The 5-Stages of Inventor Growth

Mastering the 5 stages of inventor growth empowers you to move fast by focusing on what to tackle next, so you can earn money faster, and bring your inventions to life.

With over 20 years of working with hundreds of inventors, and as an inventor myself, I’ve observed patterns emerge as people have their first ideas — and their 50th, and more. You’re reading this probably as an inventor who’s “finally” decided to jump in and take inventing more seriously; if so, take comfort that the anxiety and dreams you experience are part of the process practically every inventor goes through. So, here’s what to expect, and how to have success faster.

What you’ll Discover

Today, you will learn:

· the five levels of the Inventor Growth Pyramid: (1) Dreamer, (2) Veteran-Inventor, (3) Innovator, (4) Portfolio Entrepreneur, and (5) Mentor;

· the dominant mindsets associated with each level;

· common mistakes of that level;

· activities to focus on to grow through that level; and

· what to study and do to quickly grow to the next level.

A Brief History and Theory

(if you find this kind of stuff boring, skip Below to “The Stages”):

At Riverside Junior High School’s 1983 science fair, near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there was one student who just didn’t understand the assignment: he thought that for it to be ‘real’ science, he had to invent something. After hours (and hours) of thinking about things, the lad stumbled on a question: it was something he noticed about birds at Boy Scout camp, and how their wing-tips were different from his flying model airplanes — specifically, if a bird’s wings “fray” at the end in flight, why don’t airplane wings do that also?

Male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) in flight

After testing several models (with a home-made “wind-tunnel” fashioned from ice-cream buckets), suddenly he was stuck — days of inventive joy gave way to days of frustration and overwhelm as he just couldn’t explain what he was doing clearly!

As I recall, the judges had pity though. And, the inventor in me was born. Fast forward to now . . .

My inventor’s journey is detailed in the About section of this website, but here I focus on what I’ve observed closely watching hundreds of inventor journeys since clerking at a law firm near Dallas, Texas in 1994. I’m combining these observations with a common “gates” or “stages” model that originated in engineering in the 1940s, and was adopted by businesses by the 1970s.

The Inventor Growth Pyramid is, historically, a new phenomena. Prior to the invention of the patent system itself, economic incentives (and trade secret law) encouraged inventors to act wisely on the clichéd ‘inventor paranoia.’ One magical spin-off of the Patent Office is that the system itself, by rewarding inventors who disclose their ideas with an economic gain for a limited time, incentives align with rewards that motivate experienced inventors to behave as mentors — like an old Jedi trains a new apprentice.

As you will see, the mindsets associated with each level seem to themselves be the barrier to the next phase. However, that same mindset that may appear to be holding someone back is the same raw material from which the next phase emerges. By learning the phases of the Inventor Growth Pyramid you, inventor, will become comfortable with your own struggle, and at the same time see how to find your way through the discomfort to the next stage of success. It is your framework.

The Levels

(1) Dreaming / Confusion Level

The Mindset

Almost no one who asks me about a getting a patent is talking to me about their first idea — it’s just that this time they are motivated and enthused to transform that idea into a creative reality. As you begin your journey, this opening phase is defined by confusion, overwhelm and fear.

Challenges and Mistakes

If you’re confused as a new inventor, you’re not alone. Just ‘how’ do you get the invention or innovation to market? (talk about killing an adrenaline high). Inventors at this level often literally state “I don’t know what I don’t know.” Conflicting advice abounds. In fact, I call it “advice whiplash.” From well-meaning (but wrong) blog authors, to “miracle cure” advertisements, it seems everyone else has the answer . . . if you can afford it.

You’re probably also overwhelmed with possibilities — both for your invention’s features, as well as its financial opportunity. You dream of the day when money’s flowing in, and your ideas are not just accepted — they’re respected, and you can relax knowing that that all of life’s basic needs for your family are taken care of. The possibilities are ‘just endless’ . . . and then you realize that they are also distractions that can be deadly to your invention.

