How to protect your big ideas

Brian Sibley, the public relations account manager at Baron & Company, has had plenty of experience helping businesses protect and market their "$1 million dollar ideas." He said getting the right people involved, being patient and getting organized are three of the key points to making those big dreams come true.

Dan Hiestand
   Let’s say you have a great idea, or perhaps even a product or service that is ready to head to market — but your business doesn’t have a lot of capital or resources. Perhaps you feel your concept will be the next great thing, but you are hesitant to reveal information to those who might help for fear of idea theft.
   So, how do you both reveal your potential greatness by going to market while at the same time protect your idea so competitors don’t come along and hijack your hard work? For many business owners, this balance can be difficult to achieve, said Tom Dorr, director of the Small Business Development Center in Bellingham.
   “In my experience, people are very paranoid about sharing their ideas – more paranoid than they need be,” said Dorr. “Most people think ‘Okay, let somebody else do all the hard work of getting it started, then I’ll go steal it once it’s up and going.’ But inventors are notorious for saying ‘I’ve got this great idea. It’s going to change the world, but I can’t tell you about it.’ The reality is, if you are going to attract financing or partnerships, you’re going to have to share your idea with people.”
   A big key, said Dorr, is making sure entrepreneurs are organized before starting down the path of developing a great idea.
   “You’ve got to have a business plan. That’s your road map for where you’re going, how you’re going to respond to the marketplace, how you’re going to price your product, and how you’re going to promote yourself," he said.
   In addition to organization, entrepreneurs need to be careful whom they talk to, and what is said, said John J. Connors, a California-based patent attorney and the author of “The Ten Commandments for Protecting Your Million Dollar Idea.”
   “The first thing you need to do — and that is Commandment No. 1 — is that you’re probably going to need to talk to people, and they should sign nondisclosure agreements,” Connors said. “This is for someone who is brand new to a business, or someone who is in business already and thinks they have a great idea. If they think it’s going to make them millions and millions of dollars, and they want to talk to people to get help or get investors, then they should sign nondisclosure agreements.”
   Connors said entrepreneurs can protect their ideas and inventions through more extensive legal means as well, such as obtaining patent, copyright, trademark and service-mark protection. He also suggested that business owners and entrepreneurs take advantage of experts when it comes to legal matters, regardless of how “simple” it may seem.
   “I don’t think ultimately you should try and do that yourself,” he said. “If your name is worth something, you ought to go hire a professional to help you out with the registration to see if there are any potential problems. Don’t use the ‘R’ in the circle until you have a federal registration.”
   The investment is well worth the effort, Connors said.
   “What’s the most important thing for a business? The reputation. I know that as a lawyer,” he said. “It’s your trademark, your service mark. That’s your most valuable asset, and it lasts forever as long as you keep using it.”
   In the end, striking a balance between many of these concepts is the key, Dorr said.
   “You’ve got to balance the secrecy aspect of your idea with the need to get the business going,” Dorr said. “You’ve got to calibrate that. Too often, owners that are going in are paranoid that everybody they talk to is going to try to steal from them, and they never get their business off the ground.”

Top Tips to Protect Your Great Ideas

Brian Sibley, the public relations account manager at Bellingham-based marketing firm Baron & Company — which this year celebrated 25 years in business — started working in public relations in New York City about a decade ago before eventually moving to Washington state.
Sibley, who has been with Baron & Company for a year, has had plenty of experience helping a wide variety of businesses protect and market their ideas. Below are some tips Sibley offered to companies that are trying to market and protect their "$1 million dollar ideas."

• Know your end goals: “Marketing strategy varies widely, depending on the company. I think the most important thing to do before you start determining your approach is to define your goals. We ask our clients: ‘What is your definition of winning?’ That goes back to a lot of popular business thinking about beginning with the end in mind. It’s really important that business owners know their business well, know their idea and its true potential and are able to realistically set an achievable goal for that product.”

• Make sure you have all your ducks in a row: “If you have a great idea, before you start talking about it publicly and maybe even trying to sell the idea, make sure that you have done a lot of background research. Make sure that you have tested and developed your idea very thoroughly and done as much background work as you possibly can. If for some reason you let something out that is an unformed idea and someone can take that idea and evolve it into something related or something better, you’ve done yourself a great disservice.”

• Patience is a virtue: “Every entrepreneur that I’ve known is a fairly dynamic and excited person. They get very excited about their ideas, and they really want to put lots of energy behind them and develop them and get them out there. People get very excited about bringing a product to market. I think the most important thing you can do – after you’ve done research and testing and development – is to make sure that your excitement about the idea and its viability doesn’t cloud your judgment. Wait for the most appropriate time to make that more public.”

• Bring in the experts: “It’s very rare that somebody is able to develop a product or idea without outside help. People always need to bring in lots of different people with lots of different skill sets to help get their product to market, (such as) marketing people, potential investors and partners.”

• Use nondisclosure agreements: “All of these people (you tell your idea to) have the potential to essentially take your idea from you. Use nondisclosure agreements, and use them well. This is especially important when you’re getting involved with anybody from outside your company who may eventually have a stake in your company. Then everyone knows what is okay to talk about publicly, if anything, regarding the product, and also what is not okay to talk about.”

• Get the right lawyers involved early: “I think a good business attorney and a good intellectual property attorney can help you plan for whatever the most appropriate protection is for your idea. They can help you develop the right nondisclosure agreement and guide you through the various processes of obtaining patents and trademarks.”



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