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Inventions and good business ideas

I regularly get calls from people with new inventions or ideas. I enjoy these because I am almost always talking to a person who is keen and enthusiastic, but there is often a similar story behind each conversation.

The person has either got an invention or a good idea but doesn't know where to start with it, or has approached quite a few organisations, perhaps paying for an initial evaluation and gotten nowhere.

I thought it may help to give you some advice and general pointers that I have gathered over the years.


1. Work out whether it is a "invention" or a more of a "good idea".


The difference is that with a new invention, you can patent it (legally own it and no one else can make it). Whereas a good idea for a product or service may not be patentable, but you believe that you can be first into a market and so don't want others to latch on to that idea.

The Patent Office does a patent search service that will help you decide if you have a case for raising a patent. Have a look at: www.ipo.gov.uk/sas/services/sas-patentability.htm they do charge for this however.

You can also get very good information and help from the British Library which has a Business & IP Centre

Company Partners has fact sheets on patents, trademarks and copyright in the Company Partners resources pages www.companypartners.com/content/resource have a look down the resource list.


2. Be careful when you tell anyone about it.

Often inventors are concerned that people may steal their idea. However if it is an invention that may be patentable, if you tell people about it first, not only may they steal the idea, but more importantly from a legal stand point.... you no longer own the idea! This is because it is now in the "public domain". It can no longer be patented.

What can you do? Before you tell anyone, have them sign a NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement). This is a simple agreement that protects your idea or invention. Here is an example agreement: www.companypartners.com/content/resource/non-disclosure-agreement-nda .

If it is likely to be a novel and patentable invention don't tell anyone at all without an NDA. If it is more of a good idea but not patentable, you will have to decide if you want a NDA signed in every case. Some people will happily sign, others won't.


3. Companies that help you put your idea or invention into production.

If you type "invention" into Google you will get several pages of companies all offering you help. Why? What do they get out of it? Well mostly they will want to sell you their services. It may not be obvious from reading their literature at first, but it starts with you submitting your idea.  Then they will suggest that they can give you an assessment of that idea/invention - for a price. Normally a few hundred pounds. This is their bread & butter money.

Companies may then commit to do more (like find a buyer to license the invention from you) in exchange for a share of the royalties, although the invention has to be fairly marketable for that to happen. But watch out for "expense" fees. Or other companies may say that after their evaluation there are things that you can do to improve the chances of it being marketable, or of finding an investor to provide funds. This second stage normally costs a few thousand pounds.

So you can see that you have to be careful who you go with and indeed if you should go with such a company. There is a lot you can do for yourself without paying thousands of pounds. Many Mentors and Investors in Company Partners will contribute their expertise and knowledge in  exchange for equity without you paying anything at all and we at Company Partners are always happy to have a chat with our full members (yes you actually have to pay your £14.95 and join - not much in business terms).


4. You have a great idea now you want someone to fund it.

Okay you have a great idea. Do you believe that it's so good that you'll remortgage your house and spend all your savings (which is what James Dyson did)? Or maybe it's not quite that sure fire a winner. But you'll let some one else invest their money. If it works - great, if not maybe you can think of something else.

Business angels and private investors have seen it all before, most of them will expect you to also contribute some of the finances and put yourself on the line for it to succeed or they also will not invest.


5. Implementation is king (ideas are 10 a penny).

Well some ideas are better than others of course. But everyone has some good idea for a new product or service inside them. It's those people that get out there and make it happen that are different. 99% of great ideas never get further than a chat down the pub, or wishful thinking. Don't just dream - make it happen.

Then when you do start to make it happen, how well you implement the idea makes the difference to success or failure - not just the idea itself. If you are not best at marketing, sales or even detail planning, look for a business partner. That's what we are there to help you to do.


6. Be realistic.

It may be a great idea, but will people part with their hard earned cash and buy it? Some times they are just great ideas but ones that no one would actually pay money for. Be especially wary of "gadget" type inventions. Check that people really would buy them. These sound great, but often too few would be sold to make your fortune.  

Do some market research, check whether other similar products or services are selling well. Put together a questionnaire, or a prototype and ask members of the public if they would spend money to buy it (friends and family don't count). What is the addressable market for this? If it is sold, will it be at a profit (add up all expenditure and costs, including salaries and selling/distribution costs)? Again, we can help with this, you do have to pay for our time to do it (we are running a business of course), but it is cheaper and more honest than most.


7. Persevere and be prepared to work.

If you've been realistic and after considering everything, you still want to get this invention or good idea into the market, you have to be persistent. We've all heard of the great businesses that were originally turned down by funders.

I was at a meeting where Tim Waterstone described how he was turned down for a loan to start the book chain by various banks. He persevered, mortgaged himself to the hilt and found an investor. When he was successful and eventually sold for millions to HMV, he sent the banks that turned him down a newspaper cutting. He was however a driven and energetic man who didn't believe in just dreaming.

Not all of us are the same, but you do need determination and it helps to have a business partner or mentor. They can give you motivation and together you can bounce ideas around.

Think in business terms and understand that no one is going to give away their time or money unless you can prove the concept is a winner. That will require some upfront effort and investment from yourself.

Don't just dream - make it happen.


Lawrence Gilbert
www.companypartners.com