Our company has been cutting licensing deals for inventors and small companies for nearly a decade. I recently came across a curious e-mail from one aspiring inventor to thank us for considering his new product idea, adding:
“P.S. I wish that I could add ‘Inventor’ to my signature, but I’m not sure that I’m worthy of such a prestigious title.”
I found the humble comment endearing and a stark contrast to some inventors who can come across as arrogant. I wondered if product developers typically sought to attain “inventor” status. More to the point, is it even a good idea to say you’re an inventor when pitching your products to companies?
The short answer: No.
Learning From a Failed Pitch
So there I was, at my first trade show in Chicago. We were representing several new hardware products. Industry events are where you find and nurture dialogue with the decision makers at companies best positioned to license your product.
I’ll never forget the first person I spoke with at the show. He was the vice president of marketing for a well-known company. At the time we were representing several independent product developers and I referred to one of them as an “inventor.”
The VP instantly went from being excited about the opportunity to totally disinterested. I had immediately lost credibility. He quickly made an excuse why he needed to end the meeting. We exchanged business cards, but following up with him after the show was nearly impossible. E-mails and phone calls were not returned.
I learned that in business circles, the term “inventor” is not prestigious. In the eyes of potential licensees, rather than evoking images of Thomas Edison, “inventor” is almost a derogatory term that insinuates a lack of professionalism. Unfair? Perhaps. Nevertheless, the stereotype exists.
Although a company’s reaction to the term won’t always be negative, it’s important to avoid pigeonholing yourself. Speak the same language as the people you will be pitching to. They do not use “inventor” or “invention.” Neither should you.
In business circles they describe inventions as “products,” “intellectual property,” or “technologies.” The people who develop these products are called “engineers,” “industrial designers,” “technology owners” or “product developers,” Learn the business speak that best describes you and your product.
A Broader Problem
This isn’t just an issue of semantics. I believe it’s symptomatic of a broader problem in the invention industry. There is a lack of professionalism that stems from the misconception that you can conceive a product idea, draw it on a napkin and simply find a company eager to offer you a big royalty deal. It does not work that way.
In the end, for your product to become a license success, the “inventor” must become an “entrepreneur.” Many people have ideas for products. However, to be successful with a licensing pitch, you have to view your product as a business.
How to Fix It
Aside from actually developing your product sufficiently, a critical component to being an entrepreneur with your product is learning how to communicate effectively. Since every industry has its own lingo and each company has its own culture and initiatives, it is imperative you learn this on the front end before approaching companies for licensing.
Read trade magazines and perform market research. If the potential licensee is publicly traded, read its annual reports, otherwise research articles online where some of the executives are quoted.
When you communicate professionally, you ultimately become an expert in the market segment of your product. This way you will boost your credibility (and ultimately your likelihood of success) since you will be speaking like an industry insider… not just some “inventor.”
Trevor Lambert is the president and founder of Lambert & Lambert, one of the leading invention agencies involved in licensing consumer products on behalf of inventors, product developers and small companies. He’s also the founder of Enhance Product Design, an industrial design and engineering firm.