Q&A: How Do I Sell My Idea to A Big Company?

This is another email question I received via my ask-me-a-question form on my timberry.com site. I’ve edited it slightly:

I recently read your article protect your ideas and I have an idea that I want to protect and want to pitch to a company. I don’t know if I can turn my idea into a business without the business I created it for. I have an idea for a new revenue model for Facebook that uses their current model but gets more advertising and more potential … But my model would only work on Facebook; I don’t think I could start up a social networking site and get the same results. So my questions is do I try to patent the idea then go to them or what? How do I approach a successful company and tell them “hey you could be making way more money and revolutionize social networking!

And my answer:

  1. Find out about patents and whether or not your idea has a good chance of being patentable. I seriously doubt that your idea is patentable, but I don’t know what it is. Patents are for inventions, not ideas. There have been some business model patents issued, but to build a business around it you’d have to be able to not just have a patent but defend it. And you should worry that the patent system is no longer working, caught in a deluge of technology.
  2. If there’s a reasonable chance of a good strong patent that would be defensible against Facebook, explore that option. Plan to spend tens of thousands of dollars, so be honest with yourself. Start by spending a thousand or so dollars with a patent attorney really good, and really honest, who can tell you what the odds are, and be prepared to end the project there.
  3. If — my guess — the patent option isn’t realistic, then forget it. You’re wasting your time. Give it up. The following points are just so you understand why.
  4. Jump into the shoes of Facebook for a few seconds. They live and breathe their business model. How likely is it that they’re going to invite you to tell them what they haven’t thought of? How likely is it that you’ve got something related to some direction they’re already studying? And how much to they want to deal with some stranger saying what they’re doing is an idea they copied.
  5. To help you think of it this way, I’ll share that during the years I built Palo Alto Software I learned not to even respond to people who wanted to sell me an idea for my business. I learned it the hard way: every single time I listened, it was something we’d thought about, often something we tried, but didn’t work. In a couple of rare occasions it was something we were already working on, which led to “oh dear, now this guy’s going to think we did it because he suggested.”
  6. And then, to make matters worse, there’s the problem of ownership: even if you did think up that great idea, originally, you don’t own it. You can’t legally own an idea. Patents protect inventions, not ideas (see points 1 and 2 above); copyright protects creative works; and trademark protects commercial communications. You can’t sell something you don’t own. Tell it to Facebook and they can run with it for free. They pay you only if they want to, out of the well-known goodness of their huge corporate heart.
  7. Just to explain an apparent contradiction between points 4 and 6: legally the big company can take anybody’s idea and run with it, because nobody owns an idea; but big companies don’t want to deal with the accusation or even the bad karma of actually doing that. Who wants the negative press? It’s way better to just not ever respond to you.

So there you have it. Not what you wanted to hear, I’m sure, but if I save you a lot of wasted effort, then I’ve done you a favor.

65 thoughts on “Q&A: How Do I Sell My Idea to A Big Company?

    1. Naji, yes, you bet it was. I consider it something like suggesting to somebody hitting themselves repeatedly with a hammer that they might feel better if they stopped. Better to know it’s never going to work than to have somebody telling you it might. Tim

  1. Your Answer To The Big Question Is Not Obvious But Educative. Answer It Right As (yes or no). I Have A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) module That I Design That Increase Customers For A Service or Product Provider In A Competitive Market. I Dont Know How To Sale It Our.

  2. Thanks for clearing the air and punctuating the fact that the Big Boys will basically F*** over anything or anyone to sell their trash and make the ivy league banker boys a buck.

  3. Hi all,

    I would agree with Tim’s comments n suggestions given to questioneer as I also beleive that having good ideas is not sufficient, but we have to see that how effectively it cold be executed which gives you the test closed to the ground realities & Facts n Figures for the execution of such plans…

    GoodLuck to all!

  4. I hope that comment after a month of silence will still have a chance to come. After reading Tim’s response is a little sad. I agree with him but … I also have an idea. Thought about it dozens of times, I told friends and they all think that is really good. I kept the rules and described it in detail. The idea, business, customers, accurately described the way to make money.
    In my case this is not just an idea. This is the finished product, which is too expensive so I created it. It is just exactly as described on paper. It has the shape and principles. I would like to sell it, even participate in its development. But I do not know where to the report. Whether they are corporations, which I can send this product?

