Understanding the 5 stages (or ‘steps’) of invention development empowers inventors to get un-stuck, progress to a market-ready product, and impact on the world.
What you’ll Discover
Are you ‘stuck’ trying to get your product to market? Take heart! It happens to every inventor. Today you’ll learn the phases where inventors get stuck, and how to get moving again by focusing on the next stage you need to achieve to continue moving your invention to the market.
I call these stages the Invention Development Pyramid.
Today, you will learn:
- the five stages of the Invention Development Pyramid: (1) Problem ID, (2) Solutions-Aware, (3) Proof of Concept, (4) Market-Responsive, and (5) Improve and Substitute;
- why each phase mattes;
- activities to focus on in each phase to thrive at that phase; and
- what to study and do to make it to the next phase, and achieve success.
Quick Exercise: jot down the stage you think you’re in: _______________________
A Brief History and Theory
(if you find this kind of stuff boring, skip Below to “The Stages”):
Whether to save time, labor, or visually enhance, most inventions start as problems to be solved. After twenty years of helping inventors bring their ideas to the world and change it, almost every first inventor meeting follows a similar pattern. Inventors say something like:
‘well, I was trying to get ‘this’ done and so I looked for a tool/process/thing that would do it, and was just stunned that nothing good existed!’
Is that you?
This problem-solution need seems to be part of our DNA.
When I was a kid growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama I literally thought that a science-fair was about having to invent something new, so I did. At the time (I was 12), I built and flew model airplanes. I didn’t like how they ‘wobbled,’ so I wondered if a wing-tip that was shaped like a bird’s wing in flight would solve the problem. I spent an afternoon fidgeting with balsa wood and cardboard, and completed the project (poorly). But, at any rate, that is what I consider my first invention (unpatented).
Well, I ran out of time (and money) before seeing it go to market, but that pattern I experienced is the path taken daily by inventors — both independent and professional.
Having read biographies of Leonardo Da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, Howard Hughes, Tesla, Thomas Edison, Elon Musk and many others, a clear pattern emerges: they encounter a problem that needs solving, search for satisfactory solutions and create or improve them, they then prototype the solution, get ‘market’ feedback, and then improve their original design and design its ultimate replacements.
Are these stages are a modern phenomena, and if so will they soon go away?
I believe that the mindsets and habits associated with each phase are timeless, regardless of what society called them in 1750 (read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography), or 1790 just after the first Patent Act was written by Thomas Jefferson and signed by George Washington, or what they are called fifty years from now in the face of artificial intelligence, robotics, big-data, and breakthroughs in biology.
From the steam engine, to wood-burning stoves, to railroads, airplanes, computers and beyond, the imagineers who made these inventions happen followed a similar approach (no doubt, without realizing it).
Here’s where the magic happens: once you identify the sage you’re in, you can take a focused, systematic approach to your own inventing and see 2-10X the results you’ll get by just trying to figure out the next thing on your own.
That’s right – not only do you get unstuck, you dramatically accelerate your progress.
So, learning these phases may be one of the most critical frameworks for building your future success.
Applied 80-20 Rule:
Obviously there’s some overlap in these phases. The point is to direct your time and energy into the activities that will get the biggest return on your time and money, and thereby increase the changes that you’ll be successful. So, I recommend to consciously focus 80% of your time and effort on your current stage, and 20% on other phases – particularly the ‘next’ phase.
(1) Problem-ID (Identification) Phase
Non-inventors see the world in terms of limitations. Inventors don’t see the world in terms of limitations — they see it in terms of problems that need to be solved. And, they see solvable problems everywhere.
If you’re an inventor, you likely have a list of at least half-a-dozen inventions you want to bring to market (often many, many more).
Which leads to the goal of the Problem-Aware Phase: avoid wasting time on ideas that are not worth pursuing. This will allow you to focus on the one or two ideas that are best-positioned to succeed later.
In the Problem-Are Phase, your task is to ‘get real’ about the problem. Ask why a solution to the problem, and why your solution isn’t already readily available.
Sometimes, the technology that would be used to solve the problem does not exist. Sometimes, a solution to the problem is just too expensive to bring to market, and sometimes the solution is literally physically impossible (such as telepathy machines . . . seriously). Sometimes, you’re really onto something.
Are the limitations you just thought of overcome by your solution?
