Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts that we plan to do called The Business of Starting (TBOS). In each post we’ll get advice from an industry expert on things you need to consider when planning on developing a business out of your startup.
This edition is a guest post by Michael Bates – owner of 1Place Patent Attorneys + Solicitors. Michael has years of experience working with technology companies – helping to guide them through the patent process – you can read more about that experience here
While Michael’s focus is on helping startups identify whether or not they should, or can, patent their technology, his 9 simple questions also allow startups to re-examine their business plans. So whether or not you’re interested in the patentability of your work this post should be of great use.
So let’s test your startup proposition by stepping through what you need to put a patent into place first. This is a comparatively low cost approach which helps you to identify the detail and iron out some of the hurdles to getting your offering to market.
An added bonus is that a patent may allow you to outsource costs while building profits through licensing your inventive offering to those that have the expertise e.g. for manufacture and distribution.
What’s your offering?
1. Does your startup offering (whether a product or a service) solve a problem or address a need?
Don’t let it be something you have to rationalise with proposed market trends when you explain it – you may have a solution but don’t justify its veracity with puff!
Your offering should have:
- a clear purpose (e.g. to automate a manual process);
- a vision for how to achieve that purpose (e.g. a breakdown of the steps required to automate and a timeframe for achieving each step, or the components required to perform the automation);
- the field in which your offering is useful – who would want your offering; and
- why others have failed in coming up with a suitable solution to the problem or need that you have identified.
If you can’t articulate the above, you’re done before you begin.
Drilling down into the detail
2. Can you describe your offering?
If you can’t describe your offering from your own understanding of it, then sadly it is still a mere idea, not a product or service offering. Drilling into the detail required for a patent application is useful for developing the detail of your offering for the market.
- Are you a person skilled in the art? Have you invented in your own area of expertise? Do you have and understand the detail needed to get a product that embodies your offering onto the market?
- If you can’t describe the detail then will you be able to follow it through to launch it into market? This is also a test on whether you can do it on your own or what other skills you need. Test yourself before you test the market with your offering!
To get a patent, you have to describe your invention in detail – including how to perform the invention in sufficient detail so that any person in the same technical field can work the invention.
3. How will your offering come together?
Having identified at a high level what your offering IS (e.g. a way to automate a manual process), you then need to think: how will it come together? What are the components or bits that need to work together to deliver the benefit that you have described? In patent terms, this is referred to as the “embodiments” of an invention.
Does your offering include a number of embodiments and arrangements? In other words, are there a number of different ways to achieve the offering you have come up with? What is the overlap between those ways – i.e. what is absolutely essential to all of the ways you have come up with for delivering your offering? Do those essential bits have to take place or work together in a certain order, or can they be arranged in various ways to achieve the same effect?
What is your target market?
Can you describe your offering so you can change direction with agility? Markets change, in some fields very quickly. Thinking through the embodiments and arrangements of your invention early on also enables you to manage quick changes in direction as the need arises.
4. Can the market understand your offering?
From a usability stand point, your patent needs to describe your offering sufficiently so that the target audience can get your offering quickly and easily from your description.
5. How different and inventive is your offering from the competition?
Have you covered off your offering in the simplest possible way so your competition cannot further simplify it and make it sticky to the market?
Think whether competitors could try to copy your inventive offering but remove some of the features that you have put into place. To can help you test the potential strength of your startup and patent position.
What’s the competitive landscape?
6. Why have others failed?
Identifying the “prior art” that exists in the same technical field as your invention is a part of the process when trying to apply for a patent. Understanding the relevant “prior art” (what else is out there that offers a similar advantage/feature, what advantages and disadvantages does the prior art have) helps your startup to identify the competitive advantage of its offering to the marketplace.
Whose toes are you treading on?
This also raises the important question of: do you have the freedom to operate in the market? This goes to infringement risk and is unfortunately often forgotten in the excitement of getting a new offering to market.
7. What are the obstacles that the competition has in place?
Are you treading on somebody else’s offering to the market (i.e. their kernel) & do you need to acknowledge this? Test this on paper with a patent as a means to flush out your SWOT before you launch your offering on the market.
The value proposition
From here you can build your “value proposition” – why people would want your startup’s offering.
8. Do you have a “value proposition”?
A common misconception among individuals who come to us with “the next big thing – I just need to patent it and sell it for millions” is a lack of detail. Having gone through the process of preparing a patent application (whether or not you take the step of applying for a patent), helps you to identify your offering’s value proposition.
Thus understanding the patent process is a useful business tool. Identifying competitive advantage and value proposition is a key part of any business and marketing strategy. However, using patents as a methodology for helping startups to identify their offering’s competitive advantage is quite unusual. We think more businesses would benefit from this rigorous and technical approach to the detail.
Value = exit
If your offering has teeth, can you exit with cash in your pocket? A patent enables succession – you can get the cash and make the dash…to your next startup.
9. What is your exit plan?
A patent lives for 20 years and so it encourages you to see an end. Companies often forget the necessity to continuously innovate…and to reap the benefits from exiting one innovation and moving to the next.
One of the big reasons for not getting a patent that we often hear from startups is “we haven’t got the cash”. But the initial step of describing your offering sufficiently for a patent is relatively cheap.
One indicator we use is: if a startup won’t even consider investing “skin” of its own at the early stages, by investing in describing the fundamental detail of its offering to secure protection of the entire basis for its business, then why should it expect the market (or a VC) to do so? A patent gives comfort to an investor, if nothing else.
Modelling your offering to the market via a patent is a means to create revenue and to test your offering before:
- mortgaging your house;
- pimping your offering to VCs; or
- burning your, or your family + friends, cash.
Remember, you are the one taking the risk. Putting a patent into place can stop others from stepping on you. It is also a means to model the offering and its positioning in the market without first risking the house.
Test your startup proposition by stepping through the detail needed to put a patent into place. Consider investing in your key startup asset by putting patent protection into place (preferably 1Place :) before you launch.