Common pitfalls inventors face when trying to make a great idea real are the reasons why so many great inventions do not reach the world stage, get outpaced or just fail before having a chance to get utilised. In order to help everyday inventors to avoid experiencing the most common pitfalls, I have collected some of them in this article. Many studies have been carried out by different groups coming to different top 10 or top 20 reasons why startups fail, which are, without any doubt worth reading and learning from. Instead of just elaborating on these, I have collected a list of my own selected top 10 pitfalls, based on exchanges with other inventor friends, support asked from me by other startups and entrepreneurs and my own experiences as inventor, founder and entrepreneur. My intention is to help other inventors by sharing these experiences, so they can avoid them. My top 10 selection of pitfalls can be summarised as missing or improper homework execution related to the following topics:
- Research before starting
- Not starting
- Mock-ups and prototypes
- IP strategy
- Partners and team
- Business model and business plan
- Managing your business
- Missing research before starting
The first potential pitfall after having the spark of the first idea is not having a clear problem statement of the issue your idea solves and researching whether someone else has solved that problem and penetrated the market already. Giving up your job, investing time and money jumping into the project without having performed diligent research is a waste of money, time and effort and can also put your existence at risk without any real perspectives on your chances of success. Not knowing which problem/s your idea really solves and if solutions already exist on the market, if patents are already granted which hinder your product having a chance or whether the idea or product has market potential are important steps you need to figure out first. The number one reason why startups fail is insufficient need for their product.
Tip: Do your research before you start investing time and money.
- Not Starting (after positive research results)
The second potential pitfall is after having avoided pitfall number one and having done the research to prove the viability and market need for your solution, not moving on to the next step. Many inventors get discouraged from taking the next step for different reasons or excuses. No time, no money, no partners, not knowing what needs to be done or how to start at all. The good news is, however, that those who continue to the next step and do their homework (see more below) do have a real chance of becoming successful. The first step is half the way through to success.
Tip: If you`re convinced about your idea and your diligent research proves the potential, go for it.
- Mock-up and prototype for testing product-market fit
In at number three is not building a mock-up or prototype first to experiment, test and get feedback from potential customers to assess whether your idea solves their problems. You might have discovered a real problem enough people face, but without having tested your solution on a small scale you won’t know how well your solution answers their needs. Performing some testing with a mock-up or prototype first might discover potential enhancement possibilities which you were not thinking about before and which could put you and your product into an even better position. Test-customers can help to confirm the unique selling points of your product or service and provide you with more confidence in your solution to encourage you to take the next steps. Also, if you consider patenting the idea, you will need a mock-up or prototype anyway. An idea is good, a prototype showcasing it is better, real-world research proving that it has commercial potential is best. It is said that James Dyson’s first cleaner took 15 years and 5,127 prototypes and he is now worth £16.2bn so don’t be put off if your first iterations don’t achieve the success you were hoping for.
Tip: Develop mock-ups or prototypes early and use them for validating your assumptions and the market need.
- IP strategy
Starting to develop an invention without having an intellectual property strategy in place is just as dangerous as starting a business without a business plan. To build and maintain your market share needs appropriate measures to protect your intellectual property, as that`s what ensures your competitiveness and your business success. Many startups fail due to improper protection of their intellectual values so that they are quickly copied and outpaced by, stronger, quicker competition. Even patenting your invention does not always provide complete protection. For example, if its claims are too narrow, competitors can easily circumvent it or if the claims are too wide, it can make it impossible to get your invention patented. Decisions like patentability, protection per copyright or trademark, design or utility model or just keeping your magic confidential as a trade secret vastly influence your investment needs, risk profile and need for speed. Never start-up without having your intellectual property strategy in place. 19% of startups fail because they get outcompeted.
Tip: Develop a proper intellectual property strategy, preferably supported by an experienced IP lawyer and follow through that strategy.
Raising capital for an invention project is often the number one concern for many inventors. Only a very small minority of inventors have the cash available to start and build their business themselves. At a certain point, the majority need to raise funds to patent the invention, build a prototype, roll out marketing and the product or scale the business. Starting fundraising in time is crucial for success. Starting too early without having a convincing offering or prototype often leads to rejection by potential investors. While starting too late may lead to going out of business before even really launching. Fundraising can take longer than originally expected, or fail completely if entrepreneurs approach the wrong investors who have a different investment focus to their business.
