by Tim Berry

People often ask if they can sell an idea of a new product or service to a company that will implement it. But ideas that can’t be protected are worth relatively little. I don’t mean necessarily legally protected, but at the very least, protected with marketing momentum, image, and awareness.

Relatively few of the well-known successful start-ups depended on the ideas. What matters is doing it, starting it up, getting it done. For example, when Apple Computer started in 1976, thousands of people had the same idea. Altair and MIPS were already producing. Every hobbyist club in the country talked about it in their meetings. Jobs and Wozniak, however, did it. They found the resources, contracted people, took the risks, and started up.

There are plenty of good examples. Was Federal Express patentable? No, but they did it. Look at—it was a good idea, but easily copied. In that case they knew they had to move fast and gain visibility very quickly to preempt competition.

There are companies whose main advantage is the idea. Kodak, Polaroid, and Xerox are examples, but these are exceptions, not the rule.

By the time you’ve had a good idea, so have hundreds or thousands of others.

So how do you approach a large company with a good idea? I say, simply, don’t; not until you have momentum. Sure, some ideas need larger companies to move them forward, but if your idea is that good and not legally protectable, why shouldn’t the big company move on it? Managers are charged with enhancing the value of the company they work for, and you’re saying there’s no patent, so why not? They aren’t bad people, it’s just that you don’t own the idea.

Besides, larger companies move very slowly, and unless you’ve proven the idea and developed the concept, it’s even harder to think they’ll do it better.

My advice is to build some advantage first, develop this idea, bear down, and make it work. After that, then you will have something to sell. Even without patents, you could have trademarks, service marks, and legal protection against people trying to trade on your company’s name and trademarks.

Think of it from the buyer’s point of view, for a while. Which would you rather buy, an idea, or a business? Turn your idea into a business that works, with sales and employees and a market position, and then you have something to sell.

Remember that there are almost always people proposing ideas to large companies, and you’ll have to make sure the contact in the company understands that you might have something that’s very worthwhile. It’s hard for me to think you can do that without building it first, then selling it.

Think about what it is you own that they would need your participation for—perhaps it’s your expertise or name in an industry.

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