Protect Your Ideas 14

People often ask if they can sell an idea of a new product or service to a company that will implement it. But new business 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 for a new business, but easily copied. In that case they knew they had to move fast and gain visibility very quickly to preempt competition. McDonald’s?

There are companies whose main advantage is the business 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 new business 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 business 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 awhile. Which would you rather buy, an idea for a new business, 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.

Read more on starting a new business

About the Author Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry. Follow Tim on Google+ Read more »

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  • Mpho Mokgoatle

    Hi I think i made a mistake in approaching a large company with a good idea, but they have not yet implemented this idea, now i need to know where to go or what to do at this present moment. I want to sell this idea to them and this idea is mot protected, so i need to know as to where to start in protedcting my idea.

  • John jay

    Unfortunately being ignorant of the system can be at your cost..
    I had an Idea for a product that would save the insurance industry millions, I spoke to a very large blue chip organisation and within 3 months they had copied the whole project, i had no recourse, having taken advice the solicitor said you would be stupid to try to take such a large company on…. please please do your homework and protect your own ….

  • Uncle joe

    O.K., if someone has a great idea for a t.v. commercial that they want to sell to an established company how do they protect it and then sell it?

  • nombulelo


  • S.

    I think best way to protect your idea is to start it up yourself as the article suggests. Then seek capital for it. Any details needed by bigger companies, then make sure they sign a legal non-disclosure agreement. But before you can get to that consideration point, you need to submit a really outstanding proposal first and it helps even more to know someone in their network. Also remember don’t put everything (like trade secrets, etc) in your introductory proposal, just give them enough to peak their interest (but not enough to steal your idea) so you will have a better chance that they would follow up with you to learn more about your business funding needs.

  • Raju

    I think a marketing idea can be copyrighted in your country and copyright will be applicable atomatically to every country based on bern convention(i.e No need to copyright in every country).

  • James

    If you feel you have an idea with no way of implementing it yourself and it isn’t something easily protected through normal channels, talk to a lawyer! Many lawyers will be willing to give you some free advice over the phone regarding what they think they can do to help you stay protected. Make sure you contact the appropriate type of lawyer, you don’t want a criminal lawyer for your business idea.

    Having a lawyer who is experienced with negotiating business deals could get you somewhere, beyond watching your idea stay with you for the next decade, or be snatched up by the first big business that hears it. A lawyer may be able to work up a deal with a company to view your proposed idea under a type of security blanket, meaning that if they were to use your idea, you would have some legal recourse if they chose to try and push aside the fact that you brought them the idea. Bringing a lawyer to a meeting with a large company also lets them know that you aren’t just someone with an idea, you are someone with an idea who is willing to pay out-of-pocket to try and protect your idea and knows how to use a phone to call a lawyer.

    There is no guarantee it will help your specific case, but if you have an idea that you think is great, say for instance one that is related directly to cell phone service and that idea would be extremely prohibitive to use without already being a large cellular phone company, get started by thoroughly documenting your idea in a proper business presentation format and then go see a couple lawyers to find one that you feel will work for you.

    I am a bit amazed that this article didn’t have anything about contacting a lawyer. Anytime you have something that you don’t know how to handle and could push into the legal realm, contact a lawyer. Ignore everything in this article, all these comments, and even the portion of my comment that you have already read. Ignore it all and only remember the following sentence…


  • corona

    Thanks James for your amazing comment, its so easy to believe the easy way and not the right way.

  • Cobie

    Hi. I have a great idea. How do I go about selling this idea.


    The quick answer to this is that your idea has no value. The time spent into making your idea into a viable business or marketable product is what is valuable.

  • Valentine

    Thanks for the comments above. Does it make it difference if the idea originated elsewhere in another country and i want to implement it here and we talking instituition like a hospital and i know this will benefit our country and decrease workload.

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  • kagiso

    i dont it is impossible to make any executive sign a simple confidentiality document before you disclose the idea. basically it could be indicating that the idea is yours and will not be used without your concent. it could be expensive getting a lawyer but surely one can simply draft this kind of document on one’s own. and if executives refusse to sign, simply go to the next company, dont compromise!

  • Darnell Brownell

    Major thanks for the blog.Really looking forward to read more. Want more.

  • simonswills

    Business ideas and secrets for growth are excellent when you are prepared to handle any type your business risk and could also make positive decisions for own company and become an business owner.

  • Lalo

    How do i satrt that?….There is NOTHING like the business idea i have…