, why not create your own exclusive products?
Yes, you can become an inventor. Here’s how:
1. Identify a niche
The best place to start is figuring out what the market needs. Don’t waste time and money creating a product you think consumers will love, only to find out later they really don’t. Start by reviewing your best-selling products. Then check your results against industry trends. Is there something you can create—an offshoot—that no one else is selling?
For example, let’s say you sell fashion accessories and one of your best-selling products are cross-body handbags. After talking to your customers you learn women like them because they can be hands free. Think of other products you could create that have the same effect, like fanny packs.
2. Don’t reinvent the wheel—you don’t have to create an entirely new product
The truth is, only a small number of “inventions” are something completely new that’s never existed before; most new product launches are improvements or add-ons to something that already exists. You can expand your customer base by creating a lower-priced (or more expensive) version of any product.
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3. Do market research on your new business idea
Expand your initial research and ascertain whether there really is a market demand for your new product. Make sure it doesn’t already exist in the market. Learn more by surveying your customer base. Also, check into secondary research sources, like Census Bureau data, information from the Commerce Department, and industry trade magazines and websites.
Go online and search for products that resemble what you’ve come up with. Go to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website and do a patent search (it’s free) to see if anyone else has already invented and patented your idea.
4. Protect your business idea
Depending on what you’ve invented, you may need a design patent, a utility patent, or a copyright. A copyright protects artistic expression such as a graphic pattern or design on a clothing or home décor item. A design patent protects a new, nonobvious ornamental design of products, and is mostly used for designs that are a slight variation or improvement on an existing product. A utility patent protects the functionality of an invention. You can find if your concept is patentable by going to the USPTO site.
It’s smart business to hire an attorney who knows patents to make sure you’re protecting your idea and not inadvertently stealing someone else’s work.
5. Take notes—document the process from step one
Just in case you end up patenting your idea, you should document your idea generation and product development process. You’ll need a bound notebook with numbered pages that can’t be removed (meaning they’re not perforated). Computer entries will not work in this case. Write down your idea and everything you do to bring it to life. Date each page and keep it in safe place.
I am CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Email me at email@example.com, follow me on Twitter @Rieva, and visit my website SmallBizDaily.com to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for my free TrendCast reports. Read all of Rieva Lesonsky’s articles.
This article was originally published on AllBusiness.