Five Things to Do If You Have a Great Idea

A reader I’ll call Mitch has an interesting question:

About a week ago, I was sort of daydreaming while watching television when all of a sudden I had a great idea. I really think this idea has a lot of potential to affect a lot of lives. I’ve been doing a ton of internet research over the last few days to see if anyone else has had a similar idea, but I’ve not found anything very close to it.

I’d like to be able to make some money from this idea, but I think more than anything I’d just like to see it executed. Do you have any suggestions about what to do?

Most people have a handful of great ideas floating around in their heads (yes, I really do believe that). Unfortunately, most of those ideas either wind up buried, forgotten, or abandoned simply because people don’t know what to do with those ideas, they forget about those ideas, or they harbor visions of grandeur that aren’t realistic, holding the idea as an “ace in the hole” or throwing excessive resources into the idea.

The first question you need to ask yourself – and this is a pretty hard question – is whether or not you truly expect direct compensation for this idea. Some people have the expectation that every good idea they have deserves direct compensation. Others are quite happy to give their ideas away. Still others are somewhere in the middle – willing to give away some of their ideas, but attempt to sell others.

I struggled with this for a long time. I used to believe deeply that I deserved compensation for every idea and creative work. I would write short stories and essays, carefully protect my copyright on them, and seek out only paid opportunities to share that work. I was very hesitant to share any good idea I had, only sharing the ones I was being directly paid for.

Eventually, I realized that this wasn’t the way I wanted to go. I eventually came around to the opposite perspective – I now try to share as many of my ideas as I can as widely as I can without much worry for copyright, and I merely hope to earn a little bit of money in parallel with it. That’s why I blog instead of trying to sell articles to publishing outfits.

The question of whether or not you should directly receive compensation for an idea isn’t an easy question for anyone, and you should spend the time to come up with your own conclusion on the question.

Regardless of what you decide, the next step you need to take is making sure that the idea doesn’t already exist. Googling is a nice first step, but you should also check the U.S. Patent Office if appropriate.

The reason for this is simple: you simply do not want to present an idea as being your own if it clearly has been presented by others.

The next step is fleshing out the idea to the best of your abilities. Spend some time adding appropriate details to your idea. How can it be done or made? Is it even possible? Why is it useful? What evidence do you have for this idea?

This will likely involve some time and at least some minimal research using tools like Wikipedia. Obviously, your amount of effort in this area depends on a lot of factors: your expertise in the field, your interest in digging into the topic, and your seriousness about attempting to earn money from the idea.

Regardless of what you intend to do with the idea, fleshing it out a bit is still quite helpful. For one, it can often reveal fundamental problems in your idea that might be exposed in an embarrassing fashion if you didn’t do the appropriate work. For another, additional work makes it much easier to present the idea when you decide to move forward with it.

Speaking of which, the next step is figuring out how to present your idea. Your idea may be one best expressed as an essay. You might want to create a full presentation for it as well.

No matter how you intend to present it, you’ll also want to come up with an elevator pitch for the idea. At some point, when you share your idea, you’re going to need to get someone’s attention quickly. How will you get someone’s attention in just a sentence or just a few seconds? Try to boil the attractive element of your idea down to thirty words or so. If you can do this, you’re much more likely to get good attention to your idea.

Once you’re ready, share your idea. If you’ve decided to effectively give the idea away without worrying about compensation, seek out the person with the largest audience that may be interested in the idea, as that will give it the broadest presentation. If you’ve decided to sell the idea, you may need some legal assistance in this endeavor, but you’ll eventually seek to contact a company or organization that can transform the idea into something that can earn a profit.

There are many services that proclaim to help out people who are trying to patent or create or sell an idea. If you’re going this route, I would start with legal help from a source I personally trusted. That individual will likely point you in the right direction towards reputable resources that can help you out.

In general, this is a framework you can follow with any idea you have, large or small. However, you should be aware that most ideas are quite worthy of sharing, but likely aren’t quite worthy of earning you some money by themselves.

Good luck!

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  1. Michael says:

    You didn’t put the work into this post to make it helpful.

  2. Ken says:

    Google has a cool beta app that you can use to search through existing patents:

    http://www.google.com/patents

    The official patent site that Trent linked to also has excellent search engines for determining if your idea is already out there, or if your idea is at least different enough to warrant a patent.

