Over the years I’ve dreamed up and licensed more products than I can remember, certainly more than a hundred. That’s how I have earned my living for decades. I don’t say this to be boastful — any one of you might invent just one product with more impact and earning potential than all of mine put together. However, in terms of sheer volume, and in terms of numbers of successful presentations made and agreements signed, I believe I probably have more experience than anyone I know of.
This experience has taught me two things that I’m happy to pass along, although I know that many of you will not be happy to hear it.
1. I have never licensed a product to a new company except through a face-to-face presentation. I took the easy way lots of times, sending the idea along through the mail – but not once did that ever pay off.2. I have never licensed a product to a company where this face-to-face presentation was not made to the person who can say “yes.” I wish I could have back the hours that I’ve spent with engineers, designers, purchasing agents, assistants and clerks. These gatekeepers all have the power to say “no”, but not one of them has the authority to say the words that any inventor wants to hear.
Because my company offers to evaluate the ideas of other inventors and sometimes offers to act as their agent, we get to see a great many new product concepts. Some are licensable and some are not – but never have I seen a product that was so wonderful and so utterly exciting that any company would fight and scratch for the privilege of manufacturing it. A product idea or invention is a commodity that has to be sold like any other one. Presentation material must be prepared, questions anticipated, facts determined, proof of validity offered, and reasons to buy developed. And then, just like any other salesman – you have to hit the road. If you send your stuff in the mail to folks who didn’t ask for it in the first place (like invention submission companies do) or think you’ve done something wonderful by making a website for it, you can spend your life sitting by the phone. It’ll never ring. The only person who will see your submission letter is a minimum wage clerk, and nobody who matters will ever see your website. As we say where I come from – fageddaboutit.
Unlike many inventors that I’ve met, I actually like calling on companies because I have NEVER made a personal presentation to a decision maker that wasn’t worthwhile – even when he thought my product was one of the dumbest ideas he ever saw in his life.
1. If he did think my idea was stupid, maybe he’s right. Isn’t that worth knowing? Why waste your time on a non-starter? Move on – if you can come up with one idea, surely you can come up with another one. And that might just be the blockbuster that everyone’s looking for. It happens a lot.2. Maybe the idea isn’t stupid, but maybe it’s just not for him. That happens often, and just as often the chap you’re with will offer the name of a company the idea IS right for. “That’s not for us,” he might say, “but I think it’s something that Worldwide Amalgamated would be interested in. Show it to Tom Kelly, and tell him I sent you.” Now you know what company might be in interested, the right person to see, and a perfect key to open the door. “Mr. Kelly? Hi. Frank Johnson at U.S. Sales sends his regards and suggested that I might have something that you’d be very interested in.” How can you beat that?
3. If your idea isn’t for the person you’re meeting with, not only might he give you entree to someone for whom the idea would have value – but during the conversation he’s quite apt to tell you what his company WOULD be interested in. “No, this idea’s not for us,” he might say, “but if you could come up with a gadget to do (fill in the blank) then we might be quite interested.” Because I’m in the business, even if the subject doesn’t come up naturally, I always ask. Inventing is usually the easy part – but the key is in knowing what to invent. There’s no knowledge more important to an inventor than to know what problem a certain industry would like to have solved. And there’s no better way to find out than by hearing it from an active company executive in that industry.
I see lots of product ideas from folks that have apparently been invented for no other reason than that the inventor knows how to do it, without any real knowledge as its need or commercial viability. I understand the appeal of inventing as a hobby — it’s creative and it’s satisfying. However, inventing for profit is a business like any other business, and the result of the inventor’s efforts has to be a product with enough commercial potential to persuade the manufacturer to invest his resources in moving the idea forward. If it’s not something that’ll cause him to say; “WOW!” as he rubs his hands together in greedy anticipation, getting his signature on a licensing agreement is not likely to occur.
Hearing “WOW!” doesn’t happen by accident. Successful inventors spend far more time in looking for creative opportunities to explore than they do in the actual inventing; and there’s no better way to find these opportunities than while presenting ideas in face-to-face meetings. Flying blind, hoping to simply pop into an unknown industry with exactly the product that everyone in that industry has been waiting for, almost never happens, and almost never brings the rewards that the inventor’s talents would otherwise entitle him or her to.
The toy industry relies on freelance professional inventors and product developers more than any other industry that I know of – and they will routinely send these folks a “wish list” telling them the category and type of new products they’d like to see for the coming season. Other industries may not have such a formalized approach, but every company has a wish list. If you’re already in the executive’s office, showing him your brilliant idea, he’ll gladly tell you exactly what his company is looking for. And when you call him a few weeks later and tell him you’ve got it, he’ll welcome you with open arms. That’s the whole secret of this business – first learn what a company wants, and come up with it.
4. And finally, the fourth benefit of the personal meeting is that the executive your seeing might like you and might like what you’re showing him, and will want to go forward with it. What to do when that happens is the topic of another article; but the point I want to make in this one is that you are not likely to ever hear “yes” without sitting down face to face with the person who has the authority to say it. Sending your information through the mail is almost always a waste. Nobody will write you a letter back to tell you that your idea is stupid and that you should move on. Nobody will write back suggesting another company to show your idea to, and the name of the person to see. No company will write back to tell you what type of product ideas they’re looking for, and definitely no company is going to write back with a contract and check enclosed.
Except in the toy industry where the companies only want to deal with professionals, I don’t know of any other industry where you can’t get an audience with someone in authority. Your second best alternative is to have someone like me do it for you. However, as good as I am at it, and as much as I enjoy doing it – the truth of the matter is that no one can sell your own idea better than you can yourself. If by inclination or circumstance, going out to sell your idea yourself is not possible, then a professional agent with a track record is a good option. However, whether you do it yourself or get someone like me to do it for you, your chances for success are increased enormously by having your idea personally placed into the hands of the right person in the right company at the right time. Nothing else even comes close.
Happy inventing – and I’ll see you again soon.