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Marketing Your Invention on a Shoestring

Nov. 4, 2016
With respect to turning your invention into a side business, product development and commercialization turn out to be a very small part of the formula for success.

In an article I wrote several months ago, "Patent and Business Strategies for Inventors," the focus was on the invention itself—figuring out how to get the patent protection you need as a small inventor to potentially benefit from your ideas, and doing it in a low-risk way that is sustainable over a long period of time.

As an engineer, my interests and focus have always been on the product development and commercialization cycle discussed in that post. It's certainly the area where I have the most experience and confidence. Unfortunately, in the overall scheme of things, product development and commercialization turn out to be a very small part of the formula for success. Probably more important is your business plan and the actions you take to market your idea and build the necessary relationships you will need to get it made in steadily growing volumes.

This post will only focus on the marketing aspect, and I’ll use my own product as an example.

Several years ago, new assault weapons statutes were passed in Connecticut that severely limited the options available to prospective gun owners for AR-style rifles. I carefully studied the law, consulted with an attorney, and developed three products that we believed met both the letter and spirit of the new laws. Two of these ideas were focused on creating fixed magazine versions of an AR; the other was designed to convert the semi-automatic action of the AR to a pump-action manual action.

In all three cases, designs were finalized, patents were applied for, and initial stocks were manufactured either in my own shop or a local ATF-licensed machine shop. The parts eventually arrived at my “office,” and there they sat. It wasn’t until then that I began to appreciate how much time and effort it was going to take to get the word out to potential buyers and explain the story of why they were legal.

I started by creating a website. In line with the low-budget strategy described in the earlier post for operating a hobby business, I created the website myself using the WIX platform. There were numerous other platforms considered, all of them easy to use and offering great tools. WIX just seemed right for me with free use of the site to fully develop and test every page prior to publishing and a range of plans that can accommodate changing needs as a business grows.

I initially signed up for a plan that allowed online purchases via credit card, but later decided that step was premature given the early rate of sales and cost of dealing with all the intermediaries. So I opted instead to sell through another service. I continue to update the site with small changes, such as adding new products or product assembly instructions as they evolve. I know the site can always be improved, it’s just a matter of how much time and creativity I want to put into it. (Please share your suggestions for how it could be made better.)

A website is a great way to tell your story in detail, but unless you are actively advertising, no one knows to go there. Here again, I’ve opted for the longer-term but lower-cost (sustainable) approach. Rather than paying a lot for advertising, I’ve chosen a combination of steps that includes visiting local dealers who might have an interest in stocking my hardware, but only as time from my other jobs allows. 

This approach also includes attending and speaking at local interest groups, very-low-cost advertising on specialty forums, and soliciting previous buyers to spread the word or offer testimonials online. I’ve yet to embrace social media, though that’s a logical next step.

Overall, while not a high-energy campaign, it fits with the rest of my professional life and is something I can maintain for years, if necessary. And there’s reason for hope: Many of the largest companies in the world today started off with one guy carrying his stuff around the neighborhood and building the business from there. 

Yeah, it took a lot of years, but if your overall business model is low risk with sustainable growth, maybe it will work for you, as well. My sales are increasing steadily without overwhelming my other obligations.

About the Author

Douglas Hoon | Founder and President

Douglas Hoon is a member of several small start-ups focused on sporting goods, advanced packaging concepts for portion-controlled foods and beverages, various consumer products, and safer guns. He previously spent almost 35 years in engineering fields related to precision optics and advanced composites manufacturing and innovation consulting. Hoon earned an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and a B.S. in general engineering from the U.S. Military Academy. For more information, see his profile on LinkedIn.com.

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