  5. hi Tim
    I have an idea that’s going to enhance facebook usage, its an application which am currently developing, am sure the application will work its maximum potential if facebook adopt’s it.
    am not sure of the right move to take, whether to sell the idea to facebook after developing it or partnership or rather keep it and get user’s by my self

    1. Lutor, good luck with that idea. As you can tell from my post, I don’t think you have any chance of getting Facebook to either adopt your app or partner with you until after you’ve developed it yourself and marketed it and proven that it works, people like it, and it is successful. Facebook is a platform that allows developers (like you) to build and market apps by themselves. That’s what I think you’d have to do. By the way, you could do yourself a favor by reading this quick graphic on the use of apostrophes.

  6. Hello Tim,
    I got my idea in a patent pending process , but now i don’t know what to do.
    I’ve try to contact a couple of companies but i dont get answers.any idea where i should go . my idea has to do with video games and distribution of digital media

    1. And Kelsey, I don’t have any easy solution to recommend to you. You’ve read the post you’ve added this to. The patent system related to video games and distribution of video media is pretty much broken, so having the patent doesn’t really help you that much, in my opinion (and remember, I’m not an attorney, my opinion is just my opinion, no claim of true expertise). The hard part isn’t the idea it’s the execution, and for that you need to build a company. Maybe you can start a search for compatible partners with the skills and resources needed to build a company?

  7. I came up with an an idea recently that is so great, so simple and so difficult to believe has not yet been introduced into the consumer market. I created a 2 pg document explaining the product and its intended purpose/s and showed it to 3 family member and 2 dear friends whom I trust without questions, all 5 said it was huge! So what now? All the invention companies I speak with want to charge me hundreds or thousands and I just don’t have it…what do I do???

    Thank You!

    1. RP, don’t take it hard, but look at the post you’ve commented on. I’m exaggerating for effect just a bit here, but let me put it bluntly: You do nothing. You have nothing. Your idea, no matter how brilliant, is worth nothing. You either find a way to execute on that idea or drop all hope of acquiring some money for it. Somebody you’ve never met could execute that same idea tomorrow, or five years from now, and even if you have absolute undeniable proof that you had the same idea much earlier, they still don’t owe you a single penny. You don’t own your own idea.

      So seriously, what do you do? Go very carefully, without giving your idea away, to people who might have the resources, might be interested in executing, might know how to execute, and get them to agree to give you a piece of the pie if they take your idea and execute it and make it successful. And don’t ask for too much of the pie, because only a fool would give you a lot of the pie just because you had an idea, and you don’t want to work with fools. And tell only people you can trust. And, just to be safe, take that two-page description you talk about and mail it to yourself by certified mail, so that if and when there is a lawsuit and you have to prove your rights, you have proof of when you had the idea.

      But don’t let that letter suggestion confuse the issue. That would only help if you had a specific agreement, with specific people, before sharing the idea. If anybody else executes on it, and you can’t prove you negotiated rights before hand and they broke the trust, then you have no rights. And there is a catch 22 here, because nobody I know who has the resources to execute on an idea would ever sign away rights before they know the idea.

      For different advice, and different opinions, without paying a lot, go carefully to the nearest Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and see what they recommend. Maybe they have an answer you’ll like better. The SBDCs are generally very good at what they do, and the do workshops, and counseling, and charge far less than what they are worth.

      Good luck.

  8. hi Tim.how are you.i have a sad story.i am so underdog.i have an excellent idea and inventions that some of them were stolen by others.please help me TIM please please please. thank you

    1. behzad, sorry to hear you’ve had your ideas used by others. If its any consolation, you didn’t own them, so they weren’t stolen. For your next idea, keep quiet about it so nobody can steal it, and build a business around it; or just forget about it, let go, exhale, and don’t worry about it. For your previous ideas, too late. There’s nothing anybody can do.

  9. Tim, I have an idea for a website that’s a money making machine. Companies like facebook/google already have the infrastructure. It could blow their minds as to how THEY didn’t think of it.

