In this issue ~~
As creative people, we're always looking for ways to finance our creativity. One way we can do that is by channeling our creative imagination into the invention of new products. While you may not have the degree of creative freedom you do in producing your own work, working within the demands of a commercial market can be a creative challenge in itself.
According to James Laughren, a consultant who advises inventors (or product developers) on the viability of their concepts and how to develop them for the market, inventing a product usually means solving a problem or filling a need. Some inventors stumble on their creations, but for most, invention is a combination of observation and imagination.
So how does one go about creating a new product?
1) Begin by seeking out a need or problem. The best way is to keep your eyes open. Pay attention to the world around you. Watch the media. Look around your environment. Laughren suggests that your best bet is an existing, expanding target market, such as pet owners or home gardeners. Become familiar with your market -- their needs, preferences, idiosyncrasies. Talk to people in the market. Ask them what they wish they had. Go through stores and see what's there and isn't there.
You may even discover that need or problem in your own backyard and come up with a product that would make your own life easier. One Colorado camper had trouble fumbling through his backpack while trying to hold a flashlight during nights in his tent. He went home and designed a simple headband that would hold a small Maglite and, with good marketing, was able to make $150-200,000 a year for about 5 years before competitive products showed up.
2) Next, set your imagination to work. Laughren recommends a technique he calls "seeding your creative mind." Each night before you go to sleep, bring your problem to mind and tell yourself that you'll come up with a solution. (This sounds very much like the incubation period of the creative process!) State the problem, but don't be too specific about the resolution. For example, if your gardeners have a problem lifting heavy terra cotta pots, rather than asking specifically for a piece of machinery to help, be open to a more imaginative idea like simulating the terra cotta with light-weight plastic.
Once you come up with your idea, see what you can do to keep it simple. An item that consists of 3 parts of the same material is much less complex than one of 16 parts involving 4 different materials, and a lot cheaper to produce. If the cost of the product is greater than the value it brings, the consumer won't buy it -- if you can even get it produced and distributed in the first place.
3) Once you have your idea, determine who would want your product and why. This will involve market research. While it's tempting to say that everyone would want your product, it's more realistic to find your specific niche. For example, if you're developing a product for fishermen, what appeals to the guy with the rod and reel fishing for trout in the local stream will not interest the serious fisherman with the 80-foot boat pursuing blue marlin in the Gulf. And you need to make the product useful and attractive enough that your target audience would actually buy it, and not just admire it on the shelf. Being cute and clever is not enough to create a substantial market. (Yes, we have the Pet Rock and Beanie Babies, but those markets were created with a lot of luck and piles of marketing money.)
4) The way your product will best be distributed can affect its design. If your main market is retail stores, you'll want a product that looks and feels good. If your marketing budget is small, you may want to invest in an attractive package design that will catch people's eye in the store. On the other hand, if your target is catalogs and mail order, packaging may not be that important, but you may want your product to have impressive features and benefits, and design it to be light in weight and without details that may break easily in shipping.
Laughren shared three wonderful stories of creative solutions and observations that led to lucrative inventions. In the 1950s, Bette Nesmith, a divorced secretary, feared for her job when the speed of her new electric typewriter caused her to make more mistakes than usual. Finding an eraser an inadequate solution, she emptied a bottle of nail polish and filled it with white tempera paint to cover her typing mistakes. Her colleagues began to ask for it, and she and her son, Michael (of "The Monkees" fame), filled bottles with an eyedropper at the kitchen table. A home business was born that she eventually sold for $48 million as Liquid Paper.
In another case, a man in Europe was wandering through the fields and arrived home with his clothes covered with burrs. His curiosity led him to look at them under a microscope, where he saw what looked like little hooks and loops. He thought it would be a great way to fasten things, and Velcro was born. And a chemist at 3M used some papers affixed with a failed adhesive that pulled apart too easily to mark his place in his hymn book for the church choir. You guessed it: Post-It Notes.
There are several steps beyond the creative process, of course, but you'll most likely seek legal and professional help for those. While the process of invention may sound technically difficult, there are books and consultants like James Laughren to help you find your way through the maze. If you can come up with a practical, innovative idea, you're on your way!
James Laughren was President of KPJ Associates, a consulting
firm, and author of Patents, Products and Profits: An Inventor's
Guide to Success and Reality.
His theory is that "people can and should pursue their creativity;
it's a matter of being persistent and learning what it takes.
The steps are not difficult, you just have to learn what they
Benjamin Franklin said that he became an inventor because he was lazy. What tasks in your life do you hate doing or take too much time or energy? Is there a system you can develop or a product you can make or buy that would make those tasks easier?
"...imagine...as vividly as you can, for in imagination lies the key to discovery."
"My formula for success? Rise early, work late, strike oil."
(click on the book graphic to see a description at Amazon.com)
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