Surprising Fact: while the Patent Office will allow patents on ‘impossible machines,’ the market will, of course, never buy what is being sold.
How to Have a Successful Problem Phase:
1. Identify the cause of the problem. For example, if your hand is burned when you pick up a hot liquid in a mug, is the problem that the liquid is too hot, or that your hand isn’t protected from the heat, or that the mug transfers heat?
- Break down the problem into parts. In our example, we can identify the mug, the liquid it is holding, and the user’s hand.
- Search the internet using each of the components as the focal-point for the search. For example, “store hot liquid” is liquid-focused. “Mug to hold liquids” mug-focused. “Protect hand from heat” is hand-focused. The search results provide insights into vastly different approaches to solving the problem that you’ve identified, and will likely expose limitations you’ve not yet contemplated.
Inexperienced inventors want to quickly move from the Problem Phase to the Solution Phase. However, smart inventors pause – sometimes just for a day or a few hours – and check their assumptions about their problem. Problem-research is literally the highest time and money value-return of any inventor activity.
Conclusion and Action Step
Don’t skip this step! Get out your inventor’s notebook and break-down the problem into parts or steps. Search the internet for what that step or component does (and why it’s there), and record your observations. Oh, and if you don’t keep an inventor’s journal, now is the time to start!
Inventors progress from Problem-Aware to Solutions-Aware. In the Solutions-Aware phase you’ll search for existing solutions to the problem that you’ve identified.
You may even apply systematic tools of inventing [discussed in my blog Creating Your Best Invention<<link>>], such as those described in Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci by Michael Gelb.
Some inventors will spend literally all night looking for a solution to that problem (I know because I have), and then as the research progresses ideas begin bubbling in their head. Inventor take these ideas born of frustration and research to see if they’ve already been tried (sometimes they have, often they have not). But, as more searching and thinking is done, the inventor realizes that some solutions have inherent, undesirable solutions … which is why they keep looking.
And, after pursuing perhaps two or a dozen different paths, the inventor will synthesize a concept that seems truly unique.
After sufficient research, a nugget of an idea begins to emerge – the thing you can build a solution around and try it in the real-world. This thing is the first edition of your invention. And, to test the viability of your concept, as well as to make it easier to communicate what it is and what it does to others, you’ll next want to build a ‘proof of concept’ (or ‘conceptual’) prototype.
How to Be Successful in the Solutions-Aware Phase
- Research. There’s new to the World (inventing) and new to you. Of course, the invention journey begins with ‘new to you,’ so research Google, and hire a patent attorney to have a professional patentability search completed to better estimate whether or not the idea is new to the world.
- Objective Reality. The single biggest mistake inventors make in this stage is ignoring research results that indicate that your idea isn’t new to the world (this is often why inventors freeze before getting a patent search completed). The Patent Office doesn’t reward inventors for playing ostrich, so don’t. Besides, who wants to waste thousands of dollars and years of your life literally reinventing the wheel?
- Learning the Business of your invention. What are the steps that are ultimately necessary to take your idea to market? Can you estimate the features that your market will want? Will businesses that provide the solution be around in ten years (or fifty)? If not, why not?
Conclusion and Action Step
View each day as an opportunity to learn something new, and record what you’re learning in your journal.
If you learn that this idea or concept isn’t patentable in this stage, you’ll save yourself (and others) thousands of dollars, months of time, and untold embarrassment.
(3) Proof of Concept
After you settle in on a concept you want to test, you’ll begin working to craft a conceptual prototype.
The conceptual prototype need not be fancy – you simply want to demonstrate to yourself and others that the problem you are trying to solve can be solved in the manner you envision. And, the conceptual prototype is how you’ll explain your inventive solution to the problem to them.
Let’s take a quick look at two conceptual prototypes: one software, and one consumer product.
Software Example: In the software world the word prototype (or sometimes the phrase ‘vapor-ware’ ) is the concept prototpe.
For example, you know Uber as the App that you can use to “call an Uber” when you need to get somewhere fast and inexpensively. However, Uber’s original pitch was a simple PowerPoint Presentation that simulated what calling an “Uber-Cab” would look like, without actually having the ability to do so.
Investors got it.
