Patents and Ideas

I have my name on a very large number of patents across multiple nations. I have built from scratch projects, products, teams, and services. So naturally, often I get texts like:

Hey Mario...

"Hey, I have a startup idea that I want run through you" or "How do I patent something in the cheapest way possible" and more rarely "I am looking for an investor in my idea. Want to hear about it?"

Let's start with the last one. I am an angel investor in a few ventures. Usually, I invest between 25K to 100K. It largely depends on how crowded the space is and the risk level based on what has already been done. Typically on 100 "things" I hear about, 10 finally go through informal due diligence, and 1 or 2 ends up in a formal due diligence process. And the survival rate of those 1 or 2 depends on what is discovered that the founders didn't know.

In those things, it is paramount the most key quote of every startup-er: you don't know what you don't know. My hyper scrutiny, since I have built many businesses, usually is such that people stop asking because they know that they shouldn't ask unless they feel really ready. Most of the time people have "an idea" more than something already is done. Ideas are worth nothing because the real complexity is to convert anything into success. Like an ultra validating proof of concept. And that is not a patent or, even worse, a PowerPoint with fancy pictures and questionable statements :-).

If you are seeking my advice and network access (Board position) or my sweat-ly earned benjamins, the first step to take is not asking for those and for free. Otherwise, you get what you pay for, and if you pay nothing... Well... How good are you at math?!


Let me start with the good news about patents:

  • Filing one is as cheap as ~200 dollars if you do everything on your own
  • Once they have been published, you can enforce them on anyone that is infringing your claims.
  • You can license your patent and make money every time it is used.
  • You can sell your patents on a marketplace on your own in a lump sum.
  • Or you can sell/license your patent via brokers.
Now... the not so sweet things about patents:
  • The patent office does "some basic checks and balances" when you submit. They don't guarantee that your patent will not be invalidated or exposed to litigation. Many agree that the USPTO should be reformed because it only enables those who have money or already a strong position in any litigation; it doesn't protect inventors in the way it appears to be intended.
  • The strength of your patent depends on a TON from the quality of its claims. If you leave room for interpretation even if the US patent office approved it, you leave room for another inventor to expand on that not fully expanded claim and obtain a patent with more narrow strength. Or worse, you enable litigation that is usually won by the largest pocket in the room.
  • The fact that you have a patent means absolutely nothing if you don't have the resources to defend it when the patent is infringed or someone else (legal entity or individual) claims that your patent is invalid or there is something wrong with it.
  • Sure, you can sell or license your patent, but the number of sharks out there that can take advantage of you in that situation is HUGE. And the fact that they advertise on CNN doesn't mean shit. It's a shark tank :-)
Now, if you have not been dissuaded by the cons list, let me tell you how you can get started.
The regular way or Golden advice
If you can afford a patent firm/attorney, don't waste your time and usually the equivalent amount of money in micro cheap efforts because the quality of your patent determines how stronger your position will be when challenged or infringed (case in point at the time of this writing). 

The cheaply way
Once you determine what type of patent you are going to file (Design for anything esthetic and Utility for anything else), you follow the US patent office steps, and you are golden. The submission is really cheap. In most cases for about US $200, you can file and be done with it. If the form you file has one tiny, tiny thing off, like format, drawings, or the right sentence in the wrong place, they are going to reject the application, and you will have to re-apply again, spending the same identical amount you spent the first time.

For this reason, in the beginning, when I was learning how this patent world works, I have been using Legal Zoom. A few things about that company, from which I get no kickbacks or any particular benefit of any kind, are important to know. They are a facilitator service, basically, during a series of questions asked via a tool, they make you think and ultimately use your answers to generate the document that they will be uploading with the USPTO. They don't improve the quality of your answers, they don't point you to potential flaws; they make sure that your application doesn't get rejected.

So... if you have done your homework in deep and wide angles, then you are going to use any service of the kind of Legal Zoom material that will get accepted at the time of the filing and eventually will stand a chance when it gets examined by the clerk at the USPTO.

In my experience, Legal Zoom kind of services save you a ton of money to get a patent-pending status for your idea, but you should use it only if you absolutely master the domain of your patent is expected to be applied.

A friend this morning asked for which company I would recommend. I have worked in the past with Intellectual Venture, Small firms, and all-encompassing firms. It very much depends on the size of your wallet and how critical is your invention. The small firm that I worked with was beyond awesome unfortunately the owner retired 2 years ago. My next best choice was Haug. In my experience, they were a bit pricey but they were exactly what you want to have in terms of knowledge and structuring your portfolio in a petal-style rather than a random pixel on the IP screen.

Good Luck!


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