Bi-polar IP Strategy for Startups: Protect What You Can, then Tell Everyone


If you’re starting a company, you may wish to begin in stealth mode, keeping your business idea and plans secret for a little while. During this stealth phase, consider doing the following to protect your intellectual property:

  1. Think of a name for the company. Do a trademark search before you form a company. If it’s clean, form your company with that name and file a federal trademark application at the USPTO. Also file a state trademark application in your state.
  2. If you think you’ve invented something that’s never been done before, file a provisional patent on your inventions.
  3. Make everyone sign an NDA if they’re seeing your source code or learning your bona fine trade secrets (methods, or tricks, or other information that truly gives you a competitive advantage because you know it and no one else does).
  4. Make sure everyone — including you — who has contributed to your company’s inventions, know-how, brands, works of authorship, and confidential information signs an agreement transferring ownership to the company.

    THEN…

  5. Get the hell out of stealth mode! Go tell the world. Go public. Go social. Go everywhere. Tell everyone what you’re up to and invite their honest feedback. Crowdsource criticism.

It is true that only the paranoid survive. It is also true that the best way to keep something a secret is not to tell anyone else. No doubt about that.

But if secrecy of the business concept is your company’s only competitive advantage, then your business probably isn’t worth pursuing. If it’s a good idea, others will hit on it — in fact they probably already have — so your secrecy strategy is likely to be next to useless.

In the vast majority of cases, you can’t pitch investors while keeping the business idea a secret. Except in very rare situations, you can’t launch in stealth mode. On the other hand, an authentic revelation of your business idea to the public combined with a willingness to integrate their response into your plans, almost never fails to dramatically increase the value of your ideas.

So protect the IP you’ve got to protect, then give up the basic business concept and let the world help you make it better.

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