Six months ago I faced a fork in the road as a 28 year old: do I spend the money I had been saving for 4.5 years to go to business school for an MBA (and continue my fruitful and consistent life in corporate America), or take a stab at starting a small business around an idea I first began exploring over four years ago.
One of the great things about pursuing an invention is that it is a true form of artistic exploration. Embarking on the journey to take something from an idea to a product can be a long and tiring road, but it is a path that is rich in education and opportunity. Hopefully this list can help give you a realistic path towards bringing your product to market. Keep in mind, I am six months in and am only just recently reaching the manufacturing stage. I am no guru. None of this comes close to any legal or proven advice. I am just a guy who wants to make the dream real and learn as much as he can while he tries. Hopefully this helps someone somewhere take the leap or save some time/money. Every reference I give here is the result of exploring dozens of options in each area.
Here's a quick progression for anyone thinking about an invention (based on my experience thus far):
1) Market research - you can conduct a free search for patents/trademarks @ https://www.uspto.gov/trademark but make sure you also search google and local stores tirelessly. A lot of people have thought of a lot of things, and with the reduced barriers to entry, many problems have already been solved.
2) Depending on what you find and probably regardless, consider reaching out to a law firm that specializes in intellectual property. There are plenty of hawks out there who are not going to sit back and let you produce something they have the rights to. Do the leg work up front to avoid a "cease and desist" letter showing up in the mail. I recommend Barley Snyder - http://www.barley.com/
3) Flesh out the concept with close friends and family. While you may need an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) to protect yourself from potential competitors or more aggressive individuals, you need to share your idea (carefully) to help grow it.
4) Get sketches made and approach a designer/engineer. Note that if it is a physical product, the process of getting CAD files made for prototyping is VERY different than say a graphic designer who can "create" your product. Graphic designers can give you fancy pictures, but you need a designer/engineer to create actionable CAD files for 3D printing. I highly recommend Lucas Technical Services - http://www.lucastechnical.com/
5) Attend trade shows!!! You will need to start building a roledex as soon as possible to handle the wide array of issues you will be overcoming. Don't try to specialize in everything and hire your weaknesses! Small businesses are the backbone of this country and there is a wealth of them waiting to help, but you have to seek them out.
5) Approach a firm for getting a prototype created. Check out my other articles for a more technical reflection of your options. You will likely require several iterations of your product before it is ready for manufacturing. I recommend ProtoCAM - https://www.protocam.com/
6) Find a manufacturer who specializes in the processes needed to bring your product to life. Different manufacturers have different specializations, and a product that requires electronics or microprocessors is very different than one that does not. The material will matter too, plastic and metal parts have very different manufacturing processes and not all manufacturers will cover everything. You will save yourself money if you can manage to get everything done under one roof.
7) Depending on the kind of product, it may be subject to approval or restrictions from several government bodies. For me, it is the FDA and TTB. The FDA has numerous stipulations regarding things such as materials suited for manufacturing. For instance, plastics that come into contact with consumables may be considered additives due to their risk of leaching into the product. You want to ensure you are following all the rules. I found my answers at Keller and Heckman LLP - http://www.packaginglaw.com/
8) Test the market. Before committing to anything too specific or expensive, make sure you have tested the water. Ask local businesses and potential clients for their feedback. If you are able to secure a patent like I was, it affords you a great level of comfort around sharing your idea.
9) Consider incorporation. It is a MUST for anyone who intends to take a product to market. While due diligence and good intentions are non-negotiables, and various insurances can help protect against risk, you need to make sure you are incorporated before selling any goods on the open market. I recommend Palmarella, Curry & Raab P.C. - http://palmarellacurry.com/
10) Open a small business bank account. I used BoA, but there are obviously a ton of options here. It is important from an accounting and tax perspective to keep track of your expenses.
11) Remember this should be about passion and education as much as it should be about making money. No one is going to do the work for you. I approached dozens of companies trying to get them to take on the heavy lifting for me. If you believe in a product, it's going to have to be you that drives it forward.
I hope this list has helped you. Please be sure to reach out via our contact page with any questions or comments!
Your friendly local PA entrepreneur,
Samuel W. Foster