So if you’re an entrepreneur, start-up CEO, or someone who’s trying to escape the daily grind with your killer idea, then read this. I assume that you’re sick of the 9 to 5, you’ve read Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week, and you’re planning your escape.
You’ve gone to every start-up seminar and information day (hoping your boss isn’t there, because you know he's dying in the cubicle farm just as much as you are), you’ve thought up a slick-sounding name, conceptualized every little aspect of your dream product, read The Secret (in case you need it), ruthlessly pared back your expenses, subscribed to the Harvard Business Review, stuck some of Sir Richard Branson’s inspirational quotes on the wall behind your computer, but you’re still not sure about one thing: that crucial first step into the unknown wilderness; that first step that spells make or break for your new life. The step beyond which everything changes and you take charge of your own destiny, where you hitch your wagon to your own dreams, not someone else’s.
I know the feeling – I’ve lived though it myself as an entrepreneur, and I’ve seen it played out in the excitement and anxiety that I dealt with in a previous life when I was a patent lawyer working with young inventors, new start-ups, and corporate innovators. Intellectual property isn’t just for gadgets any longer – it’s now a mainstay of how business is done and the sooner you realize and accept that, the sooner you can create your own IP-centric enterprise that uses IP rights optimally to drive culture, profits, morale, ethics, and strategy.
This book will take you through every single step along the way, from conceptualizing your idea, protecting your concept, exploiting the technology and, uniquely for a book directed at start-ups, I will show you how to profit from the IP rights themselves. Whether you believe the patent system is broken or not (and believe me, it has some pretty big problems), you will simply have to learn how to use it better than your competitors to ensure the survival of your brainchild.
Your First Question – How Do I Stop Them Stealing My Idea?
If you’re new to this game, then the movie goes something like this: you’ve got a great idea, you’re lying awake at night fretting about it, you’ve done as much research as you can (you think), but you’re unsure what to do to get it up and running. You’re simply too scared to tell someone about your idea, thinking that it’s going to get stolen, corrupted or plagiarized. Thing is, once you get going (…if you get going) and folks see you making money, then you know that every Tom, Dick, and Sally will be out there copying you. And perhaps even doing it better than you.
With your idea.
Even worse, what if one of the really big companies picks it up and ends up crushing you? We’ve all heard the nightmarish stories of the lone inventor fighting the world, being beaten up by the big guys, and losing it all. And believe me, this does happen – not as often as everyone thinks – but it’s certainly not a myth either.
And this is the first question that I get asked by people when they find out that I’m an IP expert: ‘How do I get an idea to market without someone stealing it?’
The good news is that there are many useful tools for solving these problems that have been around for many years, and many new developments that have sprung up recently, mechanisms that simply weren’t around for earlier generations of innovators and entrepreneurs. And while things could be a smoother ride if you launch or sell a generic or conventional product or an existing service, you aren’t happy with that – you know you’ve got a big idea, something different, something that will have a huge impact on the market.
Yet new, untested ideas mean that the risks are multiplied, they grow exponentially, and the stretch is so much further; much further when trying to launch something that has no equivalent in the market, something that has never been done before. The only way of protecting your idea is, conveniently, also the only way of sustainably multiplying your business and potential profits – leveraging your IP. You most likely think you don’t have any IP, or no IP that’s worth protecting. I’ve never encountered such a company, and I’m confident that by the time you’ve finished this book you’ll have a much clearer idea of how to identify, protect, and monetize your personal IP. And steer clear of the pitfalls that kill off 95% of all innovations and 80% of all new businesses in their first three years.
So, enough scare-mongering. You’re probably hoping that I’ve got answers to these questions. I’m a lawyer by training, so the answer has got to be an unequivocal yes, and an unequivocal no. Let me explain: I’m an optimistic realist (like most entrepreneurs), but what I’ve found is that there is a lot of information flying around that contains bits and pieces of information that, taken together, simply end up confusing people. And there are other bits of information that are just plain wrong. When added to the paranoia inherent in leaving your job and starting up a new company built around your ideas, this can be a recipe for disaster if managed incorrectly.
I’ve realized that I’ve been in an exceptionally privileged position – I’ve been at the cutting edge of this new economy while it was evolving, I’ve had a bird’s eye view of the innovation world as a technology and patent lawyer, and I’ve had an up-close and personal view of how scores of entrepreneurs and innovators have done it. I’ve conducted interviews with countless innovators and I’ve realized that there are several indicators of success that make certain ideas work and most ideas fail.
Perhaps that should be rephrased: I’ve realized that there are several indicators of success that make certain innovators work, and most other innovators fail. As you’ll see in subsequent chapters, there are more psychological factors at work when bringing an idea to fruition than expected and these usually outweigh the actual strength of the innovations themselves.
But: I’ve also fought in the trenches as an entrepreneur – I’ve done it myself, been at the coalface of innovation, and suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune myself. I know the agony and the ecstasy of shepherding a mere idea through all the stages of commercialization, from spark, to prototype, through to an eventual product. There is nothing quite as satisfying as switching on the television and seeing your product being advertised, even more so when it helps to change the quality of living of people around the world.
So my advice isn’t typical ivory tower legalese. I’ve been fortunate enough to have taken a mere idea and, using the steps that form the basis of this book, started a medical devices which went from concept to product in less than 6 months, eventually hitting the shelves as far away as Europe within 18 months. And all this while, at that time, we had no experience of product development, no money, and very little financial nous, other than knowing that intellectual property was the key to both protecting the idea, as well as expanding the business into a global player. It was also the intellectual property that helped us hold on to the company when we were at the mercy of a rogue inventor, as well as when we were negotiating the eventual sale of the company to a large devices manufacturer.
I thought it useful to share my experiences with as many people as possible, not only to show them how IP can help them protect their ideas and prosper, but also to stop them from making the same mistakes as I have made. Or the mistakes made by the hundreds of innovators and entrepreneurs that I’ve been blessed to have met, worked with, or conducted interviews with over the past decade and a half.
Before we get stuck into a history lesson or two, it’s probably useful to take a look at the four main types of intellectual property rights that are available to protect your concepts and ideas: patents, trademarks, copyright, and design rights. Trade secrets, though not always codified in distinct laws, are another important set of arrows in your intellectual property quiver that we’ll be discussing in this section. There are other types of IP rights as well such as database rights (in Europe), plant breeders’ rights for new plant varieties, and so-called mask works or circuit layout rights, but they’re outside the scope of this blog.
For now though, my next posts will be focusing on how you can use the main types of IP to set up a world-class, sophisticated IP-centric company with minimal effort and expenditure.