This article originally appeared on our Forbes blog
There are few things more nerve-wracking for product-entrepreneurs than the thought of being copied, especially if you have an innovative idea. This fear is most present when it comes to manufacturing partners, as they learn about your concept before it hits the marketplace and you’ve handed them detailed instructions about how to make it!
Legally protecting your intellectual property can be complicated and costly. Trademarks start at several hundred dollars (if you do it yourself), while patent and attorney fees range from $3,000 to upwards of $15,000. The generic Non-Disclosure Agreements many new entrepreneurs rely on are often too broad, or worse, not legally binding when working with a supplier in another country. Even if you do jump through all the correct legal hoops, the cost of enforcing any of the above provisions in a court of law (particularly in a foreign court) is usually prohibitive for those on start-up budgets.
Further complicating matters is the fact that many people simply aren’t eligible for a patent, the most basic way to prevent someone from replicating your design. You may have a clever idea, but if the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) doesn’t deem it an “invention” (you can read about the requirements here), patent laws aren’t helpful.
So what are new makers to do? If legal protections are available and affordable to you, then by all means, follow through with them! But for those who can’t afford protection, don’t qualify, or who want to take extra precaution when working overseas, there are some non-legal, budget-friendly best practices that can limit your exposure.
Use a “Dummy” When Talking to Suppliers
Searching for a manufacturing partner means having conversations about your product with lots of different people. Most makers I work with speak to between 5 and 15 suppliers before landing on their final partner. While you’ll obviously need to provide potential manufacturers with some basic design information to confirm their capabilities and interest, it’s not necessary to share the nitty-gritty about what makes your product different.
I recommend people use what is called a ‘dummy product’ when speaking about their concept during this phase. The dummy product is another item on the marketplace, similar in materials or construction to your design, minus your ‘special sauce’.
For example, if you are making a special type of jeans that accommodate the wearer’s weight fluctuations, you could show suppliers a photo of another pair of jeans (like the ones you want to make in terms of style and material), and simply make a note that the design of your waistband differs in that it would require sewn-in elastic. This is enough information to get confirmation about whether the factory has the equipment to produce your product; the more technical aspects of the design can be shared once you’ve narrowed down your list of factories based on general criteria, such as their minimum order requirements, reputation, quality control program, and ease of communication.
Be Vague About the Product’s End Use
People are often so involved with their idea they can’t imagine anyone else looking at the design and not ‘getting it’ right away. But in some cases, the product’s end use is not actually obvious unless it’s explained with detailed verbal or visual descriptions.
Take a designer making a specialized equestrian product – a saddle pad made of unique cooling fabric . When shown on a horse, the purpose of the pad is obvious, but when shown as a flat piece of quilted fabric, it’s function is not necessarily apparent. During the preliminary sourcing phase, you can take advantage of the ability to be vague with potential factories, revealing only what is necessary.
Sometimes you can’t hide what your product does, but you can still withhold what makes it unique (and enticing to copy). For example, a smart maker may opt to source the above-mentioned cooling fabric separately and simply not divulge its special properties to the final sewing facility that would be putting it all together.
Two things to note: people employing this approach will sometimes use a private email address to communicate with suppliers so as not to link to their company’s website. Further, this type of “selective sharing” doesn’t need to be a long-term strategy. Once you’ve developed a trusting relationship with your manufacturing partner, it’s okay to be more transparent.
Search for Reviews
People who get ripped off are usually pretty mad about it. Because factory searching is mainly done on sourcing platforms which allow users to leave reviews, it’s a good idea to search the major sites for negative comments about the partners you’re considering. A simple web search for ‘sourcing database’ or ‘find manufacturers’ along with the name of the country where you are producing should yield a list of sourcing platforms to search. It’s also a good idea to do a general search of the supplier’s name.
Split Production Into Multiple Locations
Breaking up production into different locations can require a bit more legwork and some added logistics costs, but for makers with high-tech or highly sensitive products, it can be worth it. Let’s say you have a design with 3 main components. Instead of having one factory do the entire job from start to finish, you hire 3 different partners to perform different processes, so that no one supplier has the specifications or materials necessary to make your entire product.
A company might give Supplier A instructions to make two of the components, hire Supplier B to make the third, and then instruct Supplier C to assemble all three pieces prior to shipping. They may also utilize a hybrid sourcing model, where overseas suppliers make certain parts and a domestic factory (under local legal jurisdiction) is tasked with final assembly. Those who are really concerned about IP might even complete the final step in their own private warehouse.
Focus on Branding
There’s no shortcut or quick tip to achieving great branding, but it’s the ultimate IP protector. Consumers buy product due to a mix of motivators; the most influential factors being compelling branding, great photography and/or copywriting, and high media visibility. And these are all things that you, the passionate, creative force behind your product, are in a unique position to excel at! A factory that specializes in machinery and quality control and logistics? Not as much.
Whether you raise outside capital or invest in hardcore sweat equity, focusing on branding is one of the most important things you can do to crowd out those who may try to copy you.