Protecting an Idea Is Easy. Selling an Idea Is Hard.

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor
Co-Founder of inventRight; Author of One Simple Idea Series
4 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The concepts I licensed when I began freelancing were very simple. Before I broke out on my own, I’d opened a novelty gift store and worked at a toy startup, so at first, I stuck to what I knew. When a company in those industries liked one of my ideas, they agreed to pay me a small percentage of each unit that sold in exchange for the right to produce it.

It was all pretty straightforward. I’m talking plush characters and funny puns, such as a plastic dart with an arrow that read "I’m stuck on you." Intellectual property was a non-starter. We never even talked about it.

Related: What Good Is a Patent if You Can't Enforce It?

But one day, I came up with an idea I thought could be big. I’d recently read about how labels on prescription drug bottles fail to provide as much information as they should. There just wasn’t enough room. Under and overdosing occurred as a result.

“What if the label rotated?” I asked myself. Shortly after that thought, I made a sample of a rotating label at my local Kinko’s on a copy machine. I mailed the sample off to a large pharmaceutical company. When I walked into Walmart a few days later and took in how many cylindrical containers there were, my head started to spin. They could all benefit from my label!

When the company told me it was interested, I grew fearful for the first time. My contact there was curious: Did I have a patent? I hadn’t thought about patents until then. When I began reading about intellectual property, my chest tightened. It sounded confusing. I grew more afraid. If I didn’t patent my idea as soon as possible, I thought, I would never be compensated for it. Like everyone else, I let fear take over.

Fear of having an idea stolen is something all creative people share. So is the fear of losing out financially. But I want to make something very clear. There are much more serious problems headed your way if you want to make it as an entrepreneur.

Is the idea marketable? Can it be manufactured at a competitive price point? Answering these questions is so much more fundamental than filing for intellectual property protection.

Related: Low-Cost Patent Search Options for Inventors on a Budget

John Ferrell, my patent attorney to this day, gave me some remarkable business advice when I became his new client. He said, “Steve, don’t forget: Protecting an idea is easy. It’s selling an idea that’s hard.”

He couldn’t have been more right. Successfully marketing an idea is much more difficult than inventing and "protecting" one. The hundreds of thousands of patented ideas that never make it to market each year are testament to that.

You can learn how to venture your idea or license it. That information is out there waiting for you to grab it. But at the end of the day, if your idea is unwanted, your efforts will have been for nothing. So don’t even think of rushing to file a patent. Instead, focus on how you’re going to test your idea.

Is crowdfunding potentially viable? What about presenting the idea to retailers or reaching out to potential licensees for their thoughts? How warm are the waters? You need to know if your idea has potential. The only way to do that is to get relevant feedback from people who might actually buy it.

Am I a patent holder? Absolutely. I have nearly 20 patents to my name. But I’ve only ever tried to patent one idea -- my big idea. I didn’t think it would be worth to do so with any of my other ideas. Only this one was ever big enough to warrant such an investment.

I regularly meet people who equate being an inventor with having a patent. That’s fine, but I’ve never aspired to be a patent holder. I want to see my ideas in the market. I want to support my family by profiting from them. So thank you for the great advice, John!

Related: You May Have an Awesome Product, But It Won't Mean Much Without a Marketing Plan

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