    Keep in mind that getting a patent will take at least three years, though in that time you can still work at marketing, etc. (The reason why see “Patent Pending” on a lot of products). You just have to make sure that your application for a patent is filed *before* you do things like try to sell it, or “putting it out in the global domain” by writing blog posts about it, etc. You can easily vacate your rights without meaning to.

    You should also be prepared to spend some money to get an idea patented – in today’s environment a “cheap” patent would be around $8,000, but most cost substantially more. This is due to the need to get a patent attorney to work with you, because the clerks that work at the patent office generally reject 99% of patents as a matter of course the first time they see them. Having a patent attorney who knows the process and how to work with the patent office is almost a necessity. A professional patent researcher can also be an excellent investment to ensure that what you are patenting isn’t already out there somewhere.

  3. Elisabeth says:

    I kind of agree with Michael in comment #1. Ken in comment #2 has more useful information than the post does.

  4. Jimbo says:

    Agree with commenters 1 and 3.

  5. DB Cooper says:

    See comments 1,3, and 4. Ditto. I first read the post, and was left with a feeling of, “Alright, and then?”

  6. Anne KD says:

    I have a patent; I was working for a company at the time when the idea hit me and it was work-related. I didn’t even bother to expect money from the idea because I knew I had to assign the patent to the company. It was simply a condition of employment which is extremely common in any technical/scientific field. I do, however, get bragging rights :D . I can’t emphasize it enough- WRITE DOWN THE IDEA in a notebook or something where the pages can’t be torn out. Sign your name and DATE THE PAGE. Otherwise, your idea never happened. Have somebody unrelated to you sign the page as a witness, and have them date their signature too. Just like Trent said, talk to someone who knows something about the idea’s general area of knowledge, for instance an engineer who knows what it takes to build the thing you’re thinking of, if it’s a buildable thing. That would help flesh out the idea, and help you decide whether or not the thing can be made. The company got hold of a patent lawyer with whom I had some entertaining discussions because he loved his job talking to enthusiastic people about their new ideas. I don’t know how much it cost. It was easy for me to find out whether someone already had the same kind of idea, I went looking for either specific keywords or specific company assignations on the US Patent Office site for both approved patents and patent applications. It took a bit over 3 years for my application approval. But the patent application was listed on the US Patent Office site. My idea never got off the ground in real life- management decided to take away the money for a prototype.

    My father and my husband often have cool ideas so for Christmas one year I gave them lab notebooks with their names embossed on the front cover. I found the notebooks by googling ‘laboratory notebooks’ if anyone is interested. The notebooks were inexpensive.

  7. Anne KD says:

    I forgot to mention that the patent attorney I spoke with was very nitpicky on details and also suggested other ideas which could possibly be a part of my idea’s thingamajig whosiwhatsis widget. He helped me flesh out the idea a little more in a different way than the engineer I was working with. The engineer figured out how to make my widget- and gave me a lot of detail, which was necessary for the patent application.

  8. Charlie Park says:

    @Michael – You didn’t put the work into that comment to make it helpful.

    Same goes for you, numbers 3–5.

    Here’s an alternate approach:

    “Trent – I appreciate your writing this up, but I’m still a little hazy on [insert area of this post that you're hazy on]. If I were to [insert condition that's unique to you, but still generally applicable by other readers of the comments], how would I [insert action step]? I checked out [insert resource that was of little help, but that shows you actually tried to do some original research on the matter], but it wasn’t a lot of help. Do you have any thoughts on this? Any resources that might be helpful?”

    Here’s a filled-in version of that:

    Trent – I appreciate your writing this up, but I’m still a little hazy on finding a good patent attorney. If I were to get my Big Idea to a spot where I wanted to put some legal protections in place, would you recommend finding general legal counsel? Or should I try to find someone who specializes in patent law? And what about doing it myself? I checked out the list of intellectual property lawyers at http://www.nolo.com (http://lawyers.nolo.com/intellectual_property/states.cfm), but I can’t tell if that’s a pay-to-play list (shady!) or a genuine list of vetted lawyers who would be good to help me. None of my friends know any IP lawyers. Do you have any thoughts about where I should look to find someone?

    —-

    Note: I’m not really in the market for an IP lawyer. I just wanted to give that as an example.

