So, you have this great new idea, you’ve bounced it off trusted friends and family who have given you support and encouragement, but if you tell anyone else about it won’t they just steal the idea?
Won’t they steal my idea?
Well, potentially yes, but the more important thing is you need to validate that it is in fact a good idea (that has a market need) before you start investing a lot more time and money into it. Also bear in mind that commercialising an idea requires knowledge of how to go about it and resources, so not everyone is waiting around waiting to pick up and run with an idea like yours, but nevertheless, you do need to be cautious. The best way of ascertaining whether it is good idea is through discussions with potential customers, so what is the best way to go about that with minimal risk of losing your Intellectual Property (IP)?
Is there a market need?
Before discussing your idea too widely you need to do some background homework and really analyse what problem you are trying to solve with your idea. What is the actual job to be done which your idea is making it possible to do, or making it much easier and more efficient to do? Once you know the answer to that, you need to research how that job is currently being done and what other solutions you are going to be competing with. You need to know what your advantages are over other ways that job is being done now to be able to have a meaningful discussion with potential users of your idea. You need to be well across the current state of the market around your idea in order to be able to clearly articulate your value proposition.
Barriers to Entry
The degree of risk in others being able to copy your IP is dependent on the strength of the barriers to entry associated with your idea. The strongest barrier to entry to competitors utilising your idea is patent protection, but in many cases formal patent protection may not be an option, particularly for software ideas. Patents are also expensive, and the expense is not warranted unless the patent is strong and enforceable (a subject which will be explained in a future article). There are however other forms of barrier to entry, for example complexity of design. If the design required to implement the idea is complex it will be difficult for others to reverse engineer. This applies to software as well as hardware, which may have complex structure and functionality, or it may contain smarts within the code which are based on proprietary algorithms or method combinations. A unique data set not readily available to others used to train machine learning to implement the idea would also be another example of a barrier to entry. If there is a very low barrier to entry you need to think carefully about whether this idea is going to be viable. A low barrier to entry doesn’t mean it cannot be commercially viable, but it will require a different strategy which takes this into account. Once competitors see you starting to make money, they are more likely to jump on the band wagon. So if there is a low barrier to entry associated with your idea you may need a strategy which would enable you to get market traction and scale quickly before others can follow, or you may need to come in under the radar in a very niche area of the market.
Talk to your potential customers
In any case regardless of the strength of barriers to entry to competitors, you need to talk to potential customers to validate they would consider buying your idea for the job to be done. These conversations will be invaluable in refining your idea and being able to define a minimum viable product with which to enter the market. It is also important to make sure to canvas a wide cross section of opinions to make sure you are getting statistically meaningful results, there will always be differing opinions, but you are looking for a general consensus which supports potential adoption of your idea.
Sign a Non-disclosure Agreement (NDA)
It is good practice to have parties you are disclosing the idea to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). An NDA is not a guarantee of confidentiality, but it does provide some degree of protection. If they do not want to sign an NDA, you need to think carefully about the value in proceeding with the discussion. If there are strong barriers to entry it is less of an issue, but if not then the risks are obviously much higher. An option in that case could be to discuss how they are currently carrying out the identified job to be done, what the pain points and/or potential gains are, and how important it would be to them to have a better solution. This can all be done without necessarily revealing full details of the idea you have for the solution, and whilst not providing feedback directly about your idea it is providing feedback as to whether there is a market need which the idea addresses.
So, the answer is talk to potential customers about your idea to make sure you are on the right track, however, be cautious in how you go about it to protect your IP. Be cognisant of the barriers to entry for competitors and adjust your approach accordingly.
If you have an innovative concept and are unsure of the next steps, please contact our office.