This post is patent pending

Last year, I was working with a guy who was trying to introduce a new product to the health industry.  He brought me on board to help with online marketing and to fix the design of his website.  I actually got pretty excited about the potential for his product, and decided that I wanted an even bigger role in the company.

A few months later, we went our separate ways.

I wanted to focus on making sales and gaining some traction.  He wanted to take care of international patents and ensure that his design could never be stolen.  That’s a bit oversimplified, but it was ultimately this fundamental difference in our approaches that caused the split.

A few months prior, I was talking with someone about an idea he’d been wanting to pursue for years.  I distinctly remember him saying, “You’re free to take this idea from me and run with it, I’ll probably never get around to it anyways.”  And he said it as though he’d just blessed me with a million dollars on the spot.  What a saint!  He didn’t realize, however, that (A) I don’t usually care about an intangible idea unless it was mine to begin with, and (B) I don’t have the energy, time, or money to waste on someone’s half-baked concept when it has no legs.

The most difficult hurdles for realizing any idea are gaining traction and building momentum. The vultures that you think are going to swoop in, steal your idea, and be more successful than you are usually imaginary (I think it’s actually far more likely that your business partner will screw you over, rather than some stranger who catches wind of your idea).  Being protective of an idea is fine to an extent, but it’s counterproductive when you become paralyzed by your own paranoia.

If you’re in the early stages of getting an idea off the ground, it’s silly to sit around and count your chickens.  You haven’t accomplished anything yet!  I think it’s more important (and practical) to put your energy into these things:

  • Determining whether your idea is solving a problem or not.
  • Developing a deep understanding of the industry you’re going into, on both a macro and micro level.
  • Finding a way to be first in a category (even if it means creating a new category).
  • Building a narrow and loyal customer base.
  • Actually getting those people to buy.

Worry about the patents and NDAs for when they’ll actually matter.  No point in stressing over paperwork if it’s only protecting a hypothetically successful idea.

Stop being so defensive.  Just go out and make something happen!

11 comments on “This post is patent pending

  1. This post isn’t clear.

    Was there actually a product and the guy was too caught up in precautionary patent stuff to market it appropriately, or was he so caught up in patent stuff that he didn’t get around to actually making the product?

  2. This is spot on. In my experience, those individuals that absolutely need an NDA before speaking are typically the worst ideas and biggest wastes of time.

    Further, it’s hilarious when people “give” their ideas and want someone else to run with it. Those are good individuals to stay away from, too.

    • I am 100X more annoyed with the people who think they’re giving me a million dollar idea than I am with people who are hyper-protective. What the first group is really saying is this: “Maybe you can take care of all the hard work, make my idea successful, and then I can sue you when you start reeling in money.”

  3. Charlie,
    Another good point. It’s the “secrets” game. Another related distinction: We tend to think of success arising from pinpoints and decisions—”I applied for a patent, that made me wealthy.” Or, “If only I hadn’t shared my idea. That idea was all Charlie needed, and now he’s a billionaire.”

    As you rightly point out, success comes from slow preparation and development. When opportunities come our way, we’ll only benefit if we have PREPARED to benefit. And I agree with you that it’s more important to build something worth protecting, than to spend precious energy protecting a value that doesn’t exist yet.

    Great stuff!

  4. Besides being defensive, people sometimes focus on what they KNOW matters less (patents, NDAs and other far-off details) because it’s easier than doing the hard stuff and failing.

    If I were a worried (and scared) entrepreneur-to-be, I might rather spend my time and energy chasing those patents and convincing myself that I’m doing something really important. It’s a lot easier than trying to make sales – and not making them. It postpones failure.

    This method is kind of like trying to achieve perfection before you execute – it’s driven by fear, achieves nothing but procrastination, and is really the antithesis of true entrepreneurship.

    Charlie, do you know what’s happened with his company / idea since then?

  5. I don’t blame him for wanting to pursue patent protection, especially in the health industry. The barriers of entry are high and product development is expensive. I am a huge advocate of openness with respect to ideas, but not all industries have that luxury.

    On the other hand, (without knowing more details about the product, industry or situation) it sounds like his head start should have been enough protection to make sales. The patent process takes 3-5 years, anyway, and if his work is indeed original, then the patents will be enforceable once they are approved. Unless he was doing something that requires FDA approval, he’ll need to get to market (and hence expose his idea) before several years of revenue pass him up.

  6. Just stumbled across your ebook and really appreciated it, if only for the chance to reminisce.

    In this article, you’re more right than you know. The other issue with the perpetual stealth mode entrepreneur is that no company you and I have both heard of is still doing exactly what the founder set out to do. Especially in a start-up, success is doing something, figuring out what part of it works, and then doing more of that. The best way to iterate quickly is to get feedback from the (hopefully smart) people around you. That iteration and constant improvement is what gives a start up a fighting chance to succeed.

    No matter how smart you are, when you rely on yourself for all idea generation, you fundamentally handicap your business.

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