    Seriously, people. You can’t criticize Trent’s post — and, really? How rude is it to say he “didn’t put the work into this to make it helpful”? VERY. — when your own comment is all of thirteen words. Don’t just complain. Make the world (this blog, etc.) a better place, or please just keep quiet.

  9. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    Google also had that contest that awarded 10 million for a world changing idea. I think they mean that to be like venture capital and not a no-strings attached giveaway. Details here.

  10. Noah says:

    Yeah you guys are right. Mitch, you should definitely ask for a refund.

  11. Steve says:

    Thanks for all the helpful comments about how unhelpful the article was. Not! For 99% of us “how do I improve the world with this idea” does not mean “how do I patent this idea.”

  12. Elisabeth says:

    @Steve,

    Yes, but the write already said “I’d like to be able to make some money from this idea, but I think more than anything I’d just like to see it executed. Do you have any suggestions about what to do?”

    Trent’s advice basically amounted to “Decide whether you want to make money from it, or if you just want to see it executed, and then ask someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

    I don’t mean to offend or anything. I’m just leaving my opinion.

  13. Fred says:

    Ideas are half a dime for two dozens – million dollar ideas a dime a dozen!

    What matters is execution – you need to raise capital, sell, build a team… most people don’t have a clue.

  14. Teilo Berquier says:

    I have to agree with Fred. We help people get their ideas to market and the idea is usually only 5-10% of the real value. The greatest limiting factor is usually resources (cash, experience, talent & time) followed by personal discipline and commitment.

    In our limited experience (<10 patents) patents are expensive, hard work and rarely provide the basis for direct revenue.

    There are always exceptions to the common place, particularly in the innovation space.

  15. Patent searches are very hard. Consult an expert librarian or patent lawyer to help you.

  16. JP says:

    Fred is right. Ideas aren’t worth much… execution is everything. As a software engineer, I get people asking me all the time to help them implement their idea and they will cut me in a portion of the profits. Most people don’t have a clue. Chances are, someone else has the same idea you do.

    However, it is very cheap to start a business these days and network with others. I’m surprised that Trent didn’t mention much about modern networking tools… blogs, Twitter, etc.

    However, implementation, selling, and marketing are usually more important than the idea.

    -JP

  17. I went through some of this when I thought I had a brilliant idea for a phone application. But I didn’t want to tell anyone about it for fear of it getting stolen.

    I did the research to see what it would take to create it and realized it was too much work for very little payoff (if any). So I abandoned the project.

  18. Tordr says:

    Forget about patents. I work in IT and patents are a mine-field, everyone has a good idea that has been patented, but few has done anything more about the idea. So your best idea is just to work without thinking about patents. Trent started off with nothing, a website address and some blog software and he has built it into a great blog with a million pageviews each month. Did he think about patents or copyright everything, maximizing dollars from the beginning. No he started out writing to anyone who wanted to listen, and then he grew a business from there.

    1. Start with a great idea.

    2. Flesh out your idea. Give it form and a some substance. Write down some pages about the idea, do some work to see what you would do to get that idea from the draining-board to real life.

    3. Talk to other people about the idea, to see if they can see good things about your idea and maybe they can highlight problems that you have not seen. If you are afraid of getting ripped off from your idea, then either flesh it out more for yourself, or only talk to close and good friends. Note that others contributing to your idea is not always a bad thing, having two people interested in one idea is more than twice as effective as working alone on the idea. It is very helpful to discuss ideas with other people, and when one person gets stuck the other person can help get that person going again.

    4. Steadily expand your idea getting more people interested it in it. Do some preliminary thinking about how viable this project is in the long run. Is it something you should do or is the cost-benefit calculations wrong (although it might not be beneficial in monetary terms, you could maybe create something that you were proud to show future generations).

    5. Expand the idea into it takes on a life of it own (it is first at point 4 or 5 that you should think about patents, lawyers, etc.)

    Trent: I agree with the others that you could have worked harder on this idea. Please also put up a list of 1 to 5, of the steps to develop the idea. My list 1 to 5 was just a quick draft, but I would love to read an expanded list. You have so much experience, you went from one small idea and now you are living your dream of writing. Give the rest of us a list of how to develop our ideas.