  10. Hi Tim

    Very interesting advice you give but I also have an idea I understand I can’t patent it but my question to you – Who do I approach at facebook? I live in the UK.

    1. Harriet, and my answer to you is the post you commented on. Don’t approach Facebook. Build a team, make it happen, or forget it. You don’t own your idea and if you give it to Facebook you just gave it to Facebook. Why should they pay you for something you don’t even own. And by the way, I have absolutely no idea who anybody should approach at Facebook.

  11. hi, i am a stay at home mother of three, with an idea. I know absolutely nothing about big business, law, patents, and beyond. All i have is an idea that i want to launch to starbucks. It is a great simple concept that i created specifically for their business. It would be great to be recognized for the idea but more than anything it would benefit so many young kids that i care more about it just getting on their shelves. Any idea where i would even begin?

    1. Mamaista, about where to begin, yes, I do have an idea: do a business plan. Not a big document, but a simple business plan, define what you’re selling, who’s going to buy it, basic numbers, etc. Here’s where I recommend you go next for that: The Plan As You Go Business Plan at http://planasyougo.com


      1. My name is dorothy austin igotten a invention ideal. But in never had something I want to share I don’t no were to start this ideal of mine I think millions of people could benefit from my ideal im ready to start working on it I need your business opinion on this

      2. Dorothy, you have my opinion on the post above — which is either build an actual business based on it, or forget it; you don’t own your own idea unless you patent it, or build a business based on it — and several other people’s opinions in the comments.

  12. I think u r hammering ppl too much Tim. I mean, i thnk this page should be abt tellin us wer to start, hw to start, who to talk with, n hw to go abt selling our ideas. Bt all we get is hw to stop thinkin n hopin.
    Yes thre is reality to ur facts bt wer is positiveness? Ur idea is ur idea friendz even it get stolen bt de fact dat u thought it though its urz. Everythin dat we see today its a thought of some1 like us who never stopped dreaming, friend maybe u lack resources bt dnt stop that idea frm prevealing, sell it n go thnk of another one.

    I have an idea for u Tim. Y dont u go around resourcing on hw u cn help ppl with idea n hw u cn help them to write down their ideas, n hw to keep their ideas so dat companies cnnt steal thm frm us.


    1. Kabelo, thanks for your opinion. I think what you’re suggesting woud be downright mean. Encouraging people to waste their time does nobody any good.

      However, you do remind me that I should add an additional point that I’ve made in many other places: if the idea is valid, and people would want it, then build a business around it. Develop a business plan. Find some resources, some partners, and ways to actually do something with that idea. Don’t sit around dreaming of the impossible. Build your business.

      How? Well, this blog is on bplans.com, which is the world’s best free resource on how to develop a business plan, and one of the best on how to start a business.



  13. Hi Tim,

    There is a way people can get paid for their ideas. It is on our new startup youzingit.com. We are in beta now but people can still participate. You are correct about everything you said in your points above. You cannot protect an idea because you cannot obtain intellectual property protection unless it meets the strict requirements for copyright, trademark or patent.

    However, if a company is soliciting ideas on youZingit to improve their business or products you an get paid for your ideas. We provide a platform where companies host “Requests for Ideas” from our users. The ideas are posted in a short form, so there is some “functional” protection until the company pays a small view fee, which reveals their interest and identity. Once the view fee is paid they have access to the full idea and any attachments. Each contest will have a pre-determined view fee budget so dozens of view fees will be paid out. Now at this point they (only the company) can see the idea and if they wanted to “steal” it they probably could. However, this is a contest and they are handing our cash awards to up to five of these ideas to obtain any assignable rights. They do this for marketing purposes and would not want the bad PR of “stealing” consumers ideas. Their are varying types of contests with varying degrees of public display of idea submissions. We also allow people to post general ideas not related to these “Requests”. Companies and VCs / Investors can perform a keyword search to find ideas of interest or related to specific products. Only bona-fide companies or investors, verified by us will be able to host “Requests” or buy ideas.

    So, you can spend thousands of dollars and countless hours of time trying to design, legally protect, prototype, manufacture and market your idea OR you can lock it in a box and do nothing with it OR you can try to use youZingit to possibly make some money and gain some recognition.

