A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a new competition for inventors that was held in Kansas City. Teams participating in Make48 had just two days to bring one of their product ideas from conception to fruition. They were required to create a physical prototype as well as a short video touting the benefits of their idea.

I was very impressed with the results, but I wasn’t surprised to discover that some teams had overlooked what I consider to be the most fundamental aspect of bringing a commercial product idea to life -- studying the market.

The consequences of failing to thoroughly study the market are dire. As a co-founder of an educational program that teaches people how to license their ideas, I experience them all the time.

My students exclaim, “Look at my idea! There’s nothing out there like it.” Sometimes I’ll take a look and am able to find their exact idea online within a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, it is often an idea they’ve spent weeks, or even longer, working on. I hate taking the wind out of their sails.

The reality is that this is an easy mistake to make -- much easier than you might think. After all my years of experience, I’m certainly not above making it. Recently, I discovered that a business I’ve been trying to get off the ground has a basic flaw: There isn’t a big enough market for the product to entice manufacturers to license the technology. It’s never going to be worth their time, even though the idea solves a legitimate problem.

We get excited about an idea, so we start moving forward. Stop! First, you must study the market. How large is it? Is it growing? Who are the major players? How much of the industry do they control? How does your idea differ from its competitors? Is its benefit strong enough? The answers to these questions are crucial to your success.

The best way of studying a market these days is by doing a Google Images search. As you search, your goal is to become an expert in a micro-category. What do I mean by micro-category? Well, a category such as school supplies is far too large to become an expert in quickly. But becoming an expert on binders, for example, is doable in a relatively short amount of time, a few hours.

When you search for “binders” using Google Images, start clicking away. What do you see? What do these products have in common? How do they differ? Search until your fingers bleed. If you find a product that is similar to your idea, don’t panic. That’s OK. Making a small improvement to an existing idea is the easiest way to license an idea.

The point is that you need to know what’s already out there. That’s the only way you can be sure your idea has a relevant point of difference.

Next, I recommend that you search for prior art using Google Patent Search. What intellectual property has been filed that is relevant to your innovation? You need to know. Chances are, you will find something similar to your idea. I can almost guarantee it. Again, that’s not necessarily a problem. A lot of patents are junk and many can be designed around. But maybe the field is packed -- so packed that you decide you’re better off walking away.

Searching for prior art takes a little practice. You can hire a third party to do it for you, but I think teaching yourself how to do it is worth it. No one is going to search as thoroughly as you will. Don’t get too caught up trying to find absolutely everything though, because that’s virtually impossible.

Understanding what is already out there enables you to design for the future. The innovation you develop is much more likely to have a persuasive benefit if you know what’s working and what’s not. Presenting an idea to a potential licensee that is already out there will make you look foolish. Don’t make that mistake!