  19. Dave says:

    Like Trent said, sometimes making money off your ideas is the wrong direction completely. You’ll have to decide that for yourself. I want to share something from Ramit’s blog that inspired me a while ago:

    “Make the right long-term decisions, not the ones that give you $10 and some gummi bears
    Next time you have some opportunity, STOP THINKING ABOUT HOW TO MAKE MONEY OFF IT IMMEDIATELY. PLEASE!!!!!!!!!”

    http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/on-greed-and-speed/

  20. Jenn says:

    I encounter people with ‘great ideas’ often. I too love dreaming up and plotting great ideas. Where great ideas die is not in the sharing and thus having it stolen. The great idea, if it’s truly great, dies because people in general will not take the risk to see it become reality.

    Entrepreneurship is scary. It is not for everyone, and frankly, it is a small number of the masses that will take an idea and make it see the true light of day. The commitment and risk holds people back, therefor the idea sits in their head (or in a FedEx envelop they sent themselves), until eventually someone DOES come along who is willing to act on it or something very similar, that they came up with.

    There are countless articles out there espousing the idea that really you should just share your idea. If it’s that great you’ll find help along the way. If it’s not, you’ll have at least acted and found out. The danger isn’t in the sharing, because so few people are willing to take the risk and put forth the true effort involved in bringing something from the idea stage to the reality stage.

    Go forth and share your ideas – I personally believe it will only help you in the long run.

  21. Jonny says:

    First off, if the idea isn’t worth at least 1 million dollars then a patent doesn’t make sense. Why? A patent ONLY gives you the right to sue someone, it does not prevent someone else from making your idea. It only makes sense to sue someone for royalties if you can recoup your money AND time that it takes for proper litigation, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Second, consider the open source concepts floating around these days. If your idea is truly exceptional (which is rare, but not impossible), then there are lots of businesses being built upon giving the idea away, but providing resources, support, and the product itself. Relatively few people want to steal your idea to make money themselves, but lots of them will buy your product either as a whole, or products to help them build a version of your product.

    You do have the right idea of performing research first. I have helped several businesses/individuals research their “million dollar idea” only to have major pitfalls come up or realize they had a big oversight. To me, this was excellent money and time spent on their part to prevent a big waste of $ later on. Often the inventor is blinded by their own brilliance and overlooks common sense…it’s just human nature!

    Just my 2 cents.

  22. I second the don’t bother with a patent until you have fully fleshed out your idea advice. I spent a stupid amount of money on patent attorney fees and in the end I fear it will have all been for nothing.

    My idea has evolved so much since I saw the PA that most of it is no longer relevant :(

  23. Hello, I started a company called IDEASTOX and it is a place to ‘out’ ideas (i.e. share them), collect feedback and basic data, and connect with others who may be able to help develop your idea. We also just launched what we call “Idea Stores” as a way of raising money through community. These issues of sharing vs. keeping private, patent or not, are all very complicated and can really be best answered by a very personalized cost-benefit analysis of your idea, your resources, your passion. For all of you who have an interest in this, please take a look at the site and let me know your thoughts. We are 6 months into Beta and committed to giving ordinary people a place and process to test their ideas and increase the chances that the good ones, as deemed by the community, can happen. Please send any comments to ideas@ideastox.com. And Trent, thanks for posting this… imagine our productivity and effectiveness if all the lost, burried, forgotten ideas actually had a home where they could be vetted and actualized – en masse – by interested citizen activists (people who want to play a greater role in re-defining consumers relationships with the products and services they are offered).

  24. Noah says:

    I cannot believe you whiners. Trent put some effort into what was a request for help. He didn’t have to, Mitch certainly did not pay him, and -any- assistance Mitch got from Trent’s work is pure windfall. Blog authors don’t write for their vocal minority. Be grateful The Simple Dollar exists at all.

  25. maylingkuo says:

    if you’re not concerned about compensation and just want to share, go here and post it:
    http://www.whynot.net/

    i heard barry speak a few years ago and he was great. honest tea is his idea that he actually executed.

  26. IRG says:

    I think this is a tough question to answer in any blog, let alone one that really isn’t focused on this. It’s a better question for a legal blog or a patent attorney or someone whose biz revolves around actually helping people take their ideas into the real world from idea to execution with the inherent protection that IS needed. (Sorry, everything in life was NOT meant to be free, on the Web!)

