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INVENTOR'S CHECKLIST
THE PROBLEM

WHAT'S THE CORE PROBLEM AND IS THERE COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL?

"BEFORE YOU BUILD THE RIGHT SOLUTION, YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THE PROBLEM FIRST." - ASH MAURYA

An invention can be a brilliant idea, but if nobody will buy it, there is no commercial potential.

  • Why do people buy things? - Because they need or want things.
  • Why do people need or want things? - To solve a problem they have.
If your idea solves a problem, this will help you understand who will buy your idea and why.

The more you know about the people with the problem, the better you will be able to judge the value of that market.

In gathering the information necessary to make an objective and informed assessment of the commercial potential of an idea, it can be helpful to consider and answer a series of deceptively simple questions:

  • Does my idea solve a problem?
  • Do many people have this problem (and are the aware of it)?
  • How bad is the problem?
  • Will they pay for it? (If not who will?)

While these questions may appear simple, even simplistic, they do help focus attention on key factors which underpin an idea’s potential commercial success, such as, market identification, market demand, customer identification and quantification, and finally, sales.

Having been confronted with a problem, some ideas come from resolving that problem, but other ideas may be stimulated by any number of other factors. Even if your idea was conceived to address one particular problem, the solution you have devised may address several other problems.

FROM GUN SIGHTS TO BONDING MATERIALS

In 1942, a team was set the challenge of developing a clear plastic material which could be used to make gun sights. The resultant material didn’t work particularly well as a gun sight material, but resolved problems as diverse as:

  • How to stop tractor nuts and bolts loosening with vibration
  • How to rapidly stabilise battlefield injuries
  • How to identify very feint fingerprints
  • How to stick almost any material to any material

The solution was cyanoacrylate, more commonly known as superglue.

DOES MY IDEA SOLVE A PROBLEM?

"THE TEST OF AN IDEA IS IF CUSTOMERS WANT IT AND ARE THEY WILLING TO PAY FOR IT." - PETER F. DRUCKER

The first test in deciding if an idea has commercial potential is to understand what problem it solves.  If an idea does not solve a problem it is unlikely that someone will buy it.

This problem might be obvious, like being on a journey and coming across a river with no bridge, it could be quite a slight problem, like not being able to find the kind of socks you like in the clothes store, but considering an idea in terms of the problem it solves, starts you along the road of assessing the commercial opportunity for your idea.

It may appear frivolous to consider a choice of socks as a problem, but if you are able to identify the market where that problem exists, and if there is money being spent to resolve that problem, then there is potential for commercial exploitation of that idea.

EXERCISE 1 - DOES MY IDEA SOLVE A PROBLEM?
Exercise Template (Download)

Create a list of the problems which your idea solves. This list may only contain one problem, but if there are more, please ensure that each problem is clearly identified and distinct.

EXAMPLE
The idea: GPS enabled anti-theft bike lock

Core problems: 1. Bicycles left in public places are prone to theft. 2. Theft of bicycles are on the rise in certain areas. 3. New materials and designs have led to a rise in more expensive bicycles on the road. 4. There is a limited number of secure facilities for storing bicycles 5. It is currently not possible or difficult to track bicycles. 6. There are no solutions available for specifically tracking bicycles.

DO MANY PEOPLE HAVE THIS PROBLEM?

Having identified the problem(s) that your idea solves, you now need to identify who experiences these problems and how big this group is.

The more people you can show are affected by the problem, the bigger the potential demand for a solution and greater the business case for your idea.

It is important though to be specific. It is not enough to say that "anyone" could be affected by the problem. The same problem may affect different people in different ways and so it is important to distinguish the different groups.

EXAMPLE

It is possible to say that the problems associated with the theft of bicycles affect anyone who owns a bicycle. However, this can be broken down into more specific groups of customers, such as:

  • Cyclists who use their bikes professionally
    such as commuters and couriers)
  • Cyclists who use their bikes for personal enjoyment
    (such as leisure and fitness).
  • Cyclists who lock their bikes in public spaces.
  • Cyclists who have already experienced a bike theft.
EXERCISE 2 - WHAT GROUPS OF PEOPLE HAVE THIS PROBLEM?

