Taking Business Concepts From Dream to Reality

Hard work, research, and legal advice are key. So is testing your prototype. And watch out for smooth scammers charging non-refundable fees

I have a great new business idea that I know can be a winner. However, I've got no business background and don't know where to start in developing this idea into a company. What kind of professional help is available for someone like me, and how do I find it?

—E.B., Sacramento

New business ideas, no matter how great they are, don't have any value until they go from concepts to proven business prospects. What separates a pie-in-the-sky idea from a viable business? Lots of hard work. The fact that you are looking for help demonstrates your common sense, but don't expect to hire someone to do all the tough tasks for you.

Being successful in the business world involves myriad considerations, from the competitive environment to financing, distribution, and sales. The good news is that there are many free and low-cost resources online that provide education and information to would-be entrepreneurs. Start with the U.S. Small Business Administration, www.sba.gov, and the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) nonprofit business-counseling agency, www.score.org.

"There are also numerous local and state government sites that offer small-business owners information on everything from upcoming events on starting a business, to step-by-step "how-to" videos or podcasts on subjects like writing a business plan," says Tina Hedges, who is co-president with Beth Ann Catalano of twist.new.brand.venture, a New York City-based entrepreneurial consultancy.


  "Do not forget to look into relevant industry groups and online industry periodicals to gain critical access to everything from competitive information to manufacturers and consultants," Hedges says. You should also get out and about. Attend industry seminars and trade shows, which are wonderful opportunities to actually network with executives of interest and gain some insights and assistance.

Before you talk to anyone, get some legal advice on how to formally claim ownership of your idea. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a Web site designed to help entrepreneurs. You should also meet with a local attorney (get a referral from another entrepreneur) who specializes in intellectual property protection.

Next, test your idea. That will involve creating a business prototype, product sample, or model. A product development consultant can help you construct a prototype and conduct demonstration-oriented, "proof-of-concept" research on your idea. Again, ask another entrepreneur for a referral to a product development consultant in your area.


  "Business people are going to want more than a thought. They want facts!" says Nick Bibby, principal of Shreveport (La.)-based Bibby Group, a franchise consultancy. "So many people have come to me over the years with an idea for a franchise and asked if I could help sell it. My answer has always been the same: 'Until there is a model, it is just an idea.'"

When you're ready to start discussions, go to an established firm or successful entrepreneur who is already working in a related field. "If it is a good concept, it will be recognized. If it is not, that will be recognized as well," Bibby says. Before you unveil your tested prototype, however, go back to your lawyer and get a "non-disclosure agreement." Have anyone you're in discussions with sign a copy first.

"Whether yours is a product or a service concept is not important. [Either way], a simple, concise 'non-disclosure' agreement acts as somewhat of a safety net for you. The non-disclosure can memorialize and document that you brought an idea to a person (or company), and protect you if it is stolen," he says. Coming into a meeting with legal protection also puts the receiver on notice that you are savvy enough to protect yourself.


  One final but very important note: Would-be businesspeople such as you are ripe targets for scams that rake in millions annually fleecing the unwary. These companies and individuals are in the "invention promotion" industry and they often advertise heavily on radio and late-night television.

They claim they will help you develop, patent, and market your idea in exchange for an upfront fee. What they don't tell you is that they'll be trading on your hopes in exchange for providing you with shoddy services once they get your nonrefundable fee.

Fortunately, there are many online groups that help inventors and potential business owners avoid scammers and get help from legitimate professionals. Subscribe to Inventors' Digest, www.inventorsdigest.com, a magazine and newsletter with quality articles and timely information for inventors, and check out the nonprofit Inventors Forum, which has an extremely helpful page of resource links.

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