    I write this to you not to spam your blog, but to give your readers an alternative to promote their ideas.


  14. Hi,
    I have Next Generation Social Networking site Demo.
    I am searching for partner who can handle it.
    As i am student so i have only developed some part (70%) and it great.

    How can i explore my Ideas and whom i can show my ideas.
    Thank s

    1. eprofileid: the answer to that question depends on where you are. Go carefully, look for partners before you show your idea around too much, find people you trust who can help you execute instead of trying to sell the idea, which won’t work. Trust is essential and you also need to know you can’t sell that idea because you don’t own it, so you almost always have to execute. Partner with people you trust who can get it done. Look around for business schools and local development agencies, but talk first, and find people you can trust, before spreading your idea around.

      And brace yourself, because in the vast majority of cases, like more than 99%, the idea isn’t that original and other people are already working on it.


  15. Tim Berry is evidently clueless. He appears to think that, whislt you can patent or TM an invention or a name , that ideas are not in fact IP, which is simply nonsense, and I’d guess he probably works at Dairy Queen. Any credible IP attorney in the world will advise you differently, and correctly, and introduce you to the concept of NDA’s, if you can get such signed, ideally via an IP attorney, ahead of a meeting . Hope none of you guys have given up due to the silly so called advice you have received on here, and good luck to you all

    1. Antony, why add the personal insults? They add nothing to your point of view, and detract from the impression you make. You have something to add here so I approved both comments, but it’s as if you added those insults just to make yourself look bad and tempt me to not publish your comments.

      And for anybody else reading this post and these comments, I’ll add that NDA stands for non-disclosure agreements. So you can protect your idea, in theory, by disclosing it only after somebody has signed an NDA agreement that protects you. Unfortunately, this rarely works in the context of selling ideas to large companies for two simple reasons: first, you have to get somebody from the large company to agree, ahead of time, to sign that agreement. Unless you have some real leverage, that rarely happens, for the reasons I explained in the post. Second, NDAs are hard to enforce. If you think the big company has violated it, and it doesn’t, then you have to sue. The prospect of suing a big company is daunting. So you’re back at the beginning.

  16. What I should add to that for you creative hopefulls, is that for instance, should you have an idea or IP (and again, the two can be the same as you will see if you research for yourself online) that you believe to be of value to a multiple of competitors, you can protect yourselves via utilisation of an NDA, and do make sure you use a top IT attorney, it really is worth that additional investment. Basically, in this scenario, and dependent on the clauses of the NDA, which incidentally when signed becomes a legal contract, the other party CANNOT simply run off and steal your idea / IP. Why would they anyway, if something could be worth $1b per year to them, would they not offer a few dollars less than that sum, and get their money back in year 1 therefore, as opposed to risking much more in adverse publicity. BTW, should the worst happen, you may well have legal recourse unless the Company could prove that they had plans for your idea ahead of signing the NDA. In any case, if your idea is truly inspirational, it’s going to be of value to your initial proposed partners competitors too – which gives you not only options, but bargaining chips. IP law is developing all of the time, and changing in favour of the small guys instead of the big corporations. You need good advice to pull things off, but it can be done in the real world.

    What are my credentials, as no doubt TB will accuse me of being naive (tee-hee) ? Well, whilst Tim clearly knows more about IP than I do about feeding cats, successful businesses, and the sale of IP to one of the biggest Companies in the USA during 2012. In this instance, our IP was TM’d, so fully protected, but please dont tell me you cant sell ideas cos you dont own them in the first place, thats just plain silly, and we will be selling one in the pretty near future.

    Finally, as regards your idea having been though “already thought of” but discarded, as I have seen previously in this thread, thats a bizarre assumption to make. Most large Companies are pretty focussed, both stragecially, and on their current markets, especially if their current markets are immature. You may well have thought further ahead than they have – and if your idea could generate 5 times their current revenue, strategy quickly goes out of the window. In most countries around the world, the law follows common sense, or at least thats the plan, so wherever you are, there are professionals that can help you benefit from innovative ideas . We have an, as of yet non-operational, new business in our country that specifically targets school leavers with great ideas who do not have the capital to start up by themselves. Were not going to invite kids in to pitch, just for the fun of ripping them off and shattering their dreams. Not everyone is that greedy, not even all of the massive corporations out there.

