Friday 27 September 2013

Ssssh!..It's a secret

Beware: Dastardly cads

One of the main worries of many young would-be entrepreneurs is having their genius idea stolen by some dastardly cad. You wake up in a sweat soaked bed and have the epiphany of the century, you keep it close to your chest until you have to share it with somebody and BAM! next week one of the big companies have produced the home bread slicer and you are back at your day job.

Intellectual property is a big deal and after the wranglings between Apple and Samsung in USA and more recently James Dyson taking action against Samsung for breach of patents relating to the steering technology on one of his vacuum cleaners.  Two things become clear, one that it is very important to get your patents in order and two, patent or not, companies can and will come along a take you invention or brilliant business model and sell it as their own if they see enough profit in it.    

Some companies rely entirely on revenue from patents such as ARM, the processor technology that sits at the heart of so many mobile devices, including the iPhone.

Your goal should be not whether or not someone might learn your secret but whether you get it done. The difference between a would-be entrepreneur and a have-done entrepreneur is action and action relies on sharing. Eric Ries extolls the virtues of putting your ideas out there in his lean startup methodology, get it out there, get some feedback, get better. 

Mom knows best
So, who should you be sharing with. Well, while Mum and Dad may a good place to start their input will not be unbiased and unless your Mum is Anita Roddick or Arianna Huffington it may only provide a pat on the back. If your idea is an app or a device you need to build an MVP, a minimum viable product that addresses the core idea of your idea, then let people try it. The matter of patents depends on the nature of your genius and what parts of your device or app are truly new and patentable. Patents can be very expensive and time consuming so get good advice before you proceed. However, for the most part, chances are that other developers, inventors and the big boys will be so consumed with their own genius and will not give it much interest until it gets some momentum, by which time it is your momentum. One thing I would recommend is registering your trade marks and product names. Your momentum and marketing budget can very quickly go down the toilet if someone finds that your trade marks and brand names are unregistered and starts using them for their products. 

If your idea is a service, then opinions are of very little value. 

Over ten years ago now I had the idea of selling children's literature over the net to parents and teachers of English in Greece. Greece had and still has a very healthy EFL market with thousands of language schools and even more parents eager for their children to learn. The idea was that all the books were categories according to age groups and the type of vocabulary and structure contained. We set up a forum and chat room where teachers would share and give advice on using the books. We found a good supply that enabled us to be competitive, we had teachers with years of experience, it was a complete service. We had discussed this with dozens of prospective customers and everything looked good to go. Very soon we had hundreds of thousands of hits and plenty of enquiries. Trouble was, all the interest was from abroad and Paypal would not, at that time, would not set up a full payment account from Greece, the credit cards would not play ball unless would could guarantee a level of sales that we couldn't, We tried to negotiate shipping costs but still couldn't compete. From Greece, we made a respectable amount of sales but almost all through Tupperware-type parties. We sold our stock and licked our wounds. Knowing what I know now, we could have pivoted and found a workable niche but what I did learn was that only transactions will validate demand, everything else is pillow talk.

At the end of the day, the point is that people should find out about your idea, as many as possible, people should learn about your genius when they pick it off the shelves in favour of other products, when they download it and recommend it to friends. People should learn about your idea because you make it real. Hiding you light under a bushel  will get you nowhere. Tell everyone... except maybe Samsung!   


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