Ultimately, however, most first level inventors fail because they are scared. They literally don’t want to hear about or read the results of a patent search, or they delay filing for a patent application out of fear that their idea isn’t patentable at all (only to later tell of the story about how they ‘just found their idea at Wal-Mart’). They stick their heads in the sand, and the world passes them by.

Confusion, overwhelm and fear lead to mistakes. The most common mistakes early-stage inventors make include:

waiting to file a provisional patent application

wasting money and time chasing every suggestion their friends have or that they see on television or the internet

disclosing their idea too quickly to too many people

forcing everyone they know to sign an NDA

*not pursuing your best idea

And, here’s where those with successful inventive mindsets separate themselves from the pack of forever-dreamers: they overcome their fear with a resolute plan for their own invention, based on their own talents and goals. And, if you want to move your invention forward with a plan that is uniquely you, and moves you towards your goals, keep reading . . .

Gap Perceptions and Invent Help

Ever wonder how invention marketing got to be such a big thing? It seems ads for InventHelp and LegalZoom are everywhere. The answer actually leads to a lesson inventors can learn from without losing thousands of dollars: they sell “jumping the gap.”

Look at Inventor Growth Pyramid: what they sell to you is the dream of jumping from the bottom of the Pyramid all the way to the top, without having to work at it, learn anything, or otherwise risk failure.

Watch their commercials carefully and you’ll notice something intoxicating. They present and position one successful inventor (yeah, that guy) to sub-consciously play the role of your mentor (it’s a ‘ninja’ marketing trick, I’ll tell you about in another blog). Amazing how the advice is always to ‘hire this company’ eh?

Of course, they’re hardly cost or risk free. Did you know that they charge thousands of dollars in addition to a percentage fee? Did you also know less than 1% of their clients achieve success as defined by the US Federal Trade Commission? So, I ask . . . who’s helping who here?!

What Beginning Inventors Should Focus On

1. Learn the Business of Inventing. Ready for this? Inventing is ultimately not about your invention, it’s about solving a market need. So, your invention is your best present hypothesis of how to meet that need in a new and unique way. If you’re right, you may get rich, but you will never sell a single item or license if your invention stays in your garage — or worse, just in your head.

The business of inventing involves (1) protecting your invention itself as well as its competitive space (by patenting substitutes and knock-offs), (2) demonstrating that your invention can be manufactured and packaged for the market, and (3) following the formalities of business formation and operation. Over-arching all three of these activities is the process of learning about your invention’s specific market. I go into much more detail about these activities in my program Startup Tribe.

2. Protect Your Ideas with Provisional Patent Applications and NDAs. Writing or even talking about your invention in public can destroy your opportunity to receive a patent on your invention. And one more than one occasion I’m aware of one inventor who shared an idea only to see that idea patented by someone else — someone the inventor thought they trusted. So, file a provisional patent application as soon as you can afford it, and use NDAs. And, also learn when not to use NDAs. Using NDAs smartly–NDA etiquette–will open market doors for you.

3. Overcoming Fear. Reality is reality — the world is not concerned with what is holding your back — it only cares about and rewards you for your actions. So, the best way to overcome your fears is to take action based on the steps you’ve learned so far that have been proven to help hundreds of other inventors. You’ve read this far, you’ve learned what challenges face new inventors, and now you know the actions I’ve learned from twenty years of experience that overcome these challenges. You’re already overcoming your fears, so keep reading and get ready to take action . . .

Conclusion and Action Step to Level Up

View each day as an opportunity to learn about not only your technology, but also the process of taking products to market. If you don’t already, begin using a Daily Planner and productivity tool such as Todd Herman’s 90-Day Year.

(2) The Veteran Inventor

The Mindset

Some inventors get here with their first invention — and a great many get to this level in their second or third effort, following the failure and frustrations of seeing their prior ideas die a much more painful death than was necessary. In the Veteran Inventor level, we meet ‘the truth seeker.’

