From the February 1999 issue of Startups

Q: My brother and I came up with a few awesome recipes for drink mixes that we think are delicious enough to market and make into a business. What should we do to protect the recipes?

A: It's hard to get a patent for a recipe, but it can be done. To be given a patent, a recipe must be significantly different from other drink mixes on the market.

If it's just a matter of using a little less lemon, say, and a little more vermouth, the recipe probably isn't patentable, says David Pressman, author of Patent It Yourself (Nolo Press, $38.21, 800-992-6656), a do-it-yourself guide for inventors that takes you from initial protection through commercial and patentability evaluations, patent application preparation, marketing and licensing. "[The recipe] has to be unobvious," says Pressman, "which means [it] has to be substantially different from what is already known."

If your recipe isn't individual enough to be patentable, you can still protect your recipe by keeping it a trade secret. Trade secrets benefit a business commercially and are not known to anyone outside the business. To protect your trade secret, keep the number of employees and others who know it to a minimum.

Whether you get a patent or not, it's a good idea to protect your product name by registering for a trademark. Trademark rights can be used to prevent others from using a similar mark on their products, but they do not prevent others from making the same goods or selling the same goods under another mark. According to Pressman, you can obtain limited trademark protection by simply putting the superscript "TM" symbol after your product name or logo and relying on your common-law rights, but he suggests also registering your trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).

For more information on applying for patents and trademarks, contact the PTO at (800) PTO-9199 or http://www.uspto.gov.

Special Delivery

Q: A friend and I are considering starting a courier company. We both have some experience in the industry. What kind of start-up information or guides would help?

A: "Starting a small courier business is easy compared to [lots of] other businesses," says Lenny Farin, owner of Shotgun Delivery in Hayward, California. "With a pickup truck, a phone and [someone] to answer it, you're pretty much in business."

Basic equipment needs include multiple incoming phone lines and a pager system to communicate with your drivers. Farin estimates a courier business can be started for as little as $10,000, depending on the complexity of your communications system.

Before you set your budget, you need to research the courier industry. Learn about the area you plan on serving, your customers, competition and pricing.

The best way to get this information is to talk to others in the industry. Read trade magazines and attend conferences and seminars. "I suggest anyone who is seriously interested [should] work for a company for six months and get a feel for the business, because coming into it fresh without understanding the lingo is really tough," says Farin. "Another way to pave the way for [yourself] is to join an association. You learn a lot from the people there."

The Messenger Courier Association of the Americas holds a yearly conference; its Web site (http://www.mcaa.com) has a listing of members nationwide you can contact with questions about starting your own business. Call (202) 223-9741 for more information.

Another good resource is Courier Magazine. Check out its Web site (http://www.couriermagazine.com) for current trends, the latest industry news and links to other services. Call (703) 330-5600 for more information.

Contact Sources

David Pressman, david@patentityourself.com

Shotgun Delivery, lenny@shotgun.com