What does it mean to sell an idea?
Selling an idea can mean anything from convincing your boss to allow your team to work from home to selling your app concept for the next industry disruptor to a company that's going to create it. How do you know whether your idea is just a great suggestion to implement or if you should be looking for cash for your intellectual property?
This is a big question and one you want to make sure you’ve researched before you make your pitch.
These simple steps will help you decide if you have an idea to sell for money and how to go about doing it. Even if you don’t sell your idea, you might still be able to get some credit for it or even a raise if it's an idea for how to make things better at your current job.
What is the essence of your idea? Is it a process change that will help your company save millions of dollars each year? Is it technology that will change the way we work, eat or shop? Is it a new device that will help people with disabilities? Be sure you’re clear on your idea and its potential impact before you move on to the next step. Even if you aren’t positive, just take some educated guesses. Do you think when Sara Blakley came up with the idea for Spanx she thought it would be as big as it is today? Or when Mark Zukerberg invented Facebook, could he have possibly predicted how much the social media giant would one day be worth? Not exactly, but they knew what they had was big and special.
If you think your idea has merit to earn you some cash or disrupt the market, get a nondisclosure agreement signed before you share it with anyone so that you have protection should they try to steal it. An NDA is a document that legally protects you from having your idea shared by people you show it to. A lawyer can help you draw up this agreement to ensure you’re fully legally protected.
Before you pitch, you’ll want to decide if you’re selling the idea and fully turning it over or if you want to stay involved in the execution. If you’re planning to stay involved you’ll want to make sure you have a good rapport with your buyer/investor and that you’ve spelled out all of the terms and conditions of your involvement in a contract that you have had reviewed by a lawyer before you sign it.
Has your idea been tried before? If it has and it's working, is it still worth selling? If it has but it's failed, the first thing potential buyers will want to know is what is different about how your idea works than the similar (or same) idea that failed. It could be that you have data from the failure or the team working on your idea is superior in some way, whether it's larger or more experienced or has access to additional resources. Even if your idea is for a policy change or restructuring in your office, having data about past attempts and what has worked or failed in the office will help you convince those who need to buy in.
Ask a trusted friend, colleague or mentor to help you practice your pitch. They can help you strengthen your arguments or bring up questions potential buyers will ask. This can help you not feel blindsided in your real pitches. The more prepared you feel, the more confident you'll be. Own the pitch just like you own your idea.
You might still have a question or two before you sell your idea. Here are a few common questions people have about selling ideas that might help you feel more confident.
Daniel Pink, award-winning author of To Sell is Human, writes about how we are all always selling. Try not to think about sales as this huge overwhelming thing first, and instead consider all the times in your life when you’ve successfully sold even something small. It could be that you sold your partner on tacos instead of Thai for dinner last night or you sold your bestie on blowing off a boring dinner to join you for a last-minute concert. At work, it could be convincing your boss to let you have a day off or go to a conference — you sold your ideas and got what you wanted! Selling a bigger idea is no different. Sure, the stakes might be higher, but at the end of the day, it's the same idea, right?
It might happen, but so what? Did everyone think Twitter was cool the day it launched? No. How many publishers rejected J.K Rowling? You get the idea. Many people who are famous for their ideas were once where you are — walking in to pitch. They got laughed out of a few rooms, and you might too. If you believe in your idea, keep pitching. The other thing that will help you is to find out why your idea is being rejected. Use that information to continue to refine your pitch, and head off those same objections before they come up again.
This could happen, too, but it will be less likely if you make sure you’re legally covered before you share. Consult with a lawyer and have everyone sign NDAs before they hear your idea, and you’ll be in a better spot should someone try to take your idea. Also, try to be careful with whom you share your idea, especially at first. If you keep your idea close and with people you trust, you’re less likely to have it stolen.
You’ve heard stories about bad bosses or sneaky coworkers taking credit for another team members idea. But what do you do if it happens to you? Try to keep calm and remember that the truth will likely come out eventually. If you have notes, emails or meeting agendas with your idea included, try to keep those. Try to also find a colleague who has your back to help you remind people the idea was yours. Be polite and professional but firm about speaking up for yourself whenever possible. If this is something you see happening habitually in your company, you might want to consider your options and look at transferring to another department or looking for another job. You deserve to work in a place where people value you and your contributions.
Be sure to document your idea and any of the impact it had. For example, if you sold your department on using a different print vendor and the switch saved you $5,000 per year — plus was closer to the office so you had 30 minutes a week back to work on other tasks — take note. Additionally, if the new printer is more modern and uses environmentally-friendly technology and recycled paper to reduce the impact on the environment, be sure to note that as well. Small changes can have a big impact.
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