I get asked the question, “How do I become an inventor?” – a lot.
I think people ask me that because I’ve been turning ideas into physical objects for the better part of two decades (that sounds more impressive than it is — I’m counting the formative LEGO-building time of my youth) and I’ve become the go-to person among my friends and family when any of them want advice on creating a product idea. My dad has asked me to make a turn signal for his bicycle, my friend has asked me to design a brush for makeup removal, tons people have come to me with all manner of ideas. Ask any of those folks, and they will tell you that I’m an inventor.
However, I would argue that in fact THEY are the inventors, while I’m simply the technician who can make their inventions possible. Anybody with an idea can call themselves an inventor as long as they put in the effort to bring that idea outside of their own heads.
Let’s talk more about what that means.
The Many Paths to Inventing
The reason WHY I do what I do (that is, make things) is: I want to help anybody with an idea bring that idea into the world. I believe that the more ideas that make it out of people’s heads, the better a place the world will become. I believe that with more innovation happening, the base quality of life will improve for every person on the planet. With that in mind, I think that it is important for anybody with an idea to know exactly what methods they have available to them to turn their idea into something real. If there is anything I’ve learned in my years being the go-to Maker, it’s that the world of invention is a mystery to most. I’m going to quickly list the current methods I know about, then talk about the future of inventing, which, frustratingly, could eventually put me out of a job.
There is a certain satisfaction and fulfilment to be gained from knowing that you’re solely responsible for your own success.
Let’s face it, the current world of invention is a scary place riddled with vague (to most) concepts like intellectual property, prototype development, manufacturing and distribution chains, DFM, DFA, etc. Put all of that together and the word, “invention,” becomes an absolute beast. It’s no wonder that the average Jane or Joe who has an idea for an automatic baby-rocker never gets beyond, “Oh, that would have been nice to have.”
So how does an invention come to light?
Hire someone to develop your idea: All of the confusion that comes along with invention is, no doubt, unappealing to the average person. There are companies out there that you can hire who will take care of all of the hard work and navigate the pitfalls of invention while you sit back and wait. You give the company your idea, they take care of the hard work, then you earn a percentage of the profits once your idea is being sold on Target’s shelves. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? The problem is that often times you’ll need to pay the company up front to develop your idea (they need money to get the idea going), and that can be quite expensive (think, tens of thousands of dollars, if not more). Further, you’ll typically only earn 3%-7% of the PROFITS (the company has to break even first), which, when it’s your idea, can feel a bit insulting. Nevertheless, it’s an option that might be appealing to some.
Managing the creation of your idea: Being more involved in the creation of your idea can be a better option for those looking to truly own it. This can lead to earning the majority of the profits, as well as gaining the satisfaction of knowing that you orchestrated the whole process. You may not have the technical expertise, however you can hire people (like me!) who do to develop the specs, make the prototypes, do the marketing, coordinate manufacturing, etc. etc. This certainly is an appealing prospect, since you’ll be in charge, and all of the profits are yours. The only uncomfortable realization is that in order to hire those people, you need have money available to pay them before you’ve earned a dime from your invention. In the big picture, there is money to be made, however getting the flywheel turning requires a solid investment on your part.
Doing Everything Yourself: There are some of you who will feel compelled to develop your idea with your bare hands. Why would anyone want to take on the beast of invention single-handedly? I think that most of you who choose this method will do so because you feel it in your blood. There is a certain satisfaction and fulfilment to be gained from knowing that you’re solely responsible for your own success. Another reason lies with the understanding that hiring yourself can be much less expensive than hiring someone else. Those of you who choose this method are typically technically minded, enjoy working with your hands, and are excited about learning skills you didn’t previously have. Often, you will come up with more elegant, cost effective solutions to problems because, unlike somebody you’ve hired, simply asking for more money to finish the job isn’t exactly an option. The Classic DIY inventor has a lot to take on, but they can do it on a shoestring budget, and the payoff can be huge. The DIY method is my favorite because I feel as though it’s the best way to make a lot of progress right off the bat.
If in the past, only the heads of large corporations had the ability to see their ideas through to reality, now virtually every human on earth will have that ability.
I would argue that this initial progress is critical to success. There is a certain momentum involved with idea development, and hurdles-to-entry like major up-front costs can crush that momentum. By developing an idea little by little, it’s possible for one person to make major progress which can lead to major success. Having a prototype to show off can help draw passionate people to you who may have valuable skills or money. Likewise, having a solid business plan can draw investors or perhaps uncover someone who might buy your idea outright. Whatever happens, the point is that DIY inventors are typically able to reach the important milestones without having to drop a lot of dough.
A New Breed of Inventor, and the Desktop Revolution
In the past, world-changing invention and innovation was reserved for large organizations or governments with immense amounts of capital, and a huge number of resources. For the past 100 years, that ability to create high-impact innovation has become more accessible to smaller and smaller organizations. Now, we’re currently seeing the early stages of passing that power along to the individual. What does this mean? It means an era of very rapid growth in the rate of innovation. If in the past, only the heads of large corporations had the ability to see their ideas through to reality, now virtually every human on earth will have that ability.
How is this happening? A couple of things:
The Crowd: as access to information and communication (read: the internet) becomes ubiquitous, all of a sudden, more people can start having conversations. Those people all have unique skills, and when they bring their skills together, that can create huge waves of impact and progress. Imagine this: a teenager from Kenya can now reach out online with an idea, find designers from Sweden, engineers from Japan, and manufacturers in China, and then fund the whole project using a crowdfunding platform. That’s a lot of power for someone who just 20 years ago, would have had little chance to make that much impact.
The Desktop Workshop: In the past five years we’ve seen a trend beginning to develop with desktop machines that allow us to make stuff. 3D printers, CNC mills, laser engravers, are all becoming very affordable, easier to use, and more far more capable than their predecessors. In just a few years, all of this technology will be so accessible, that inventors across the globe will, in effect, find their voice and sing, sing, sing. No longer will fabrication be reserved to the special few who have developed their trade skills. Making will be a skill available to just about anyone, and that means wonderful things for our world.
With the advent of this newfound ability to communicate with others and utilize technology, invention will no longer be inaccessible to the masses. As we learn more, the process of utilizing the crowd will become more streamlined. Already we’re seeing companies like Quirky utilizing the crowd and creating a user-friendly interface between the average person and the messy world of invention. The new breed of inventor will not fall into one of the categories I mentioned above, but rather become a little bit of all of them. The modern inventor will create their prototypes in their homes, hire experts and engineers from the crowd to finalize and vet the designs, pay them using money from a crowdfunding campaign, and finally, perhaps even hire the crowd to manufacture their inventions with an army of desktop machines.
The future of invention is a bright one. I for one am pumped to see where it goes. I just hope that as a Maker, I’ll be able to ride the wave, rather than be crushed by it!