If you want to license your concepts for new products, you need to be able to test them quickly.
Because, like I've said before, licensing is a numbers game. The strategy I described in my last article, "Why a $65 Patent Application is All You Need to License a Product Idea," was devised in response to these facts, which are pretty much indisputable. To summarize: Filing a provisional patent application, or PPA, can establish enough perceived ownership to get a company to license a simple idea from you. For this strategy to work, of course, your PPA needs to be strong. The key to writing strong intellectual property—intellectual property that actually has value—is to become an expert first. Not an expert on intellectual property in general, which you could easily spend a lifetime doing, but on your idea specifically. Here's how.
Before you consider filing even a provisional patent application, you need to answer the following questions in the following order.
+ Is your product idea marketable? + If so, is it unique? + Is there a chance it might be patentable?
Studying the market is the best way of answering these questions. Conveniently, you can do so from the comfort of your laptop. Studying the market is essential for a number of reasons. For one, you need to determine whether your product idea offers a meaningful point of difference or not. The only way to do that is by familiarizing yourself with existing products that purport to do the same thing. Are there any popular features similar products offer that you haven't thought to incorporate? You can devise a way if so. And of course, you need to confirm your idea is actually new—that there isn't a product already on the market exactly like it. Studying the market in the following ways will help you identify potential licensees, as well.
Approach this process with an open mind. Set your ego aside. It's not about better or worse. You will discover similar ideas. Which is great! They confirm a market for concepts like yours exists. When I'm excitedly told, "There's nothing like my idea out there!" I want to cringe. That's probably not true. But beyond that, ideas that are too new are unlikely to be licensed because they're too risky. If you discover your concept isn't new, you may be able to innovate or refine it based on what you learn.
A quick google image for "Butter Stick"
Search Google Images first. Start broad and then narrow in. You don't want to miss anything along the way, but eventually, you should make your search terms as specific as possible, including potential manufacturing materials. As you scroll through the thousands of images that appear, click on similar-looking products and examine them closely. Your goal is to learn as much as you can about these other products. What are they made of? How much do they cost? Where are they sold? Who manufactures them? Make a note of how the products are packaged and marketed. As far as the category itself is concerned, is it crowded? Is it stale? Is there an opportunity?
You need to determine whether your product idea offers a meaningful point of difference or not.
Reading product reviews on Amazon can be extremely enlightening. What do consumers appreciate about the product? What do they wish were different? You may uncover some nugget of insight that motivates you to improve your idea right then and there.
As you study these products, consider how your concept stacks up. Does your concept differ from others in terms of its features? (Is it made of a different material? Is it shaped differently? Does it have more of this or that?) How is your concept different in terms of benefits? (Is it easier to use? Will it cost less? Is it more easily cleaned? These are some examples of benefits.) Take note of which companies manufacture these products, so you can submit your sell sheet to them later on. These aren't actually your competitors — they're your potential licensees.
You can learn a lot about a category by visiting a brick-and-mortar retailer in person. For example, prime real estate is located at eye-level. Where are similar products found? How many variations of essentially the same product are there? If the same company has numerous SKUs, it's a power player.
Be as objective as you can. Ask yourself, "How does my concept fit into this category?" You are trying to verify that your idea has a benefit vis-à-vis existing products. If it doesn't, you've come up with a me-too product, which companies won't want to license. You need to be able to concretely identify your uniqueness. Remember, you don't have to reinvent the wheel to license an idea. And in fact you shouldn't. It's small improvements that matter.
At first, digging through patents may bewilder you. Stick with it. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, among others, offers tutorials. Please note: You will not be able to find everything. And that's okay. Endlessly searching for prior art is not a good use of your time. You can hire a firm to help you, but I think you're much better off teaching yourself how to do it. Looking at the drawings first will save you some time. (If the innovation is in fact relevant to yours, then read the patent.) Keep in mind: A lot of prior art is worthless. The more patents you read, the more you'll agree with me.
When you discover relevant prior art, read the claims section closely. What prior art does that patent reference? Examine it. Soon enough, you'll be flipping back and forth between patents that cite one another, gaining a grasp of how they all fit together.
If the innovation described is exactly like yours and the patent is written well (meaning defensively) and still in play, you might be better off walking away. Or, you could decide to contact the patent owner with a few questions. Like, what happened? Why isn't the idea on the market? Go slow. Open the conversation by telling him you love his idea. You might be able to work together. If you understand licensing, you could offer to license the idea from him with the intention of trying to license it to a manufacturer. In the past, I've negotiated the exclusive right to try to license someone else's idea for one year. If I were successful, we'd split the royalty equally. Either way, his insight could be priceless. You might be the best call he's received in years.
Armed with the research you've done, I now want you to try to steal your idea from yourself. If someone wanted to work around you, how would they? To file intellectual property that actually has value, take your time considering this. Try to brainstorm as many variations of your idea as you can, including applications, manufacturing methods, and materials. In my experience, so many patents fail to incorporate manufacturing methods. Knowing how to manufacture your idea more quickly and cheaply than anyone else is one of the best ways of protecting your ownership. You will prevent others from easily working around you if you do.
A final note, for now: The PPA you file will never become a patent. That's my guess, anyway. Patents aren't the goal. Not for you, and certainly not for your potential licensee. This strategy is about solidifying your perceived ownership over your idea—and in turn, convincing potential licensees it's better to work with, and not against you.
Stephen Key is a lifelong product artist who has licensed dozens of his ideas. His bestselling book "One Simple Idea: Turn Your Dreams Into a Licensing Goldmine" has been translated into five other languages. He speaks, writes, and vlogs extensively about licensing, entrepreneurship, and intellectual property strategy.