  17. As do many people on this site, I too have a great idea for a social network but it doesn’t compete with Facebook. It’s has it’s own identity and I truly believe it can take off. I have been creating a working demo in Flash for some time now and I am trying to figure out the next step. How do I find a company or programming team to take my demo and make it real? A few people told me to have it created in India to save on costs, but I don’t really know how I can trust someone all the way in India to complete my project and I also wouldn’t even know who to contact there. I don’t really have any startup money so I probably need investors, but before I can convince people to invest, I need to know how I am going to get this created and how much it’s going to cost. I am really surprised at the lack of information on the web for situations like this. Any suggestions or links that can help? Thanks

  18. Good day Tim,

    I had a dream about an amazing concept. It was spesific for Samsung, and I am a Apple fan and user :-)) I would like to share it with them, and is a bit ashamed to hope that I would get something, as it was not realy my Idea, but it was my dream… I would respect you advice

    Easter greetings

  19. I want to create an app that I can sell to our local toll road authority, but I would need to utilize sirrus satellite radio as well to make this technology practical and worth while, where do I begin? I have looked at several sites where you can build your own app, but i know I want this done right by a professional, so I have that part covered but how would I market my Idea? Should I have the app built first?

  20. i want to sell an commercial idea for michelin tire company.
    i dint know should i call this company or search for commercial companies to sell this idea.
    and i dont know how to protect my idea.
    can you help me ?

  21. hi
    This is dhananjay Mukherjee and i writing a concept about advertisement company and i want to make it globly , can you suggest me about my plan to devolop.

    sorry for broken english!!

  22. I have developed a program that will in a sense streamline the court proceedings nationwide, this program was originally writted as a grant for the US Justice Department, why didn’t I get the grant…because there was NOTHING on my personal resume that indicated that I had the background to pull off this Program. basically the rejection email said that “if this program had been submitted by someone with a Computer Science background” the project wold have been funded, yeah it is that good. What I need to know is how do I go about and which companies develop this type of Programs. I can give specifics in private email, but not in an open forum, what should my next step be?

      1. Thanks Tim, you were contacted because you appear to give advise based on real world experiences, I too live in the real world which is extremely difficult with the mind that I have and the ability to turn any idea into a business in a few short days,it is rough being me sometimes, I wouldnt wish this ability off an anyone, thanks for the honest answers, I am going to proceed, I will keep you posted on the progress, just in case….I am pretty presistant like that.

  23. Nice article, after reading this I found out that creating a business around oneself is pretty much better than trying to sell an idea that companies might probably not buy. This has changed my orientation on things. I believe one stand a better chance of getting a big company buy an idea at all, if u have a prototype or can strongly prove its gonna work. Otherwise, your is not gonna pass your thoughts.

  24. Hi;
    Thank you for your responses I have a patent pending invention that applies to toothpaste industry.
    I want to contact the major players in this market namely Colgate Palmolive and Procter Gamble.
    Any suggestions on how to reach out to the above companies?

  25. Dear Mr. Tim
    I have came up with an Idea that I think all mothers would love but I don’t no what to do with it they say it cost a lot of money to get a good patent an I just do not have it is this true.
    Thank You for your time.

  26. Hello , I came up with a tool that any man would love that helps them shave with accuracy , regarding trimming their beard , go tee , or mustache . How do I sell it , or aproach someone?

  27. So the solution is to:
    1. create it yourself (with speed and quality),
    2. gain traction in the market, get noticed by big boys,
    3. hope they don’t copy & improve & eliminate you (goes back to 1 – speed and quality is crucial to avoid being copied),
    4. negotiate for an exit.

  28. If serious into getting your idea into a product then to market.
    You have one of two options, and I know both very well:
    1. If you want to save time and you don’t think you can do everything yourself, you just have an idea, you can try your luck posting it to quirky.com . A global community and an expert product design staff, may consider your product for development and sale.if yours is selected you will get about 10% share of the sales revenue.
    2. This skillshare course http://skl.sh/1atudiJ (Manufacturing: Design, Source and Manufacture Your Product Idea ) is extremely helpful, full of practical information. If you can commit to the course you will find participating and learning from the wonderful teacher and other students in the class to be rewarding and encouraging. By the time you finish the course, you will have made most of the work and your product will be ready for launch.