Like the early stage inventor, veteran inventors hate it when their ideas are not patentable. But, what they hate a thousand times more is wasting months or years of time, and thousands (or millions) of dollars chasing an unpatentable me-too idea. Yes, getting patent search results causes anxiety, but to these inventors not knowing the results if far more concerning.

In my business, I can spot a veteran inventor pretty quickly. Like most inventors they have dozens of ideas. But when I ask them my standard closing question: “do you have other ideas your would like to discuss?” their answers diverge.

Early stage inventors telling me that they have dozens, and we’ll discuss those as time allows. However, veteran inventors almost always state that they had dozens of other ideas, but that the idea we’re discussing on that day is the one that made it through their research and appears to them to be the best idea to pursue. They are literally asking me to see if I can invalidate their belief that their idea is patentable.

They know that if their research and that of a professional concludes that their idea is likely patentable, then, by-golly, they may have something! At this level, the inventor journey is defined by a craving for certainty.

Challenges and Mistakes

If as a veteran inventor you know what you want, congratulations! But herein lies the thief in waiting: veteran inventor often know just enough about the invention processes to believe that they know it all. This sets up the biggest challenges for veteran inventors: the awareness blind-spots (we don’t know what we don’t know), and the pits — believing that we know something that just isn’t so.

Let me provide a couple of quick examples:

1. One inventor blind spot bubbles up in negotiation. Even veteran inventors just aren’t in a position to know reasonable royalty rates, or common/misleading contract terms.

Once, a client signed a deal and then asked me to explain it to her! It had an obvious flaw: it allowed the licensee to expense any marketing against the royalties. You probably have guessed it already, but yes, everything under the sun for this company became a ‘marketing expense.’ While this may sound obvious, let me assure you that the license language that made this possible was not clear as crystal to a non-lawyer.

2. One pit veteran inventors fall into is assuming that one rule they know covers all situations. For example, most veteran inventors know about the ‘one year grace period’ they have to file a patent following a public disclosure of the invention. However, what inventors often fail to realize is that the grace period only applies to their disclosure (as if it happens in a vacuum). If a competitor or even a journalist hears about your idea from your disclosure and then files a blog or article detailing your idea (in patentable detail), it just became ‘prior art’ and you no longer can receive a patent on your invention! The new rules from the America Invents Act effectively killed the grace period . . . without killing it.

What Veteran Inventors Should Focus On

1. Learn the Business of Inventing with an Experienced Mentor. In the first level, you learned the vocabulary of inventing and made mistakes along the way. You also learned a bit about the invention process as well as the process of monetizing your idea. However, everyone has blind spots and pits they can fall into. In the Veteran Inventor Level you should learn with a mentor– someone who will guide you through the process and explain the nuances and misconceptions you may have.

As you learn more about inventing and monetizing, the process will unfold. You will recognize that you’re not so much jumping a gap, as much as you’re traveling a journey. Think of it as ‘the yellow brick road’ . . . and stay on the road! Yes, while you’re on the journey you’ll have to jump a few sidewalk cracks, but if you try to jump them like they’re one giant canyon you’re probably going to fall and get hurt! I

2. Seek the Advice of Professionals. Trust me. As an inventor myself, I know. No one likes cutting checks to the accountants or lawyers or marketers. Doesn’t it seem like this stuff should ‘just happen?’ Well, it doesn’t. Not only will experienced professional keep you out of legal and financial hot-water, their advice can actually add dollars to the bottom line — lots of them.

3. Habits and routines. Yes, I harp on this one all the time. Because it matters. Benjamin Franklin wrote that these above all else determine one’s success, and are as true today as they were when he wrote them 250 years ago. Keep an hourly calendar, and practice prioritizing daily tasks as well as ending the day with an objective review. Look into Brendon Bruchard, Todd Herman, and Eban Pagan — they teach the skills of habits and routines to Silicon Valley CEOs.

