Every inventor knows that it’s a mistake to go around bragging about your idea to everyone who will listen. Careless mistakes should obviously be avoided. However, there is another kind of inventor who commits just the opposite mistake, and suffers the same failure. That mistake is paranoia. It is an irrational, unfounded fear of everyone in his field that causes the inventor to clam up and wall everyone off. An excellent article called “Inventor Paranoia” profiles the problem as such:
Many beginning inventors are obsessed with secrecy. They’re convinced their latest invention is their “best” — and that anyone who hears of it will certainly “steal” it. They then become so obsessed with “protecting” their invention as to virtually guarantee that they’ll never see a dime from it.
Hey, guys, you can’t “protect” an invention. You can seek to acquire certain intellectual property rights in the invention. e.g., with a patent. And if your solution to the problem is truly superior, and if it’s commercially viable, and if the rights you acquire are sufficiently “strong”, i.e., your intellectual property covers ALL economical ways of providing the intended user benefit — you MAY be able to sell or license those rights.
However, even if you do everything ‘right’ — by the book — there’s no guarantee you won’t get ripped off. If someone chooses to copy your invention — without acknowledging your rights — all you can do is sue them. And a typical infringement suit starts in the range of a quarter million dollars.
If this is the case, why are there any paranoid inventors? And what is so disastrous about being a paranoid inventor? To answer those questions, we must first understand what drives this paranoia in the first place.
Nine times out of ten, an overly paranoid inventor places an enormous value on “ideas.” Not even just on his particular idea, but on ideas as such. In his or her mind, the quality of an idea is the sole determinant of whether an invention succeeds or fails. Consequently, inventors who believe this are extremely overprotective of any ideas they might have. They view the entire professional community as potential adversaries who, if they happened to discover the idea, would immediately drop what they were doing to pursue it. While this can indeed happen, it is far from likely. The truth is that ideas in and of themselves are not nearly as important as execution and the personnel behind them. However, many naïve inventors continue to think that ideas are sacred assets to be jealously guarded against intruders.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham clears up this misbegotten notion in his article “Ideas for Startups”
“They overvalue ideas. They think creating a startup is just a matter of implementing some fabulous initial idea. And since a successful startup is worth millions of dollars, a good idea is therefore a million dollar idea.
If coming up with an idea for a startup equals coming up with a million dollar idea, then of course it’s going to seem hard. Too hard to bother trying. Our instincts tell us something so valuable would not be just lying around for anyone to discover.
Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here’s an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there’s no market for startup ideas suggests there’s no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.”
Invention ideas are somewhat different than ideas for startups, but the basic truth holds. If you never network with anyone or get your plans off the ground for fear of “your idea” being stolen, you are damning yourself to failure. You will turn away valuable networking opportunities. You will make it impossible to find the technical talent you need to create the invention. You might even turn down funding or buyout offers that would get your product to market faster or let you capitalize on all of your hard efforts. Clearly, this is not a smart or rational approach to inventing. So what is the solution?
The key is to abandon the fetish with protecting your idea. Instead, take reasonable steps to protect yourself and trust that you are smart and competent enough to get it to market. You cannot hire a database programmer, for example, if your refuse to tell him what his job is or what he’s doing. Therefore, you should have him sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement stating that anything you tell him is legally confidential. This gives you recourse against him if he spills your secrets, and more importantly, it gets you started in the invention process rather than stuck in analysis paralysis about what happens if someone steals your idea.
Risk is a part of invention because it is a part of life. The best you can do is take responsible actions to guard against worst-case scenarios and focus on getting to market as quickly as possible. Do not let paranoia prevent you from taking bold steps to succeed.
Eric Corl is the Founder and CEO of IdeaBuyer.com, the online marketplace for intellectual property that gives inventors the opportunity to showcase their intellectual property to consumer product companies, entrepreneurs, retailers, and manufacturers. You can email him at EricCorl@IdeaBuyer.com.