And how not to reveal your innermost business secrets
It’s what you know, not who you are
Intellectual Property, frequently abbreviated to ‘IP’, is the stuff you know. It’s your tacit understanding of the way only you know how to do something. It’s your ideas, your unique creativity, and it’s what separates you from everyone else, especially in business.
Wikipedia’s definition of Intellectual Property is:
“…a category of property that includes intangible creations of the human intellect…”. And continues, “The most well-known types [of Intellectual Property] are copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets.”
Whilst Oxford University describes Intellectual Property more simply as:
“…ideas, information and knowledge.”
The latter feels much more like something we can all relate to.
Everyone has Intellectual Property
We think of only the famous names in invention or creativity as those who can rightfully lay claim to having ‘Intellectual Property’ because they are the geniuses whose intellect changed the very world around us.
I’ve no doubt you will recognise some or all of the following people: Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Marie Curie, Alexander Fleming, Grace Hopper (that’ll get you guessing) and Tim Berners-Lee.
In global terms, their inventions have made the most significant impact on human lives in the past 140 years.
They’re famous mainly because their inventions or creativity affected the greatest number of people over the longest period of time. They literally changed the world in which we live.
However, inventiveness or creativity that makes a positive impact on even a small group of people is as vital as any in terms of their relevance to Intellectual Property. For example, most people have experienced a so-called ‘light bulb moment’ where an idea pops into their head about a new or different way of doing something that could make a positive impact on their life (or the lives of others).
You may have found a creative way to modify something that keeps breaking, or perhaps combining two devices into one (maybe cable-tying a strimmer to a lawnmower so you can trim the edges while you mow the lawn!).
Or, perhaps you want to invent something entirely original. Whatever it is, very few people set out to make money from their invention, despite the ubiquitous and well-meaning friend or family member who will always be on hand to enthuse over the wealth-generating, life-changing properties your invention has.
Even if the idea has commercial potential, it may never see the light of day as a marketable product. Regardless of whether it does, the original idea (not the end product) is where the Intellectual Property lies — and that Intellectual Property will always belong to you. Well, sort of. You can license or even sell your IP, but it technically belongs to you because it came from you, even if you pass-on the right to protect it and earn from it.
Protecting your IP
The context of this article is primarily how Intellectual Property relates to business. There are many other circumstances in which IP exists, but which may not be vulnerable to commercial exploitation, and it’s that which can be of greatest concern.
Typically, business owners are incredibly protective over their IP, particularly where it is the basis of the business they created because of it. If you’re a greengrocer, it’s highly unlikely that your IP will have had any bearing on you starting a business to sell fruit and vegetables. However, if you’re a business development consultant, whose insight, acumen and vision are key to building a business around advising clients on the growth of their business, then yes, IP exists, and you’d be right to be protective over it. The trick is in understanding what’s good to give away and what’s good to keep under wraps.
The idea doesn’t have to be completely original
Business owners are typically creative thinkers. From office cleaners to airlines to car manufacturers to cordwainers (shoemakers to you and me), there may be striking similarities with competitor products and services, but each business owner will have found a way to do what they do in a unique way. It’s the creativity of the owner/s and nuances they identify which create opportunity. These differences can sometimes change the world.
Imagine this: you’re only reading this article because, whilst working at CERN, the physics laboratory in Switzerland, Tim Berners-Lee had a vision. He identified an opportunity to develop a system that would piggy-back an existing network of connected computers to enable information to be shared electronically. Originally an internal project, this rapidly expanded to become, what we now know as, the worldwide web.
James Dyson invented the ‘Ballbarrow’ in 1974. He took an existing product: the wheelbarrow, and identified the apparent weakness of its single, thin wheel that made the wheelbarrow challenging to manoeuvre and sink into soft ground. He replaced the wheel with a ball and turned an existing, everyday item into a new and successful product.
Dyson later followed a similar path with the vacuum cleaner. He identifying its apparent weakness of the dust collection bag becoming clogged and invented the world’s first bag-less vacuum cleaner as the solution.
He’s a smart guy our My Dyson, but he didn’t create something from nothing, in the way Thomas Edison invented the light bulb — something which genuinely didn’t exist previously.
Ok, for the pedantic readers; whilst Edison was credited with inventing the light bulb, he didn’t necessarily invent it first. Several other creative types were said to be working on similar projects, potentially contributing to the concept around the same time. Thomas Edison was, however, smart enough to patent his idea first.
Instead, James Dyson’s inventions typically came from his observation and frustration of products that existed but were poorly designed, yet fully accepted by the masses. He always saw products that could, in his opinion, benefit from significant improvements in design and functionality. The Dyson empire generates revenue of £3billion — £4billion per year from a range of products, all of which have received the Dyson pondering/creativity treatment, so it’s not a bad route to take.