Consumer Product Example:
For example, Lisa Lloyd had a concept for a hair-pin that would allow women to wear their hair in a “French Twist” – popularized in movies. In the end, her go-to-market prototype was the best-selling product at Wal-Mart for over six months, but her first prototype was made from coat-hanger wire and left-over packaging foam.
That simple prototype was just what she needed to both make sure that her idea worked (in her hair and her mom’s hair), and to explain her idea to others (more on that later).
Both online and in your community, there are resources you can use to create your own conceptual prototypes. In many cities, “Makers Spaces” are popular inventor hangouts, and provide all types of electric prototyping, as well as wood and plastics prototyping tool (not to mention lots of hungry inventors). Additionally, for those more software inclined, Startup Weekend events are held throughout the USA (indeed, the World) and bring together tech-types and business types who want to explore their own new ideas.
How to Successfully Create a Proof of Concept
- Community. Join organizations and socialize with fellow inventors, such as Maker’s Space, Startup Weekend, and the United Inventors Association.
- Research. Search for and discover how other companies in your market-space got started and created their first product.
- Just do it! Ask yourself “what’s the most simple step I can take now towards building the proof of concept?” Create action-momentum.
Conclusion and Action Step:
Write down a list of features you want in your product. Circle the features that combine: (1) the lowest cost to implements or which are the easiest to implement, and (2) which will have the highest impact on your customer by solving their point of pain. Focus on these.
(4) Market-Responsive Phase
After using the conceptual prototype to demonstrate that your invention is workable, and to communicate your idea effectively to others, the next phase is creating the first version of a product that the market will want to buy … and that you can test, test, test….
The inclination of many inventors is to get to market with an “invention jackalope.” That 72-function Swiss-Army-Knife that has something for everyone, but is so cumbersome that no one actually uses it (or buys it). Except truck drivers (shout out to Brian Loe).
This drives customers away. Instead, get ready to go to market with the minimal product (sometimes called the ‘minimally viable product’ or ‘MVP’) that will solve the one core problem your customer has. You’ll want to do this for the reasons:
(1) Because of manufacturing limitations (such as how the manufacturer’s machine will cut-out pieces), your product will change as it progresses from conceptual prototype to market-ready design. And, the more features you try to preserve the more it will deviate from the product you actually want to bring to market.
(2) The more features you take to market, the harder it is to isolate one feature for market testing and consumer feedback. This feedback is critical for bringing a better product to market in your next iteration (what if I told you that the third market-tested product is typically the first ‘best-seller’?).
(3) Avoiding feature-creep … the result of wanting to answer the question ‘will it do that too’ that every inventor gets, no matter how developed and refined the product is (hint: the question usually comes from other inventor-types).
War Story: In 2004 Vultair was ready to bring affordable home-automation to the mass-market. Their iPhone-sized device could clip onto any vent or window blinds and give the home-owner the power to open and close their vents or blinds using any remote-control in their home (or a cell phone).
Verbal agreements made, letters of intent in place with the nation’s largest vent manufacturer (that had ‘reserved space’ at Home Depot and Lowe’s).
But, on the verge of victory, the manager of engineering wanted a light to come on if the battery was running low (never mind that the product was battery-life tested for over 1000 uses). Three months later the battery indicator light was on the product.
Then the manager of engineering wanted that light to change colors to indicate if the vent was opening or closing. One circuit-board re-design and five months later the forward/reverse indicator LED was on the product.
Then the manager of engineering wanted the device to ‘chirp’ like a smoke alarm (because we finally put our foot down after he requested that we place an actual smoke alarm in the device).
New letters of intent were exchanged, and three months into the next redesign our internal product champion was promoted and moved to Europe, and we ran out of our startup funding.
In the process, the product went from a really-cool, under $20 decade-ahead-of-Alexa problem solver, to a $40 mess of confusing features and a ‘customer’ that thought they were entitled to have whatever whimsical feature added to ‘their’ device.
Lesson Learned: this is my personal story. But, I am aware of many inventors with similar tales. Don’t let this happen to you. Go to market with a MVP; nothing more.
Software Example: In the software world the phrase ‘minimally viable product’ (MVP) is now the opening salvo in prototyping.
For example, Proxomo Software, when acquired by Lucent Mobile, was a multi-feature tool that software developers could use to build their Apps. However, out of the gate it offered App developers one function: user-login using Facebook (now a standard feature for the vast majority of the world’s Apps, but unheard of in 2009).