4. Building Your ‘Inner Game.’ Take care of those thoughts running around in your head. “Your attitude determines your altitude” was a favorite quote of Zig Ziglar, and it’s also one of my favorites. Start a life-long habit of accumulating and regularly revisiting aspirational and motivating quotes and images.

Conclusion and Action Step to Level Up

It’s time to start professionally networking. Join organizations such as the United Inventors Association or the Inventorz Network, and join or start a local inventors club. Participate in tradeshows relevant to your invention’s industry, and seek out those few inventors who are already licensing products in your industry.

(3) The Invention Entrepreneur / Innovator Level

The Mindset

Congratulations! You’ve monetized an invention! You’ve closed a license, sold a product, raised funds or in some other way have put your invention in its entirety — patents, prototypes, trade secrets, product paths, marketing and all — to the test of due diligence (if you don’t know what due diligence is, don’t’ worry; I’ll be blogging about that soon, and for now, just put it on the list of things you’ll explore on your journey).

The Challenges and Mistakes

Innovators have gained a confidence in their invention skills, and understand the process well enough that their attention is turning towards getting their ideas into the world. At this level, the challenges center around the resources you need to get your idea to market, finding the right market channels, and the right channel resources. Whereas the challenges in the previous layers were largely “in the head”, now, though remaining personal, challenges begin to turn to truly external obstacles.

Resources typically boil down to money. Many inventors experience that it is easier to invent while being employed full time. A regular paycheck (sometimes called by inventors a “playcheck”) can fund outsourcing much of your product development and professional services. And, the reality is that locating funding for new ideas — often referred to as ‘Seed Capital’– is just about the toughest funding to receive.

Networking is another challenge. Love it or hate it, networking comes with issues. If you love networking, beware! You can waste practically all of your time attending fun and wholly unproductive networking activities. If you dislike networking, you’re going to struggle with ‘wearing out the shoe leather’ building the necessary relationships to make deals happen. In either case, continue to be wary! Con men posing as fundraisers, moneyed men, and other dishonest types flock networking functions . . . after all, if they aren’t creative and detest hard work, they’re happy to let you do it for them.

What Innovators Should Focus On

Well, obviously, networking. But, be smart about it and read-up on networking techniques. Eben Pagan has a networking philosophy that boils down to networking slowly and deliberately to build rings of trust around you in the key areas of your life. After vetting, trust those in those rings with one level of confidence, and outside those rings, add additional layers of precaution — this is you Network Filter.

Networking well makes raising funds much easier. Nevertheless, the wise Innovator learns the ins-and-outs of debt financing, equity financing and the organizations and structures that make those worlds work. For example, you may (and should) look into any of the national Angel Investor networks.

(4) The Portfolio Inventor Level

The Portfolio Inventor Mindset

After having a number of successful invention placements, you realize that you have, in fact, built a portfolio of invention-investments. What distinguishes the holdings of a Portfolio Inventor from an ordinary entrepreneur is that the Portfolio Inventor is almost exclusively invested in his own inventions–think Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs, as opposed to a Bill Gates.

Portfolio Inventors have a volume mindset. No long strictly budget-limited, their attention turns to innovating in ways that are uniquely self-satisfying. Whereas prior level inventors had to choose which of their ideas to pursue, many Portfolio Inventors quite literally pursue almost every inventive idea that they conjure (although their natural inclination to pursue too many ideas has been tempered by their earlier inventive experience).

The Challenges and Mistakes

Portfolio level inventors are primarily susceptible to two very human weaknesses: hubris and inattention.

Success bringing on hubris is part of epic lore. From Icarus’ flight to close to the sun, to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, to an unnecessary midnight break-in at a building called Watergate, victory’s ugly twin is often hubris. It invades the realm of inventors as well. From Silicon Valley’s Juicero (the $600 machine that squeezes juice from a bag, which can be done by hand just as easily for free), to inventors I know, the mighty can fall.

