This is the third blog in the series about intellectual property, “The First Questions to ask yourself when you have that big idea” (Read Part 1Part 2, and Part 4)


What do people want? Get to know your market, customers and competitors early

Sounds like it’s obvious doesn’t it – what do your future customers actually want. But if you are starting with a solution or a technology and pushing it towards a problem it is possible (and not uncommon) for people not to check with the potential users and customers of what would work best for them.

Similarly if you have noticed a problem and have developed a solution to that problem it is possible that you develop your solution in an echo chamber where your solution goes unchallenged as the obvious answer, when it may not be.

In both scenarios, and in fact most new ventures, it is never a bad idea to go and talk to the people that might want your product or service. You can’t develop a good commercial idea in a vacuum, and getting in touch with customers is a good way to refine and shape your idea, and give you the most likely to succeed. There are a few ways to go about getting customer input: surveys, focus groups, even conversations in the pub

Finding the right people – However asking people isn’t as straightforward as it might first seem.

  • First the views have to be representative and of typical potential customers – not just your mates, or those predisposed to you and your idea
  • Second you have to be careful not to give away your idea to a potential competitor, or invalidate any claims you might have on intellectual property rights.  The golden rule of intellectual property rights and particularly patents is to protect your idea before you broadcast it – seek professional advice early!

Keeping the secret secret – To avoid the giving away your idea, especially when the idea is just developing you need to think carefully about your idea and how to discuss it:

  • What is the secret bit? What is the magic “black box” that will give you the edge and the competitive advantage?
  • How can you talk about what that “black box” can do, without talking about what’s in the box?….. and so not giving away your secret
  • Different audiences may be able to guess what’s in the box with different descriptions of what the box can do (e.g. an engineer might be able to make an educated guessed about your secret engineering solution than someone in marketing)

With each bit of “market research” talking to your potential customers you need to think carefully about how you keep the secret bits secret whilst still explain what the proposition is.

For extra protection, and especially if your customer is another organisation, and not a man on the street, you could seek to put in place a confidentiality agreement (CDA) (or non-disclosure agreement NDA) which outlines in a legal form that the conversation you are having is a confidential and private one and the information discussed is not to be disseminated or used by the people you are talking to. The note of caution is even with a CDA or NDA in place is what would you do if the other party disregards the agreement: can you do anything about it once the cat (your idea) is out of the bag? That might mean that may end up also resort to talking about what your black box can do, and not how it can do it

Who are the competition? – Another way of finding out what the market wants is to find out what is in the market…. Or what has been protected already. Whilst this isn’t directly exploring your idea, it can yield useful insights about what currently appeals to customers (and what the frustrations are) or what is out there and protected that might prevent you from having the freedom to operate if you are blocked by that patent.

Get quality Advice – When it comes to working out what you can protect with intellectual property rights and what others existing protected rights means for you it is best, in the long run, to seek professional advice from those who have spent years understanding those issues. But the best way to get value from the advice is by being informed enough to ask intelligent questions of your advisers often by trying to understand the rudimentary steps of the patenting process.

If done right this kind of desk research into competitors and careful quizzing of potential customers will help you develop your value proposition – a simple statement of what your idea is, and how it is different to what already services the need you are proposing to meet.

Dr Stuart Wilkinson is the Head of the Knowledge Exchange and Impact Team (KEIT) in Research Services, at the University of Oxford.  He is a technology & knowledge transfer professional, experienced in working with world class researchers to take new ideas and innovations into a commercial setting; and in developing strategic partnerships and collaborations to enable innovation to have a greater impact.

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