9 Affordable and Effective Ways to Protect Your Entrepreneurial Vision

The idea that will make you rich likely needs to be protected long before you are rich.

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By John Boitnott

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Many entrepreneurs face this Catch-22: You have what you're sure is a million-dollar idea, but you don't have the cash (yet!) to get your idea off the ground -- let alone make sure it's protected. In a capitalist society, pursuing the American Dream usually means you need money to be highly successful. Otherwise, someone else might legally (although possibly not ethically) swoop in and "steal" your idea because they have more resources or money than you. It's sometimes a wonder that any entrepreneur succeeds.

Fortunately, there are many ways to protect your entrepreneurial ideas, ventures or products. If your idea is worth stealing, or "borrowing," you need to be on your guard. Here are nine of the best strategies for safeguarding your vision, in varying price points and levels of difficulty.

1. Be careful who you talk to.

In the digital era, it can be tempting to share all the details of your ideas with the world. I suggest avoiding that. You might be surprised just how many people don't know how to keep their mouths shut. While you should definitely be engaging in some guerilla marketing and working on building a support network, you should not be sharing your ideas with potential competition. Disclosing your business secrets only trusted business friends is your best bet.

Related: How to Protect Your Business Idea Without a Patent

2. Patent it.

Patenting your idea is one of the easiest, most straightforward and cost effective ways of protecting yourself. A patent is a government-issued "right" for you to exclusively make, use or sell an invention for a set time period.

3. Copyright it.

If your entrepreneurial ventures includes any kind of published, filmed or performed work, or potentially published work, it should have a copyright. This is kind of like a patent, but for publishable works. It gives you exclusive rights to record, print, publish, or film your unique idea.

4. Have proof of concept with a date.

Your goal should be to avoid lawsuits, but if it comes down to litigation, make sure you have evidence to back up your claims. For instance, if someone steals your idea but you have a YouTube video (which naturally has a date stamp) showing the invention in a how-to video owned or created by you, that's a great start.

Related: Why Protecting Intellectual Property Is Crucial to Business Success on 5 Counts

5. Get legal protection.

Attorneys can have hefty fees, but many of them are also budget-friendly and even offer financing. Consult with a business attorney who specializes in working with entrepreneurs and startups. Even if you don't use their services or retain them right now, having made contact will make it easier to get legal help or guidance should you need it down the road.

6. Seek out a mentorship.

If you can connect with someone who's been there, done that, they can help keep you on the right track and your ideas or vision from being "adopted" by someone else. However, be careful here—don't choose a mentor who might want your idea for him or herself. Even great icons of entrepreneurship have been known to take a sliver of someone else's idea, and use their ingenuity to turn it into a hugely successful global enterprise.

Related: When It Makes Sense to Hire a Patent Attorney

7. Start a business.

There are many types of businesses, and they don't all require a lot of paperwork or costs. In fact, a sole proprietorship doesn't require any special paperwork at all. However, making your entrepreneurial venture "official" can give you added protection. You can often change your business type later, if necessary.

8. Become an "expert."

Today, it's not enough to have a great product or service. You need to brand everything, including yourself. If you are seen as a trusted expert in your niche or industry, it'll be more difficult to steal from you without getting caught. This means publishing regularly or writing as a guest blogger about subjects you are passionate about and tying it into your idea, without giving too much away.

9. Win a competition.

Whether you score a deal on Shark Tank or win numerous regional prizes for your blue ribbon pies (that are about to get shipped nationally!), this gives you official recognition that can serve to safeguard your product or business.

There are many ways to ensure your ideas stay yours. All of your investments need to be protected, including your entrepreneurial visions. After all, you've invested a lot of time, effort and money into your "baby," so why would you leave it to fend for itself? A little preventative care now can save you a big headache in the future.

Related: 5 Steps to Safeguard Your Product From Patent Theft

John Boitnott

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor

John Boitnott is a longtime digital media consultant and journalist living in San Francisco. He's written for Venturebeat, USA Today and FastCompany.

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