To be successful in fundraising you need a convincing offering fitting to investors’ investment criteria, and you need to be resilient, not giving up even if you`ve been turned down by your tenth approach. Remember JK Rowling, whose net worth is currently estimated to be £795m had her first Harry Potter initially rejected by 12 publishers. It is also important to share the work in your team, some focusing on the product development and others raising funds. Doing both at a time all yourself will distract you from your objective to offer the best possible product and so hinder your success. And no one can be the best at everything. One of the top reasons for startups to fail is the inability to raise funds when needed.
Tip: Start your fundraising at least 6 months before you need the cash and nominate a senior member or co-founder dedicated to this task.
- Partners and team
Having the right partner/s on your side is an invaluable asset. So be very picky when selecting them. Just as in a marriage, give yourself time to get to know each other before you partner for a venture. An invention or startup project takes years, with good and bad times, and ups and downs, which you will only be able to manage by having the right partners on your side, giving support to each other through it all. Knowing partners from earlier projects is an advantage, as is having diversity in characters, age, gender and expertise so that everyone complements each other and can bring in their own expertise and experience. The right team is key to success, which is clearly proven by the fact, that one of the top 3 reasons why startups fail is a wrong team setup or missing team alignment and team spirit.
Tip: Choose your teammates and partners carefully, with attention to diversity in expertise and experience, social competency and similar high motivation and drive for success to you.
- Business model and business plan
A product without a proper business model and business plan is like having the best racing car without the racetrack. A business plan is the blueprint for your success. If properly defined, it will point to all the aspects of your business you need to consider. Using a business model canvas for defining your model will provide you the major topics and steps you need to take care of before developing your business idea: your value proposition, key partnerships you need, your customer segments, key activities, resources, marketing and distribution channels, cost and income generation or business model. It is not enough for you to be convinced of your invention or product. To be successful, you`ll need a solid business plan and a disciplined follow through. A weak business plan increases the probability that you will fail, either by not being able to convince investors and so to raise funds or by just missing key elements required for income generation. However, a strong one helps you avoid mistakes, provides you foresight and a plan which you follow to success.
Tip: Build your business plan early in the process and let it be assessed and challenged by experienced advisors.
- (Poor) marketing
Many inventors are experts of their domains, but poor at marketing. Having a marketing strategy early in the process is as important as the IP strategy or a proper business plan. Not having it developed early by dedicated experts might save you some money, but it could become fatal not having it when needed. Marketing too early might lead potential customers or prospects to see the immaturity of your product or offering and lead them to ignoring you, but starting it too late might lead to running out of cash as you work to generate a solid customer base and income for financing your business further.
Tip: Develop the right marketing strategy early in the process with the help of appropriate experts and start executing it at the right time.
Having proper intellectual property and marketing strategies, a solid business plan and prototypes in place will help you to validate your idea and provide you with guidance. However, you still won’t be successful without the discipline and resilience to execute. Many startups fail as they fail to follow through after ideation and development. The best plans are worthless without execution.
Tip: Set up, assess and execute your plans with discipline and adapt as needed.
- Managing your business
Strong leadership, setting and monitoring KPIs, controlling your cash burn rate, improving customer retention and exploiting business opportunities along the way will keep your business growing. Once your invention or product is on the market, your attention should turn to scaling, growing, expanding and sustaining your business. Along the way you need to recognise chances, changes and opportunities to adapt your business model to even better answer market needs, and to continue to succeed while pivoting. The basic rule of maintaining successful business is taking care of your customers, as happy customers will take care of your business success.
Tip: Manage your business, ensure strong, authentic, empathetic leadership, take care of your employees and customers and be disciplined with expenses even in the best times.
There are certainly many more pitfalls and reasons why inventions or startups can fail, many publications elaborate on these as mentioned in the intro. So, feel free to study those when you come across them. Being prepared for challenges is the secret to overcoming them once they appear around the corner.
Which are the major pitfalls you have experienced as an inventor or startup? Perhaps you could consider sharing them here with your peers.
Here is a short video where Georg explains why as an inventor he has dedicated so much time and effort to developing the Sciony innovation ecosystem.
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