A large portion of your competitive advantage and your potential value to investors is the size of your intellectual property portfolio. When someone says Intellectual Property (IP), most entrepreneurs think only of patents. In reality, patents are only one of at least eight items that should be in your IP portfolio. You need all these before you start looking for funding.
Some of the other items may cost a lot less, and may be worth far more in the long run. Here are the key elements:
- Company name. The company name becomes your intellectual property at the moment you incorporate your startup as an LLC or a Corporation. Sole proprietorships need to trademark the name to protect it. Select it well – marketers will tell you that you will be selling your name, more than your products. Actual incorporation fees in many states are below $100, if you do it yourself. Don’t pick a company name until you are certain that you can get the comparable domain name, so Internet brokers won’t hold you hostage.
- Internet domain name. This name (www.domainname.com) is just as critical as the company name, and the two should match as nearly as possible. Significant differences will confuse your customers, and open the door to imitators and scam artists. Internet domain names can be acquired from most hosting providers or Network Solutions, for as little as $10/year each.
- Social media accounts. Immediately go to relevant social media sites and grab the same name, even if you never plan to use the accounts. Many companies like Sears, Coca-Cola, and Twitter have already been hurt by people using company names they don’t own on social sites. These days, every business needs a blog, so sign up your domain names accounts on TypePad, WordPress, and Blogger, or all of the above, before someone starts blogging in your name.
- Patents. Remember that ideas cannot be patented, only novel implementations. But the application or provisional application has to be registered before you disclose the details to investors or consumers, or the implementation will be deemed un-patentable. Patent attorney fees start at around $5K.
- Trademarks. A trademark is a name, phrase or logo that tells the consumer the origin of the goods and distinguishes your goods from those of your competitor. Trademarks require a federal trademark registration from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The cost for a single trademark is around $300.
- Copyrights. No registration and no cost is required to secure a copyright on written, audio, or video material that you create to be attributed to your company. Still, it is recommended that you add the familiar ©Copyright 2010 symbol at the beginning or end of each media and document segment.
- Trade secrets with employment agreement. Companies often use non-patentable but important trade secrets to run their business. These trade secrets need to be documented and coupled with an employment agreement, to keep them from migrating to your competitors when employees move on.
- Business Plan. Your business plan holds the keys to your kingdom, so you don’t want it in the hands of competitors. If you need early reviews or assistance by people you don’t know well, get them to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement first. A sample agreement is available for free download from my website.
In cost, all of these elements of intellectual property may be acquired for a few hundred dollars (or a few thousand with an attorney), if you act early and quickly. Later, good intellectual property can be worth millions when your company valuation is set for investment purposes, or when the company is acquired or sold. In between, you need it to survive.