Giving away your IP (whilst retaining ownership)
Why would you want to give this magical Intellectual Property stuff away if there’s a chance your ideas could, potentially, have a positive global impact, and/or transform your financial position to-boot? Surely, somebody will simply steal it and start a business that competes directly with you?
Well, not exactly. It’s important to understand what’s meant by ‘giving away’, in the context of Intellectual Property.
This is not about revealing the innermost secrets of an invention that has changed the world and/or has already turned someone into a zillionaire. We’re talking about the unique thought processes and ideas that were the motivation behind you starting the business.
It doesn’t matter if your business is making cakes or writing share-dealing software for financial institutions, you will still have your individual thought processes, ideas, inventiveness, and creative solutions based on your experience and expertise in the best way to do something.
If your business is valeting cars, then giving away your Intellectual Property might be telling people about your secret formula and technique for removing baked-on bird poo from a car’s bodywork to restore the original colour and shine.
If your business is wedding cakes, giving away your IP could be you explaining how you create glossy icing by going through specific steps a unique process.
If you’re a financial business consultant, giving away your IP might be you showing how your interpretation of the tax and investment laws means securing the best returns in a particular set of circumstances.
It doesn’t really matter what it is, it’s just all the stuff only you know: your insight and understanding that makes your business unique.
There is no risk
Giving away this information does not expose your business to being copied or ripped-off by a competitor. It actually has the reverse effect, as it demonstrates the level of your knowledge, expertise, and uniqueness, and so quickly helps people see you as the expert.
However, there is a fundamental rule that you should observe: there’s a fine line between being seen as unique, and revealing actual secrets. The golden rule is both crucial and very simple: you always tell people WHAT to do, not HOW to do it (or what you do, not how you do it).
Imagine one of the most secret recipes in the world: that of Heinz tomato sauce. They make no secret of what’s in their tomato sauce. They print the ingredients on the label because it’s a legal requirement to do so.
However, the specific type of ingredients, their combination, and volumes, along with the processes involved to make Heinz tomato sauce what it is, are among the world’s most closely guarded secrets. Letting that information out of the bag would probably cause the company to collapse eventually, and that’s precisely why IP is protected by law. In fact, there’s an entire sector of law dedicated to protecting IP alone because it can be so valuable and so incredibly complex.
Giving away [some of] your IP feels like putting your head above the parapet and waiting to be shot at. It’s what makes you stand out from the crowd when everyone else is too scared to give away anything at all for fear of someone stealing what makes their business unique. Giving away selected aspects of your IP will definitely expose you, but in a good way. Others might wonder why you’re putting yourself in such a vulnerable position when, in reality, you are generating respect, confidence, and influence.
The rules for giving away your Intellectual property are really very simple:
- Start by understanding and fully accepting that it’s really good to give away some, not all, of your IP.
Carefully select what you can give away that others, including (yes, including) your competitors, will see great value in. There’s no point giving away valueless IP as people will see straight through that as fake information or click-bait. Just keep in mind the Heinz tomato sauce ingredients versus the recipe to create it.
- Understand that you can give away what you do but not how you do it.
Read that again. It’s vitally important to understand the difference and figure out how to implement it.
- Give it away, paying particular attention to the word ‘give’.
This means asking for and receiving nothing in return. Don’t give with one hand and take with the other. Just give. It will surprise some people and they will feel they are gaining something of great value from you.
- Do not use the act of giving IP away as a vehicle to sell your services.
It’s widespread practice for businesses to solicit engagement with freebie downloads, such as “Here’s my FREE top-ten tips for how to get the very best from your online print service“. That’s them giving away some of their IP, even if they ask for your email address in return so they can contact you later - you still get something for nothing. However, if they also include; “…and, if you need help with your stationery, I run a graphic design service…“. That’s them being unable to resist the temptation to sell, sell, sell now when that can come all in good time. This practice is not what giving IP away is about. By giving away your IP, you will become known for what you do best. It’s a longer-term process and is the start-point of your sales pipeline, which naturally and inevitably leads to more business.
Take some time to think long and hard about what makes you and your business unique.
What is the essence of the service or product you provide that makes your business different?
Think about why your customers buy from you (you may find this article makes an interesting read: Are you selling what your customers are buying?). Think about what you are known for. What is it you do, or what knowledge do you have that nobody else can replicate, either at all or in the same way that you do it?
Finding answers to these questions will require you to dig-in and think hard about your uniqueness and the essence of your business, as these are questions not often even considered by business owners. However, once you crack how and why your offering is so unique, you’ll understand what your IP is.
Once you’re clear on what’s unique about your business, think about a way that works for you to share certain aspects of it: the elements you might otherwise consider being your secrets. You may choose to write about them in a blog or on social media. You may choose to share them verbally or visually at your local networking meeting, or perhaps only ever face-to-face with individual clients. Whatever works for you is absolutely fine.
Remember, you can talk freely about your uniqueness and what makes you different, as long as you also remember to talk only about the ingredients, not the recipe.