Something of a follow-up to the Christmas cake recipe, but this time with an added ingredient – advice for inventors. Specifically on the often overlooked subject of know-how.
After posting the recipe and while lovingly knocking together my last (seventh) cake, I reflected that I could have made the recipe a lot longer if I’d included every scrap of know-how about cake-making I’d amassed through experience over the years.
Some is general advice, such as buy ingredients in early November before prices rise. Some is ‘technical’, such as avoid cheap greaseproof paper because it tears too easily and is fiddly to remove. Some is ‘privileged’, like the name of the farm that sells me free-range, ultra-fresh eggs cheaply.
Though it’s all piffling stuff in isolation, taken together it enables me to make a better cake in less time and at less cost – which gives my know-how some economic value, even if it’s measurable only in pence.
But in different circumstances – like if I’d spent years developing and preparing to market an invention – all those seemingly minor scraps of knowledge might be very valuable indeed. Yet when offering help to inventors, how many advisers even think of know-how as a potential asset?
Consider this. For years you’ve been working on your invention. The inventive step – the core of your invention – remains pretty much as it was on day one. But along the way you’ve learned an enormous number of new tricks. Technology: through prototyping and testing you know what works and, just as important, doesn’t work. Design: by the same process, you know what the next improvement will need to be. Production: you know which materials and methods will give the best result, and who can do or supply what at the best prices. Marketing: you know the people who matter, and what matters to them.
And so on.
In short, even if someone copied your inventive step, there’s a good chance you’d still beat them because they wouldn’t have your know-how – all that extra knowledge that enables you to do things better, faster, cheaper. Which makes your know-how commercially valuable, either to you if you’re the entrepreneur or to a licensee if that’s the route you take.
Your know-how may be so critical to success that it’s better than a patent as a means of protecting your invention. As I’ve tried to explain in Patenting Your Invention: the Ugly Truth, a patent protects nothing, costs a fortune to keep and may actually endanger your invention by disclosing vital information. By contrast, your know-how costs nothing to maintain, is difficult to steal (as long as you keep it to yourself) and may be of enormous help in giving you an edge in the market-place.
So when thinking about protecting your idea, don’t underestimate the value of all those accumulated bits and pieces of acquired knowledge. It won’t apply in every case of course, but it could well be that humble know-how is more responsible than your inventive step for making your fortune.