    I think the point of Trent’s comments was basically to help someone decide IF they should try to do it for profit or give it away (but even then could be expanded) and give some general comments.

    here’s the thing. This is a personal blog…and yet you all expect Trent to do the work of a fully researched article, the kind that publications (on and offline) have to pay people to write. (And you have to pay to buy the publication, in one form or another.)

    So perhaps Trent, the real issue is to just make it clearer that everything you bring up, you can’t go into detail on. Nor should you. And that sometimes, you’re just floating something out there.

    And FYI: Most people who have blogs? They either “subsidize” it by their daytime/other jobs or have some form of advertising, sponsorship, etc. (as you do) to have some of the costs covered.

    Personally, I would pay for some of the blogs I read. Others, not even worth my time. Trent, I’d pay for yours!

    And Trent, I don’t expect you to put the time and research into everything since you are NOT getting the funding to do all the work you do already.

    People, there’s only so much anyone can give away for free and Trent already, IMHO, gives away a lot.

  27. Rob says:

    Let’s get this straight: You cannot patent an idea. (You can’t copyright or trademark one, either.) Patents are for devices and gadgets, and sometimes for bio-engineered things. If you have an idea for a device, the patent protection is for the utility and design of the device, not the idea. If you have a idea for a business, that is not patentable (see Bilski).

    Other things that don’t qualify for intellectual property protection of any kind: chemical formulas, recipes, fashion designs.

    (the above applies to the US only)

  28. You are correct that an idea cannot be patented, however, the execution of an original idea can be. It just takes a great deal of attention, time and money. Again, go back to that cost/benefit analysis. Trademarking a slogan, or name is an option as well as copyrighting the visual representation of an idea. Here is a quick summary: http://www.ideastox.com/about/questions
    We offer both a time stamp as well as a copyright of your idea.

  29. Michael says:

    IRG, I disagree.

    1. Usually Trent’s articles are better — he is the one who has set the high standard. Everyone who commented expected more because often they get more. We know he likes criticism so it’s worth our time to comment.

    2. We should not lower our expectations because TSD is free. If something is free but not helpful, better to not read it, or write it.

  30. Jon says:

    The sad thing about US Patent at the USPTO and the age of information is the whole process is now geared to cheapen information. Patents are published while they are pending, Americans steal ideas and technology just as fast or faster than we think the Chinese do. China will buy a technology if they think that is the cheapest way to get know how but American and English corporations routinely spend more stealing than what it would cost to buy honestly. Due in large to the fact that NO CEO will be caught dead actually making any directional decision beyond what goes into his pocket. He will always pass the buck down until it reaches a level within the company that the engineers or managers have no discretionary power, so at first they learn, from the NEW INFORMATION and then they use it, it takes 30 days for them to rationalize STEALING and the idea moves up the ladder, and if they are lucky they get something for it or a pat on the head by the CEO who once he sees that IT MIGHT LAND MORE MONEY FOR HIM, then off it goes, and usually without the inventor. America is the worst country in the world to be an inventor in today, and if you look at the USPTO files you will see that foreign patents waltz in and pass while domestic patents are treated like income with the demand to turn the simplest idea into as many divisional patents to drive up the fee cost to in the end any excuse to deny, because many examiners for reasons that can be ethnocentric or just a corporate right wing view that Inventors make millions and cost corporations profits therefore inventions are good inventors are bad, so at best you will have to spend a lot more in the process than you should, by the time you are done the USPTO will have by way of google told the whole world what you are doing so while your filing and fighting they are stealing you blind, and if you don’t have the 35K mim to hire a lawyer to fight them then your screwed, After all the idea to publish patents while they were pending was THOUGHT UP by a retired USPTO employee and all the rest of the world loves it as it is FREE INFORMATION. So if you have a good idea and it costs more to make than 19 dollars then you better have a good marketing plan and you better have it up and running and keep it as secret as possible so that when you file, you at least have a equal start because within a few months…. You get the drift…. I is why we have become so inept as we lack a management culture that understands the distinction between knowledge, information, that is why we are in such a mess, no wisdom.
    Got a good idea? Unless your sure you can make it past the assholes, best to not waste your time.
    Kind of sad, but really true. If you still think it is worth the try, just keep in mind Americans will steal you blind, America is great but the dream is not what goes on 9 to 5 in corporate America and that is the daymare of reality.

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