The view that a good idea will result in a windfall for an independent inventor seems to be embedded in the fabric of US culture–perhaps it’s because the patent system dates from our earliest days. Indeed, a surprisingly large number of people think that getting a patent will result in a large company paying them huge sums of money for the ability to introduce a product covered by that patent. This belief serves to motivate countless numbers of inventors to spend $1000’s on patent protection, as well as years of hopeful waiting for their patent to exit the Patent Office. Few ever see their product make it to the marketplace, however.
As an attorney at a prestigious IP law firm, I really gave little thought to what my clients would do with their idea once I succeeded in obtaining a patent for them. My job was to help my clients convince the Patent Office that their idea passed the legal requirements for patentability. Indeed, my clients came to me for legal advice, not business advice, and they likely would have considered it to be inappropriate if I questioned their motives for wanting to get a patent in the first place. However, after recently spending time with a group of folks who make their livings helping independent inventors get their ideas to market (thanks to to Jim DeBetta and Ron Reardon for including me in this 2009 Innovation Leaders Conference), I have been thinking a lot about why it is so hard for people to get a company to look at their new product idea and have come to the conclusion that being an independent inventor today is alot like trying to find a relationship in the dating scene.
Yes, really, for independent inventors, the fact that a corporation is not interested in your idea is akin to being turned down by a potential partner. One may be rejected for an ostensibly good reason or, sometimes, for no visible reason at all. In other words, if you’re an independent inventor, the corporation may “not be that into you” or the corporation’s actions might be like to the well-known break-up excuse “it’s not you, it’s me.”
Let me elaborate on what I mean: the low odds of an independent inventor’s getting a company to even look at her idea, let alone pay for the idea, may not be that the idea is not good but, rather, that most organizations do not have the infrastructures in place to deal with independent inventors and their ideas. As a result, these companies either wholly refuse to look at outisde ideas or they provide the impression taht they are interested in external ideas, but their management processes have no way to get these ideas into their product development pipelines.
For example, when I was an attorney at a major consumer products company, our innovation and marketing people were absolutely forbidden to engage with independent inventors about potential new product ideas. We dreaded when these ideas made it into the law department, as it made extra work for our staff, with no possibility of reward for our businesses. When the unsolicited ideas would reach us, our paralegal would log them into our document management, send out a “thanks but no thanks” letter and then put any documentation into a file cabinet never to be looked at again. The leader of our group, the Chief Patent Counsel, made it a hard and fast policy that we could not engage with outside idea submitters because to do so was judged to be “risky.” Since he viewed his job to manage risk for the business, my boss mandated that our business teams could not collaborate with outsiders who were not part of established corporate organizations. In other words, at my company, there was absolutely no possibility that an unsolicited idea would ever see the light of day. Given the dozens of unsolicited idea submissions that came into our offices every month, certainly there were a great number of people who expended $1000’s on getting a patent on a product idea that was “perfect” for my company, not knowing that there was they had the equivalent of “a snowball’s chance in hell” of getting their product looked at by, let alone sold to, my company.
But, what about those companies that give the impression that they are really interested in new product ideas by placing idea submission portals on their websites? While these companies do appear to be more receptive to externally generated ideas, the odds are stacked against independent inventors at these companies, too. Think about it: there are only so many ideas that a company can expend time and effort on at any one time. Even if the company was receptive to externally-derived ideas, an inventor would have to present her idea at precisely the right time and with exactly the right marketing pitch to get the attention of busy innovation and product development professionals. As a result, companies receptive to outside inventors may still end up ignoring “game changing” product ideas.
In view of the impediments present at corporations that prevent or greatly reduce the probability that independent inventors will achieve success in getting their idea purchased by a corporation, I am reminded classic “Sienfeld” “It’s not you, it’s me” scene. In this scene, George Costanza is told by his girlfriend that she is not into him. This sets up a humorous exchange about whom is breaking up with whom. While we can argue whether George was a desirable boyfriend, it is clear that he thought should have been the one to decide whom was dating whom. Similarly, many independent inventors effectively believe that they are doing the corporation a favor by bringing a new product idea to them and, like George, are shocked when their idea is rejected.
The point of analogizing “Sienfeld” to the plight of an independent inventor who seeks to get her invention evaluated and hopefully purchased is that it may indeed “be you.” That is, your idea might be totally a wrong match for the company to which you are submitting it. That is, your product idea may be the wrong size, the wrong cost or, frankly, wholly wrong an unsuited for a “relationship” with the target corporation. In other words, you may thinking that the company is looking for a “relationship” with your product idea, but it, in fact, the company has absolutely no interest in it.
In a separate context, like the “tough love” advice in the self-help book “He’s Just Not that Into You,” often, people are rejected in dating for reasons wholly unrelated to themselves and it is better to move onto other opportunities rather than to dwell on a relationship that cannot happen. Like the anecdotes in “He’s Just Not into You,” it might also be that there is nothing inherently wrong with your idea, but the company is not prepared to enter into a “relationship” with your idea at this–or perhaps at any–time. Prior to investing their money and efforts into patenting an idea and submitting it to industry, independent inventors must be prepared to be rejected for no good reason other than that “they’re just not that into you.” In this situation, it is better to move on to seek opportunities that are worth your time and efforts rather than dwelling on something, even if it is an issued patent, that can never serve as the basis of a successful relationship.
The reader would be correct in thinking that “there has got to be a better way” for independent inventors to increase the odds of developing a relationship with a corporation that results in their getting paid for their product idea. There is: “product and idea matchmakers” that an independent inventor can hire to assist them. I have no personal experience with the success rates of these vendors, but I can say that, without exception, most are likely earnest in their desire to help their clients to get their products to market, but each also acknowledged the often low success rate. In my mind, they, as well as others in this consultant space, can be effective in helping clients identify companies that might wish to review their product idea for introduction into the marketplace. Using the dating analogy, these “matchmakers” can operate somewhat as a paid relationship matchmaker; that is, someone who helps you identify your strengths and weaknesses, gets you ready for entering into a relationship and introduces you to possible partners. Of course, they do not do this for free and quite often might not be successful in finding a match for you. And, since they do not give a “money back guarantee” that their efforts will work, there are certainly many dissatisfied customers (as can be found by searching Google for InventHelp critics).
In recent years, the dating scene has been transformed by internet dating products, such as EHarmony, Chemistry.com and others. There have been some attempts to set up comparable sites to match independent inventors with companies seeking ideas. Examples of these InventBay.com and EdisonNation.com. However, as with any dating relationship, it takes two to make a relationship. As discussed above, there are many more independent inventors who want a relationship with a corporation than there are corporations that are actively seeking them out, whether on these websites or others.
I believe that until there is a better alignment between the number and type of ideas in the marketplace and the number of corporations who seek to bring such externally-derived ideas into their organizations, the odds against independent inventors finding a successful match for their product ideas will continue to be long. Fortunately, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of corporations that have embraced Open Innovation as a way to obtain new product ideas and there will be more doing so in the near future. This will certainly provide independent inventors with additional opportunities to develop relationships with companies. Nonetheless, people seeking to profit from their ideas must never forget the fact that, even if there are a lot more companies in the “idea dating pool,” at the end of the day you may not be successful in developing a profitable relationship with a corporation because “it’s not you it’s them” and “they’re just not into you.”
Photo credit: flickr/drankasloner