Exercise Template (Download)

Who is affected by the problem for which your idea is the solution? Using the worksheet provided identify the groups of customers who experience the problem(s) which you have identified.

Describing known groups of people, or people with certain interests, characteristics, or who pursue certain activities can help to define this list. (References to people in this context can also mean companies or other organisations which experience the problems which your idea solves).

EXERCISE 3 - HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE THE PROBLEM?

Exercise Template (Download)

For each problem listed and for each group of customers identified (in Exercise 1 and 2), attempt to quantify the number of people who have that problem. Initial research may be undertaken on the internet, however a list of useful resources has also been provided below that may help you in undertaking this research.

Extrapolating the answer from known data - If you are having difficulty in assessing the number of people who have the problem, it can sometimes help to consider the groups, types and numbers of people who do not have the problem.

The resulting numbers of people may be approximate, but the justification and arguments for identifying the people as belonging to this group should be strong and clear. A strong argument that a smaller group of people will be interested in your idea may have greater potential than a weak argument that a large group will be interested.

HOW BAD IS THE PROBLEM?

There are many problems which exist, but it is important to understand the degree of pain being felt by the people who have the problem your idea solves.

If the problem is significant, there is a greater likelihood of it being addressed, and resources being dedicated to addressing it. On the other hand, if the problem is little more than an annoyance, it may be relegated to the side-lines, and simply avoided or ignored.

In order to be comfortable that a potential market will actually hold a demand for your services, there should be a significant ‘pain’ element in the problem you solve, which would give you confidence of the commercial potential available in solving that problem.

EXERCISE 4 - HOW BAD IS THE PROBLEM?

Exercise Template (Download)

For each group of people you have now identified who have the problem you solve (Exercise 2), make an assessment of how bad the problem is for them, ranging from a problem which must be addressed immediately to a problem which the person is willing to live with. Remember this is an assessment of the demand for a solution to the problem generally, not the demand for your idea specifically.

One suggested scale could be:
  • Problem must be resolved immediately.
  • Problem must be resolved some time.
  • Inconvenient if problem is not resolved immediately.
  • Inconvenient if problem is not resolved some time.
  • Preferable or desirable is problem is resolved.
  • Will live with it.
EXAMPLE
Using the example of the GPS-tracking bike lock, the extent of the problem experienced by the different groups of customers will vary, even though the problem they are trying to solve is the same.
  • For people who cycle for business, the harm they would experience if their bike was stolen would be greater than if they simply had their leisure pastime interrupted.
  • For leisure cyclists, it may be that there are very few occasions when their bikes are left unattended outside the home.

HOW TO DESCRIBE YOUR COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY?

Being able to describe your commercial opportunity is a valuable exercise.

It will help you to have a clear appreciation of the proposition, but it will also help you to turn your idea into commercial reality. Whether you are speaking to partners, colleagues, suppliers, advisers, funders or customers, simply describing your idea (the solution) is not enough. You will need to catch their attention, spark their interest and be able to convince them of the value of your proposition.

In order to effectively articulate the commercial opportunity of your idea you have to include four key aspects:
1. The burning problem

You have to show that there is a real problem, that it is big enough and that customers are willing to pay money to have it solved.

2. Shock value

To grab someone's attention, include an impactful, "shocking" statement about the problem. This should be made up of real facts and statistics you have come across in your research.

3. Third party valuation

Referencing an external source will help you in validating the problem. Do make sure though that whoever you are referencing is a credible source.

4. Quantify the problem

Providing numbers helps put the problem in perspective and makes it "more real" to others.

EXERCISE 5 - DESCRIBING THE COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY

Exercise Template (Download)

Based on the exercises undertaken above as part of Module 2, you should have the information and knowledge to develop a statement about the commercial opportunity (the problem your idea solves).

EXAMPLE
The idea: A novel antibacterial surface for industrial kitchens
The commercial opportunity: "One million people suffer food borne illnesses in the UK each year, costing £20,000 in hospital treatments (burning problem). Food borne illnesses results in 500 deaths in the UK alone each year (shock value), and according to the Food Standards Agency (third party validation) costs the Government £1.5 billion (quantifying the problem)."