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During a 2018 Patent Protection 101 type event, I was talking to an engineering student. He shared privately: “I have this amazing invention, but I’m afraid to tell anyone because they might steal it”. I’d heard this line before; in fact, I used to say it myself some years ago. I don’t any longer. I offered him some advice:

Let’s say you dreamt up a futuristic ballpoint pen. It’s unlike anything seen before and helps users write faster than typing by utilizing A.I. (because what isn’t utilizing A.I. these days). You believe you’re sitting on commercial success, so you lock yourself away inventing it piece by piece, perfecting and re-perfecting every component over months, maybe even years. One day you emerge with your Smart Pen AI Edition™, hope an investor funds it, distributes it worldwide and consumers buy it by the barrel. For that kind of success story in today’s startup world, you’d have better luck getting blood from a stone.

Smart Pen AI Edition?

Here’s what you should do instead: Start by sharing your new idea with as many people connected to the pen-making or pen-using business as possible. Sounds reckless, right? Why would you share your precious new discovery with a bunch of people with more resources than you? So they can run off and copy it?! The reason is because you need those people more than you realize. They are the ones who will help you understand if your Smart Pen has any chance of success or not, BEFORE you spend your savings on building it.

That is the riddle you need to answer as early into development as possible. You also shouldn’t fear sharing with random nobodies like me… mainly because I’m not interested in pens, and have zero motivation to suddenly abandon all my own aspirations and pursue your idea. Even if I were coincidentally building my own “A.I. pen”, you now have a potential ally, not an enemy. Don’t underestimate the value of allies in the startup world. Furthermore, if the prospective market for AI-enhanced pens is as viable as you believe, then that proverbial pie can — and will — surely feed more than just you, or both of us, or even a 3rd and 4th player.

Here’s the real kick in the pants though: your AI pen idea actually has zero value to anyone, because there’s no market for ideas. There’s no sector of the economy, or cottage industry sustained by a steady supply of and demand for new ideas. There are no schools teaching students how to think up great ideas… and you’ll never see a job listing for Junior Idea Analyst or Vice President of Ideas, not at the highest or lowest levels of any size organization. The true value of any idea is only realized in someone’s ability to turn it into a business-building opportunity: right product for the right person at the right time. That’s 1000x times more difficult than it sounds, and companies pay CEOs buckets of coin to execute that simply stated goal. If you’re not hot stuff CEO material right now, then you better start searching for allies.

“Your idea actually has zero value to anyone, because there’s no market for ideas. There’s no sector of the economy, or cottage industry sustained by a strong supply and demand for new ideas.”

The fact is, ideas need to “live” in the real world, where other ideas exist… against which they can be tested, scrutinized and challenged, the aim ultimately being to evaluate if the idea is worthy of endeavour. Also found in the real world: your potential customers. Currently, your Smart Pen AI Edition™ has only impressed your friends and nonna, bless her heart… but in the REAL world, customers are a very different and unpredictable multi-headed beast, and Right Now is when you should be vetting your idea by sharing it and getting feedback.

He was thankful for the exchange, but we didn’t stay in touch. Anyone spot AI-enhanced pens at Staples recently?

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