There’s a common idea out there that any one of us can invent an improvement to a product (or a new product altogether), patent the idea, bring it to a company, and walk away with a big check while the company makes megabucks selling the invention.

This idea is so common that large parts of the patent world are built on fostering this idea. You may see “invention promotion companies” or other advisors who promise to help market your idea to a big company. Some patent lawyers specialize in helping individuals try this process out. It almost seems to be part of the new American Dream: Each of us is just one idea away from becoming super-wealthy.

The truth is this almost never happens.

In my 20-year career, including representing large and small companies, working in-house for a multinational manufacturer, and helping individuals to navigate the patent world, I have never seen a person successfully pull this off.

Further, I have never seen any attorney I’ve ever worked with, in any office, help an individual inventor to successfully license their invention to a larger company. At least not without a big, expensive fight first.

Why Doesn’t This Happen?

A few reasons. For one thing, individuals are hard for large companies to deal with. For big companies, it’s messy to try to work with someone who comes into your organization and claims to have an idea. There are a few reasons for this:

Not Invented Here

Big companies have R&D departments staffed with skilled and specialized managers and engineers who have a huge incentive to develop new inventions in-house. Will an outside, individual inventor find a helpful person within such a group?

Nope.

Dealing With Individuals Is Risky

Outside inventors pose a risk not only to internal R&D, but also to the rest of the organization. What if the company was already working on something very similar to an outside invention? The outside invention comes in, and now nobody really knows who invented what (and when).

There are stories of companies having “suggestion boxes” (either physical or electronic) that go literally nowhere, and are documented to destroy every submission. The reason? They don’t want any record of the invention getting distributed throughout the organization so that inventorship can’t be questioned later.

Market Misconceptions

Lots of people have product improvement ideas. And the ideas seem good to them given their understanding of the market and the competitive landscape. But they are often wrong.

In addition to large R&D groups, big companies have marketing insight that goes far beyond what the consumer sees. So one reason that outside inventions don’t get traction is that the ideas aren’t as good as inventors think, or they’ve been been tried and didn’t work, or they work but nobody will buy them.

Sometimes the great idea isn’t so great.

“But I heard about this one guy…”

Yes, it has happened in history that people have invented product improvements, brought them to companies, and sold the ideas to the companies.

People win lotteries too.

It’s just that in the patent world, your patent is your lottery ticket, and you may have spent $10,000 or more acquiring it. It’s an expensive game. Just understand that, like any other gamble, you shouldn’t bank on winning.

So, What to Do?

One thing that will get the attention of a large company is competition. If you have an idea, build it, and market it, and start to take market share away from a company, that gets attention. It may lead to a licensing discussion if you have IP protecting your product. A new idea that is executed upon is infinitely more valuable than the raw idea.

Like with most things, the best way to make money on an invention is the hard way. Build prototypes or MVPs, learn about the customer, find a manufacturer or distributor (or make the product yourself), build a marketing approach, and sell your product for a profit. An IP budget should be part of that process, and so should all kinds of other legal considerations.

It’s not the quick and easy road to riches. But no such road exists in the patent world.