The second weakness of Portfolio Inventors is basic inattention. Closing deals can make life fun, and open the inventor’s life to opportunities to travel, explore, and experience life in ways they never dreamed of. This freedom can lead to, like Odysseus at the land of the Lotus Eaters (Odysseus’ boat disintegrated while he got high), the destruction of the assets that make up the portfolio.

These two vices simultaneously infected one inventor I am well acquainted with. Just ten years ago, he closed multiple six-figure per-year licenses … and then went on a Caligula-sized spending spree. Unfortunately, the connections that made him successful dried up just as the licenses did. The resulting financial devastation, including a family breakup, was among the saddest falls from the top I’ve ever witnessed.

What Portfolio-Level Inventors Should Focus On

Listen to and learn from Mentors who have been on your path before. And, seriously consider hiring an asset manager experienced in managing intellectual property portfolios.

To prevent chasing every idea that comes your way, now more than ever stick to the lessons you learned earlier in your career — pay attention to the results of patent searches, and apply budgeted available resources to your ideas with the highest objective promise.

(5) The Mentor Level

May you be so fortunate as to be an invention mentor. I’m not referring to the “one-hit-wonder wannabes” out there who placed one product at K-Mart, and as soon as it’s off the shelf hang out a shingle so that they can hawk themselves as an ‘expert invention licensing agent.’ I’m referring to those who few inventors who see the big picture and how all the pieces fit together, the ones who know key industry players, key professionals, organizations, and funding sources.

However, allow me to provide a warning to new inventors. Many charlatans who don’t know the difference between a Patent Office Action and a License sell their services as mentors and coaches. You, the inventor, must be on your guard. Seek a mentor who has patents, who has closed licenses, who has received funding and verifiably knows people in your invention’s industry. Paying for the advice of a poser is simply burning money.

The Mentor Mindset

Of course, not every successful portfolio inventor becomes a mentor — being a mentor is itself a mindset. One of giving back selfishly.

Mentors are constantly on the look for more and better information. They make and share connections instinctively. And, they seek to grow the economic pie rather than ‘game’ for a bigger slice of that pie (when you meet enough of them, you learn to pretty quickly pick up on who’s-who).

Mentors: A Challenge, Mistake, and Warning

Inventors learning to be mentors often relish making connections — however, sometimes these connections are pure poison. In the early 2000s one person I looked up to as a mentor introduced me to “a perfect fit” for what I was trying to create. It seems today like almost as soon as we met that I learned he literally stole my idea, and business plan and sought to destroy my relationships and reputation. When I confronted the mentor who made the connection, she said ‘well, I had actually just met him.’

What Mentors Should Do (and Don’t)


· join a community of startup entrepreneurs and angel investors

· listen to podcasts, take classes, and keep up on the latest innovations

· consider joining an accelerator or co-working space

But NEVER make an un-vetted introduction to someone you do not know and trust intimately. You are trading on your reputation, not theirs. And to the other inventors out there — you should appreciate and acknowledge every connection from a mentor, but treat every one with the Networking Filter previously discussed.

By the way, following the advice I just gave you would have saved me over five years of unbelievable stress, and literally millions of dollars. More importantly, it would have saved many personal and professional relationships which took years to build.

What To do Next

So, now that you’ve been introduced with the Five Level of Inventor Growth:

  • identify your stage
  • write down one key stage-appropriate activity that you need to do that you are not currently doing
  • write down as many stage-Inappropriate activities that you are doing
  • make a plan to delegate or eliminate all lower stage activities, and eliminate as many non-stage essential activities as you can, while preserving a maximum of 20% of your efforts for future stages
  • for the ‘next stage’ activities, quickly jot down whether you plan to do each yourself, or whether you plan to delegate that activity.