Why You Should Give Your Best Ideas Away…for Free.

What do you do when you have an incredible product idea that you just know is something special? I say give it away.

That probably sounds funny because the old-school stereotype was that innovators should operate in stealth-mode until ready to release their invention full scale. That if you have a million dollar idea in the works you should communicate exclusively via non-disclosure agreements until you find a patent lawyer and get the legal system working for you. Once the patent is granted big companies will be begging you license it to them and the general public will practically smother you in cash to get your product. All you’ll have left to do is decide is weather to retire to the islands of Hawaii or the Caribbean.

Except that’s not how things work.

As funny as it sounds, being open with your idea is the best way to ensure its success. There are significant benefits to discussing your project freely and even to publishing your work with an open source license. Are you cooking up something good in your garage? Tell everyone! Here’s how sharing your ideas openly can work to your advantage.

Open-source-hardware-logo.svg

Open Source is great, but you don’t have to go all the way to reap the benefits of openly sharing your ideas.

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   *Sharing Gives You Feedback on the Idea.

The opportunity cost of being secretive is enormous. If you keep your project hidden up until release then be prepared to get stuck with a huge pile of inventory you can’t sell. Just because you thought something was great doesn’t mean your customers will.

People tend to overvalue their own ideas. But by sharing your idea with as many people as possible you can get an accurate picture of its value and generate more ideas for improvement.  Sharing openly will help you determine customer interest and bring to light potential liabilities and new uses for your project that you would never have considered.

This feedback is critical to validating the premise of your idea and its marketability. Ultimately: Will people even want this thing? The time to figure that out is before you invest heavily into the idea.

After you’ve determined that lots of people like your product idea it’s still too soon to get excited. Your work will have to get noticed first.

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*Sharing Gives You Free Attention.

It’s hard for people to contact you if they don’t know you exist. You can fight upstream and actively seek publicity, but if you are secretive with your ideas then you’re all on your own.

On the other hand if you go as far as sharing a prototype of your idea on a website like Instructables, it demands attention and like-minded interested folks will come looking for you. (If you go as far as publishing your idea as open source then people can help you work on it directly.)

Obscurity is a huge barrier to the success of any product. Sharing what you do openly will attract people that want to help you and potential customers.

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* Sharing Helps You Develop Early Branding & Community.

By sharing your work openly you can start developing a brand or a reputation much sooner than you would have otherwise.  If your work is good enough and lots of people hear about it then your brand will develop a following of people who trust in you and your products. If you decided to go full on open source then your community of followers will also do the mutually beneficial work of enhancing your product through continuous R&D and support.

Eventually, your little community of followers will become your early adopting customers. Treat them well by selling them quality products at fair prices and this community will stay loyal to you even if they can get similar products elsewhere.

Once people trust and associate your brand with a positive reputation, it will serve as a strong hedge against future competition. Speaking of which, you’re probably been wondering, ‘if I give my ideas away for free won’t some of these people rip me off?’

caveman and wheel invention

The invention of the first cliché.

   * Sharing Comes with Its Own Degree of Protection.

Someone else can always copy you, no matter what kind of protection you have. It’s best not to worry about patents & legal protection because they’re not worth the trouble to the individual inventor. Besides, if your idea is truly original then publishing it online will put it in the public domain and prevent anyone from patenting it in the future.

A patent does not automatically mean that people will pay you for your invention. It does allow you to sue violators, but that’s not as great as it sounds either. Imagine trying to enforce your patent against knockoff from China. Nope. Little guys like you and me should steer clear of lawyers and the legal system. The only possible outcome of interacting with a lawyer is that you lose. (The only person who wins is the guy who bills by the minute). Let the big company’s duke it out over legal rights, you’re too busy making awesome products anyway.

Getting a patent is costly in terms of time, money, and effort. If you’re capable of coming up with great ideas, then recognize that’s there is more value in being able to create new ideas than in protecting old ones. Your noggin is your biggest asset and your limited resources are best put to use developing the next big idea rather than hoarding an existing one, hoping that it will turn out to be a winning lottery ticket. It won’t.

Even if you succeed in getting a patent, the record of it will be public. If someone really wants to rip you off, they could probably reverse engineer it from your patent documents (or by buying your product) and replicate it anyway. Here’s the key, if you’re already cornering the market with a good product, strong brand, and a fair price then they have little incentive to compete with you.

Here’s a rule of thumb: The more special and “patentable” someone thinks their idea is and the more secretive they act about it, the more useless it actually is. If you make me sign an NDA before discussing your idea, I automatically know it sucks. I like the way Paul Graham said it, “The market price of an idea is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA.”

we got dodgeson here

Sign an NDA? Hey Everybody, we’ve got Einstein over here! … (See, nobody cares.)

Even the best idea possible is worth very little when poorly executed, what really makes you special is how you put your idea into action.  You will have a degree of protection from competition due to the fact that good execution is extremely difficult. Turning an idea into a tangible product or service and then selling it on a large scale at a competitive rate while still making a profit is harder than it sounds. There is a negligible chance that anyone you disclose your idea to will have the skills, time, energy, money, and the interest to take full advantage of it and compete with you. Particularly if you have a head start already.

And that’s where I’m at.

About a year ago I ran into an electrical safety problem but no one was selling any solutions, so I made one myself. The prototype is really simple, but it works and it makes me feel safe! I’ve been sitting on this project for a while and I haven’t been sure what to do with it until now. My advice would be meaningless if I didn’t practice what I preach.

So next week I will be releasing an instructables project that has the potential to save lives. I’m just going to let it go, for free!

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