Over the last few months I have been writing articles for this column after talking to experts about issues that are important to "inventors."
However, this series is not just about getting a sneak peek into the invention process; I really hope it will spark the creative genius in you. Have you ever seen a product on the shelf and said "I thought of that years ago and look, here it is!" or "What a great idea, so simple, why didn't I think of that." Sometimes it is not about being a creative person, but in having a bit of know how to act on an idea and see if it's possible.
I hear from so many people about ideas they have for products but do not know how to get it started. One of the best places to start with any concept, thought or idea is to sketch it out (artistic skills not required) or build a quick and easy prototype from everyday objects.
As an expert on inventors, I tell people before you spend money on fancy prototypes or any kind of marketing, first validate your idea by creating a simple concept prototype and get feedback from a select group of potential customers (not just friends and family.) Since I'm not the expert on prototypes, I sat down with Ray Klein an independent product developer, at a local hot spot for entrepreneurs, The Woods Coffee, to talk about creating these kinds of simple prototypes.
We started our conversation around the process of design thinking.
Ray explains, "It's about looking at the big picture. What do you want to create? Look at all the possibilities without limiting your imagination. Then simplify the idea and figure out what you need to create it." This process can be difficult for individuals, especially when they do not know enough about the potential customer for that product. Asking friends and family to help you brainstorm early on can help you see something you may have missed.
Once the brainstorming is done, we move on to the fun part, prototyping. This is where your ingenuity and creativity really come into play, figuring out which common objects you can manipulate, morph and change to make your idea real. Ray sees it as the next step in a natural process, "Prototyping is going from that 2D idea to a 3D object. It's about getting that idea out of your head into the shop or onto the kitchen table, wherever you can, to start creating that product."
Being an inventor myself, I remember the first time I worked that paperclip in my hand into a new shape and knew it was the start of something. Ray nods his head in agreement, "The materials used for this part of the process don't need to be what it will ultimately be made from, use any everyday object. It's all about learning and NOT doing it right the first time - you can learn a lot from failure."
As with anything new, it is all about taking the first step. Ray had some great advice for getting started. "Look at things you have around the house that can help get your idea out there modify and piece them together into a representation. Next, go shopping. I personally like walking the aisles at Hardware Sales looking for materials. Take pictures that capture elements of what you want to create. Searching the internet or retailers for existing products can help you find an aesthetic you like. Finally, start crafting something that works. You don't have to be handy you can use wood, paper, foam or fabric from a store like JoAnn's and rough out the size, shape and function of what you want."
For all the idea people out there, the important thing to remember is that it is not about making something perfect. It is about having some fun and creating something that allows others to visualize what your idea is and what it will do.
Once you've crafted something new (no matter how simple it is) you are on your way to becoming a true inventor, with lots of fancy -cool prototypes ahead.
ABOUT THIS COLUMN
This is one in a monthly series about topics of interest to entrepreneurs. Lara Merriam-Smith is the program manager for NW Innovation Resource Center, a Bellingham-based organization that supports economic opportunities through entrepreneurial innovation in northwest Washington. It helps inventors looking to take products to market and connects new start-up businesses with resources to help them grow. For more information, go to nwirc.com.