  29. Sad but true. Rumor has it that back in the day when a person’s word meant something some guy got wealthy by suggesting that a match manufacturer save £xxxx by putting the abrasive strip on just one side of the matchbox – You can’t patent that, even as an ‘Intellectual Patent’. IF if your idea is worth enough £/$millions to them AND you could afford a top lawyer AND get a one on one meeting with a Director/CEO, then MAYBE (BIG MAYBE, More likely maybe not) they’d be willing to hand over their current R&D records in an encrypted format that they would be legally bound to unlock if they used your idea. I have a similar idea worth an estimated £8million (around 5% on profit margin) a year to one of three competing companies. All 4 of us are going to lose out because my idea is going to the grave with me. It’s sad that all big businesses are owned by corporations… You can trust SOME people, but you can’t trust ANY corporation.

  30. Dear Tim,

    thank you for the blunt responses towards the questions aimed towards you.

    Although I disagree with the majority of your responses, your pointed and direct attempt to have the “customer” to read your advice previously posted, is quite a change from the everyday pampering we all receive from popular media.

    I would love to attempt a verbal beating towards you, but time is of the essence. Please do your best to advise us whom look for advice and advance the American spirit. All of us depend on eachother for one thing or another.



  31. Thanks Tim, that was straight to the point enough, alright!

    Just wanna know from you : I’m a ‘start-up’ media entrepreneur, I design and compile my own newspapers and news websites, and have one of three life sized 80-pager tabloid up for sale. It’s a brand new ‘concept’ specifically designed to provide a badly needed service worldwide FREE of charge on the one hand, and to make a lot of money through advertising and other forms of support on the other.

    It’s a truly unique concept, never used anywhere in the world before, it was thought out by myself, and I’m wondering if I can patent the concept and get global ‘rights’ to it. The plan is to market and sell it in various countries, as it’s an universal concept, and I wish to have the exclusive ‘world franchise’ , so that no-one else can sell it or use it without my consent.

    What do you think, please?

    Steve Loock

    South Africa

    1. Steve, congrats on being way beyond the bare “how do I sell my idea to a big company” stage that is the subject of this post. You’ve already done something, created something, rather than just sitting around talking about selling an idea. Well done.

      I can’t answer your question. I’m not an attorney, much less an expert on intellectual property or patents, and I have no experience in South Africa. You should be talking to an IP attorney with the right experience; these are really important questions, not worth leaving to guesses from so-called experts on the Internet. Get yourself a good assessment. It sounds like it might be worth it.


    1. do not i repeat do not be naive. deal with the lawyers that specialize in intellectual properties because if theses guys at Facebook gets wind of your idea and they see the potential they’re a ghost and your history buddy.

  32. Make app on the phone make people safe .point the phone on a human see if he is a bad person or not . Suggest we want to make are kids and family safe . There a lot of criminals out and sex offenders. You can see human play with your kid and you don’t if not a criminal. What too you see on T.V kids getting taking from the family. or adult missing

  33. I say find an attorney that can jot up a solid non-compete, non-disclosure, or just a solid non-disclosure that anyone with good intentions would be happy to sign. Your idea is really never protected anyway. Even if you had all the I’s dotted and your T’s crossed, standing up against a business like facebook is a battle you’re most certainly lose. List out the bare basics of your idea. Just a tickler that doesn’t disclose the entirety of the project. Make sure they sign the non-disclosure first. It’s better than not pursuing the possibilities at all. That’s what everybody’s missing here. It’s better to give something your best shot, than to live with the fact that you didn’t try at all. Find out from Mr. Berry what course of action he took to capitalize on his ideas. There’s always a trail of success. Finding the right person to guide you there is a trick. If I listened to don’t, can’t, and it won’t work in my lifetime, I would have never gotten where I am today. There’s always someone somewhere that will tell you something can’t be done. Give it your best shot, cover you ASSets best you can, and be shrewd about it ; )

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