Help me sell my idea
November 15, 2006 3:19 PM   Subscribe

How could I go about selling an idea to a corporation?

If I have an idea that could make/save a corporation a substantial amount of money, how do I go about selling them the idea? It is not an idea that I could use to start my own company, but rather a suggestion for an established company. My main concern is the fact that if they don't know what the idea is, they obviously won't commit to buying it from me, but once I tell them what the idea is, they have no incentive to pay me. It isn't something I could patent, more of a procedural/service improvement. How do I a) protect my idea from being stolen? b) contact the company to make my suggestion? and c) negotiate a price for my idea?
posted by SBMike to Work & Money (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Talk to a lawyer.
posted by box at 3:32 PM on November 15, 2006

This is impossible and comes up all the time. DIY, or come up with a more tangible creation. a) You can't unless the law protects it, and you say it does not (not patentable, but check with a patent lawyer as box said); b) Can't really, companies don't take this type of unsolicited stuff often; c) Can't negotiate over an idea unless you reveal it.

If this idea is actually useful: After you confirm that it's unpatentable, you should put it up for scrutiny on the internet and hope that anyone adopts it. Then you can hope for a tiny bit of fame or stick it on your resume.
posted by aye at 3:49 PM on November 15, 2006

You need a patent. Be aware that a lot of things are patentable- "One Click" is a procedural improvement.

Also be aware that patents are very expensive and time consuming. There's a reason you don't hear stories of people becoming rich this way.
posted by mkultra at 4:11 PM on November 15, 2006

A lot of companies won't talk to people like you at all. It isn't worth the headache.

For one thing, independent inventors often are wrong about how valuable and important their invention is, not to mention how original it is. If the company talks to that inventor, learns about their idea, and concludes that it's trash (which is usually the case) then there's an unacceptable chance that if they ever do anything remotely similar in future that outside inventor will sue.

As stated above, that's why you need a patent. It protects you, but it also protects those you try to deal with. The patent must contain a description of how to implement the invention sufficient to allow someone skilled in the art to duplicate it. And since patent law is reasonably well understood, a company can look at a patent, decide whether it's worth licensing, and if not is also able to protect themselves against infringement actions in future (for instance, through careful record keeping).

Even more important, if your idea is totally worthless, the patent people will tell you, relieving the company of that unpleasant task.

What most people who are not in business don't understand is that ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. That's why Edison said that successful invention is 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration. What he didn't say was that 999 out of 1000 ideas are worthless.

[On a related note, a lot of publishers won't look at unsolicited manuscripts. The vast majority of unsolicited manuscripts are crap, but if the publisher does look at them, then if they ever publish a successful book which in any way even remotely resembles one of those manuscripts, they're probably going to face a lawsuit for plagiarism. The risks don't balance the rewards; it's better not to take the chance. So they return all such manuscripts unread.]
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:37 PM on November 15, 2006

Yeah, there isn't really much you can do. Probably your best bet is to set up a consulting company that helps corporations implement "Your Plan".

In many cases, there isn't much you can do to stop people from stealing your idea and implementing it, but if you're at that stage, you've probably already got a lot of momentum going, and people will be calling you for your consulting services.
Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats.

Howard Aiken
US computer scientist (1900 - 1973)
posted by fcain at 5:44 PM on November 15, 2006

I think the only way your are going to make money at something like this is if you become a corporate consultant who can train and implement your idea in their companies for a fee.
posted by sophist at 2:38 AM on November 16, 2006

(On preview, some of this is moot.)

If you come up with ideas like this a lot, and you like the company in question, you could put together a portfolio and pitch it to them: "I came up with these ideas for fun. You can have them. If you think they're valuable, we can talk about setting up a retainer, where I'll innovate for you, around your business objectives."

It's a very very very long shot, but something might come from it. I wouldn't count on it, but you can always try.

Also, for what it's worth, there are consulting companies that do "professional brainstorming" for companies. Play is one of them (I used to work there).
posted by Alt F4 at 4:57 AM on November 16, 2006

I address the mechanics.

1. If it's is a technical idea, like an invention, you'd do well to file a provisional aptent application - talk to a patent lawyer, but this will cost about $3000. You can do it yourself, but don't try to file a full patent yourself because you will screw it up. Talk to a lawyer.

1.1 Services and Procedures/ Business Methods can be patented. Ignore the slashdot hype. If you have a method of doing business or conducting business, you can patent it. A business method patent is just as valid as a mechanical or electrical patent. A patent is a patent.

2. Assuming you already have an invitation to pitch the idea to them, get them to sign (A) a non-disclosure agreement and (b) a non-compete agreement. (A) ensures they won't tell anyone else about it, and (b) ensure they won't themselves do it. For these things you need a lawyer.

3. If you do not have an invitation, then you need to have an in - you need to meet someone on the sales force who thinks customers would like to guy your service or idea, or you need an insider to suggest internally that this could save money. If you don't have an in, you could send a vague letter saying you have some technology that they may infringe in the future but that you'd love to dicuss licensing it to them on very reasonable terms so how about a telephone call to discuss it? This is the typical way things start to happen, but you need the patent on file first.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:36 AM on November 16, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses. I pretty much figured it was a long shot, but thought it was worth looking into. My main problem is that my idea isn't really an original one. Other companies run similar services, but not the company I have in mind, and my idea is more that they implement an established business practice rather than innovating a new practice. That is why my idea is not patentable.

Given this, I'm guessing my only way to make any money on this idea would be to seek employment with the company and then suggest the idea internally, which I don't think is going to happen. Oh well, I'll probably just suggest it to the company and forego compensation. Maybe I can at least get a gift certificate or a thank you note or something.
posted by SBMike at 9:44 AM on November 16, 2006

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