I was recently invited to be an expert adviser on CNBC’s new series, Make Me a Millionaire Inventor. The six-episode show (airing Wednesdays at 10 pm ET) features aspiring inventors who believe they have gangbusters ideas — many are eager to launch their second acts.
If you’d like to turn your invention into a successful business, I think you’ll be interested in hearing what I learned observing these and many other modern-day Edisons in my career. My experience solidified some theories I have about getting new ideas and careers launched. (The episode I’m on, about one man’s novel invention to put lights on ice skates — Glo-Blades — will be seen this Wednesday, Aug. 26.)
The inventors on Make Me A Millionaire Inventor often have run out of money or in some way stalled in getting their big idea to market. They’re guided by the show’s hosts and guardian angels: MIT-trained chemist/science educator George Zaidan and mechanical engineer Deanne Bell, who founded FutureEngineers.org, which hosts national invention challenges for students. Zaidan and Bell lead them through a process that ends with a pitch to a potential venture capital investor.
Viewers watch as things blow up, prototypes don’t work, engineers fail and then ideas are reborn and, sometimes, triumph. The passion and sweat equity these inventors demonstrate is truly inspirational.
Many innovative thinkers are not adept at business. They dream of what might be and see around corners, but often can’t assess reality.
In my role as a merchandising expert on the show, I knew I’d either help a budding inventor realize a dream or keep a money person from making a dreadful mistake. I won’t spoil the outcome of the Glo-Blades presentation — you’ll have to watch the show to see what happens — but what I can tell you is that between this TV experience and the inventors I’ve worked with previously, I see four common patterns for success:
1. You are either an inventor or businessperson — it’s hard to be both. Many innovative, creative thinkers are not adept at business. They dream in terms of what might be and see around corners, but often can’t assess reality.
Inventors, by nature, are cutting-edge risk takers. Business, however, is all about quantifiable reality and minimizing risk.
One key for inexperienced inventors is to pair themselves with clear-eyed number-crunchers and consultants.
2. Allow yourself to be taught. Inventors I’ve seen succeed have had a dogged determination to solve a problem or right a functional wrong. Many love being in their workshops toiling for hours on prototypes. But they realize that they can’t be experts in all fields.
Many lack marketing and sales skills, for instance, and need the outside help to tweak their creativity. If they approach their project as know-it-alls, they tend to fail. So: keep your mind open and learn from the experts.
3. Learn to listen. Many inventors are so excited about their invention they can’t stop expressing their enthusiasm! This means they don’t hear key information about their market during their pitches to investors. As a result, they fail to appropriately modify their presentation along the way. Listening to what objective voices say can improve both your invention and its marketability.
4. You may be best off letting someone else sell your great idea. Frequently, successful inventors allow their ideas to be sold and distributed by someone else, allowing them to move on and do what they do best. In my experience, many inventors have more than one idea in them. It’s the way their brains work; they’re constantly solving problems or seeing opportunities.
By turning over their invention to people with sales and marketing expertise, they can then either exert their energy refining and improving their idea; come up with clever ways to extend the line or devise wholly new ideas. It’s why many inventors I’ve worked with license their idea to an outside manufacturer who’s in a better position to develop, make and distribute the invention.
Make Me A Millionaire Inventor shows how tough it is to get an idea into the marketplace and the tenacity it takes to make that happen. It’s not for the faint of heart but is a viable next avenue, so to speak, for some people with this kind of inventive mind.
Light-up ice skates anyone?
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