Tag Archives: patent protection

Q&A revisited: Really, How Do I Sell My Idea to a Big Company. Part 2.

Irony: This post from about a year ago explains why you can’t sell an idea to a large company, and recommends not even trying. And dozens of reader comments ask how to do exactly what the post itself says they shouldn’t even try. And I get more comments all the time, plus emails on my ask me form, asking how to sell the idea to the big company.

Pot of Gold shutterstock.com

So I give up: Please promise me you’ve read this post before you go on. Know what you’re up against. Don’t be naive. Selling an idea to a big company is a one-in-a-million shot. You are probably wasting your time. But if you insist, here are my suggestions.

Step 1: Develop idea ownership

  1. Drill down on whether or not your idea is patentable. Patents are for inventions, not ideas. You either consult an attorney or do the research yourself. It’s a tough subject because it’s not what you think it should be, it’s what the real world and the beaurocrats do. And having a patent isn’t enough; it has to be a good patent, that protects against work-arounds, and will hold up in court. And a patent is something you can own. And sell or license. 
  2. If you can phrase your idea as a creative work then you can protect it with copywrite. That’s for books, songs, recorded performances, software products, films, television shows, paintings, and so forth. That’s protection, and ownership, but it doesn’t mean you can prevent people from copying you. If it’s good, they will. 
  3. The other way to own an idea is to build a company over it. We call this general are one of trade secrets. It’s like the classic secret sauce. You bottle it, sell it, and hope imitators can’t reproduce it. So you can approach that target big company as a business already selling something, instead of just an individual with an idea to sell. Yes, that takes work; but your odds of success are much better. 
  4. It won’t hurt to periodically write your idea down on paper, describe it as best you can, and mail it to yourself by certified mail. Do that whenever the idea changes. If you do, then at some future date, if you’re in a dispute, you can open that registered and sealed mail in front of a judge to prove what your idea was when. But don’t trust this protection very much: having an idea first doesn’t mean you own it. 

Step 2: Get an attorney you trust

You need an attorney. (Note: I’m not an attorney; I can’t give you legal advice; I’m sharing my non-attorney experience as a business owner). Although non-disclosure (NDA) and confidentiality agreements are slim protection against big companies, it’s still better to have them than not to have the protection they offer. And an attorney you trust. 

Step 3: Approaching the big company

I have to admit, I can’t tell you how to do this; I’ve never heard of anybody doing it successfully.

In theory, companies have some system for managing these contacts. Visit their website, call their main phone lines, investigate and explore. I do know that companies vary widely in how they deal with suggestions. Some have web forms. Some have employees. Some have a wall that’s hard to penetrate. And maybe there’s some that sift through ideas with interest and respect.

Often, finding the right person to talk to within a big company is like a reverse telephone tree. You start calling phone numbers available. With each call you make, you ask who’s the right person to talk to. With each new person who puts you off, you ask for another suggestion. 

Step 4: The great beyond

If you find yourself actually dealing with that big company, pitching your idea, wow, I’m impressed; and you’ve already done the impossible. I hope you have a good attorney. I hope you succeed. My advice is be extremely skeptical and extremely cautious.  

 

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.

Startups Beware: Patents are Like Umbrellas. False Confidence.

For startups, patents are nice to have, but not if you trust them to really protect you. In that they’re like umbrellas. Good protection in a drizzle. False confidence in a downpour.

I write that because I’ve read about 50 real startup business plans in the last two months, and I’ve gone through at least two dozen pitch presentations, and I think it needs to be said. patent pending

Patents are usually better than nothing. I like it when a startup has a patent portfolio already issued, but also promises to keep trade secrets very tight and has a budget for patent defense. I like it more when they have a letter from a patent attorney talking about coverage and defensibility of the patents.

I hate it when the startup says a patent has been applied for, or there is a provisional patent, and says (or implies) that therefore their business is defensible.

Having a patent doesn’t mean much anymore. A provisional patent, less. And having applied for a patent, even less. The world of high tech is littered with fallen companies that were smashed to bits by a large company getting around, or violating, their patents. It happens all the time.

Sometimes I feel better with a strong trade secrets policy, a fast ramp-up, and great marketing, which I think offer the best real protection against copycats.

I suspect that the patent system is broken. Some bad patents that should never have been issued feed the coffers of patent trolls. And good patents are hard to find, slow to get, and hard to enforce. Sure, they’re good to have. But don’t trust ’em.

(Hat Tip to Twitter simile contributors @pierzy, Joel Libava (@FranchiseKing), and Dan Ness)

(Image credit: istockphoto.com)