That simple tool, which saved App developers about eight hours of programming time, was enough for developers to test what Proxomo’s system and decide that they liked it.
Then, as each new feature was added, Proxomo discovered that while developers would say that they were willing to pay for many features, they really only wanted to pay for a small handful of features that were rolling out.
By focusing on the features that customers wanted, Proxomo cut out development time, support time, and was able to focus on the features that customers actually want. From a marketing perspective, it also prevented their products from becoming ‘cluttered’ and confusing to their customers, and, confused minds don’t buy.
Product Example: Lisa Lloyd’s French Twister was able to take her conceptual prototype to a manufacturer who made a small quantity of professional-looking product for her that she was able to sell at a local mall.
Her small quantity product-run enabled her to focus on picking the right materials for production, and to focus on the types of packaging that customers liked best.
Lisa also learned that her customers needed to how to use her product in “three easy steps” which could then be illustrated on the product packaging.
The results? That small quantity of sales was what sold Scunci on Lisa’s product concept, and convinced them to license her product and take it to market.
Ultimately, the French Twister (which is still sold in stores) soled over $100 Million in product, and generated seven-figure license fees for Lisa (fees not typical).
How to Successfully Respond to Your Market
- Buy your product. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how few inventors fail to stop into every store that sells their product and look at it on the shelf. How is it positioned (high or low; back of the store or near the check-out lanes)? How do real customers interact with it? Purchase a few of your products and ask the employees at the register what other customers say, and be sure to talk to the customer service counters (without letting them know that you’re the inventor!).
- Data. Track the good and the bad. Watch social media and engage your customers to discover what they like best about your products. Also track product returns carefully, and record why the product is being returned (could it be non-product related, such as the wording on the packaging is misleading?). Where possible, create trackable data points that can be used to spot trends.
- A/B Testing. Experiment with different packaging, and different product features. Test sales by varying one characteristic at a time, and comparing the results. Strive for continuous incremental improvement by adopting the clear-winners.
Conclusion and Action Step:
Identify what you believe to be your invention’s minimally viable product, and take this to market first. Write down the product features that can be tested, and identify how you can test them. If you want more information about product testing, search the internet or Wikipedia for “A/B Testing.”
(5) Improve and Substitute
Invention and innovation mean change. Ultimately, you, inventor, will have to innovate your product off the shelf, or your competition will do it for you.
It’s just part of life that your invention will have a limited shelf-life. From major transitions such as the car replacing the horse-and-carriage, to competitive replacements such as Nintendo displacing Atari (and then being displaced by Wii, and so on), to product transitions such as wireless Beats headphones replacing wire-bound earphones, every (“EVERY!”) invention has a life-cycle.
One of the ironies of inventing is that your invention may be ahead of its time – that is to say, ahead of its market. Ever hear of that platform where you can create an account with information about you, upload pictures, friend those you know on the platform and send them messages, etc? Facebook? No. MySpace? No. Before Facebook and MySpace, in 1999 LiveJournal launched … it exists to this day, and one of its early adopters was Game of Throne’s author George R.R. Martin.
So, what’s one to do?
You simply must innovate to improve or displace (substitute) your own product in the market! No one does this better than Apple and Samsung. Very few users of iPhones or Samsung Android devices switch to any other choice. Every year, these Apple and Samsung roll out a new device with new features, sizes, and capabilities. Why these companies are so dominate is worthy of its own blog, but the lesson is clear by looking at the contrasts: Nokia and Blackberry.
In 2007 Blackberry devices dominated the smartphone market. However, not only were their ‘innovations’ limited and uninteresting, they were also not systematic. In particular Steve Jobs at Apple saw the opportunity to capture the mobile device market as early as 1999, and Apple entered and migrated to the market systematically … first with iPods, then more feature-rich iPods, and then by introducing the first iPhone which to users felt like a glorified iPod. That’s different. That’s genius.
How to Continuously Innovate
- Watch the market – your competitors do: read journals, blogs, and attend trade shows
- Listen to customers: try a survey tool such as Survey Monkey
- Intentionally innovate: Read “Innovate like Edison” by Michael Gelb
Don’t fall in love with your product
Conclusion and Action Step
By identifying your phase of the Invention Development Pyramid, you can eliminate wasted time and direct your focus to the most impactful activities for your invention.