There's nothing like meeting someone to face to face, but obviously, you can't rely on trade shows exclusively to license your ideas for new products. They're yearly events! Whereas—especially given how important speed to market has become— embracing a sense of urgency will serve you well. That's where LinkedIn comes in. Talk about efficient. On LinkedIn, there are no gatekeepers to get through. You can clearly identify and reach out to people in positions of power whenever you want from the comfort of your home, which is, frankly, incredible. LinkedIn has not only made open innovation more of a reality, it's made getting into the biggest of big companies feasible.
In the past, getting into Fortune 500 companies required a bit of creativity. Because the front door was a fast track to their legal department, harnessing the power of pull-through marketing was almost always necessary (for example, you could get into a large company by reaching out to its ad agency or packaging design firm). That's no longer the case, which is extremely exciting. Using LinkedIn, you can connect with more potential licensees more quickly.
For example, when one of my students reached out to a marketing manager at Conair recently to ask if he could send the individual his sell sheet, he told me he received a reply in the affirmative less than three hours later—on a Sunday, no less! Just like that, his sell sheet and video were in the hands of a $2 billion dollar global manufacturer. That kind of access, not to mention speed, is unprecedented. Really, it's a game-changer.
And it works: Some of my students and coaches have begun using LinkedIn exclusively to reach potential licensees, especially those who are pressed for time. I'm not surprised. Social media increasingly dominates how we interact with each other, including businesses. And that's unlikely to change: Last year, the research institute MarketingSherpa reported that a third of millennials prefer to use social media to communicate with companies.
So, what should you say?
After years of struggling, my student Ryan Diez successfully used LinkedIn to find a licensee for his dog-washing invention, which then became a viral As Seen On TV hit. Now an inventRight coach, Diez shared with me the exact words he uses to reach out to marketing managers on LinkedIn. For him, there is no better way to reach out to companies.
Subject: Greetings Mr. Smith Question re: Centurion Open Innovation?
Good morning Mr. Smith,
My name is Ryan Diez. I am a product developer from Los Angeles, CA. I have developed a patented ergonomic shovel that I believe would be an absolutely perfect fit in the Centurion line. Obviously your company is on the forefront of innovation in the garden category, so I was hoping Centurion would be open to outside submissions. If so, I have a sell sheet that will quickly highlight the benefit of this product to your company. Please let me know to whom I may send more information… perhaps that person is you?
Thank you for your time,
Subject: GCI Outdoor Open Innovation?
Good afternoon Ms. Smith,
My name is Ryan Diez. I am a product developer from Los Angeles, CA. Is GCI Outdoor on board with open innovation? I have developed an extremely unique yet simple outdoor chair that I believe would benefit GCI Outdoor and fit wonderfully in your product line. Are you or somebody within available to review my material?
Hope all is well,
1. Give the person you contact a reason to open your message. One of the most straightforward ways of doing that is by creating a curiosity gap. Not an overblown Upworthy-style curiosity gap—just a little nugget that will pique that person's interest. Diez has found that the words 'open innovation' get the job done. People may not know exactly what he means, which isn't a bad thing. Who doesn't like the word innovation? (I previously wrote about how to reach out to companies for product licensing consideration, noting that the best people to reach out to are marketing managers.)
2. Ask for permission before sending your sell sheet or a link to your video. Remember, your sell sheet will do the selling for you if you let it. What I mean by that is: Don't try to sell right away. State that you're a product developer who has professional materials you'd like to send for review and ask if said employee is available to do so. It's really that simple. There's no need to explain more about yourself or your product to get a marketing manager to reply in the affirmative. The only messages that annoy me on LinkedIn are long demanding ones, and I know I'm not alone in that.
In fact, Diez believes not asking for permission first is the worst mistake you can make. I have to agree. Receiving lengthy messages from people I don't know is a major turnoff. Who are you? I have no idea, but you're already asking me to do something—for my time, in other words? That's shortsighted and disrespectful. I'm definitely not going to click on the link you provide, and neither will the potential licensees you reach out to.
3. Be appreciative. Note that Diez takes the time to sign his message with an expression of gratitude or well wishes. Small niceties do not go unnoticed, especially when you're asking someone for a favor out of the blue. His message is structured formally, which reflects his seriousness and denotes respect.
4. Keep the momentum going. If the marketing manager says sure, send me your sell sheet, do so using LinkedIn, Diez advises. If he gives you his email address, use that. Of course, before you reach out to anyone to discuss one of your designs, make sure to protect yourself to an extent you feel comfortable with.I recommend filing a provisional patent application first to test the market cheaply.
Many product developers are under the mistaken impression that a non-disclosure agreement is all they need to protect themselves. They aren't—NDAs have benefits, of course, which I wrote about. But there are also always caveats to be aware of. In any case, you'll throw a wrench into any momentum you get going if you ask your contact to sign a non-disclosure agreement right away, before he's even seen your sell sheet. From a strategic point of view, that doesn't make sense: You've just asked him to look at your sell sheet! A smarter time to ask for an NDA is after you get some initial interest, like when the manager gets back to you wanting to know more about your idea.
5. Steer your conversation towards a phone call as soon as possible. Giving away too much too soon at any point during the negotiation process is one of the biggest mistakes you can make attempting to license your ideas. So get off LinkedIn and proceed slowly. If the marketing manager wants to know more about your idea after receiving your sell sheet, ask to set up a call so you can get to know each other better. How interested are they? What can you learn about their business now that might be helpful later on during negotiations? Do they have any feedback for you at this time? And so on. Developing a relationship will be easier over the phone, and now you have a reason to talk to one another.
At the end of the day, my perspective is: Do whatever it takes to get in. Don't take no for an answer. Get creative, if need be! There are no right or wrong ways to get in. When used in concert, the strategies I've outlined thus far, which include cold calling, trade shows, and LinkedIn, are unbeatable.
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.