You don’t have to spend much time with inventors before hearing about the ‘not invented here’ syndrome. A company will reject a great invention idea, so the NIH argument runs, simply because it didn’t originate with them. Rather than take on an inventor’s idea and make millions, they go into a jealous sulk and show the inventor the door.
But is there any real substance to ‘not invented here’? Leaving aside a tiny minority of firms run by genuinely stupid people, is this how grown-up organisations really behave?
It doesn’t make any sense that a company would look at a great idea, recognise its profit potential, then reject it just because it came from outside the company. And by rejecting it open up the possibility that a rival snaps it up.
It’s not impossible but it has to be highly unlikely. A weak manager might do it out of fear for his or her career prospects, but that would be the individual’s doing, not the company’s.
In our experience, there’s usually a rational and often positive explanation for what looks like NIH.
Companies with in-house R&D resources may shun external ideas out of loyalty to their R&D people. As the IP manager of one well-known company put it to us: ‘We employ many designers and engineers whose job is to keep us ahead of the field, and they’ve never let us down. If we started taking in ideas from outside, it would look as though we’d lost faith in them.’
Another company offered broadly the same explanation, but with a different slant: ‘The specialised R&D people we need are in short supply, so it’s important to retain them once we’ve got them. To do that we’ll sometimes help them develop their own ideas even if they’re not part of our core business. Given all that, the chances of us giving priority to an idea from a total outsider are just about zero. We’ll give advice if we can, but we’ve got no resources left over for them.’
Companies that do a lot of R&D may have a further concern. It applies mainly to inventors who (logically enough) take their invention ideas to companies who already sell similar products. But precisely because of that ‘fit’, the company may already be working on a similar idea, and justifiably fears future litigation if it isn’t crystal clear who invented what first.
Some companies tackle this problem by looking only at ideas protected by a patent application, which is one way of legally establishing a date of origin. Others play safer still and refuse to look at any external ideas. Either way, there’s an understandable reluctance to let inventors put them in legal jeopardy.
What the grumblings about NIH do perhaps expose is an uneasy relationship between businesses and inventors. Many companies feel they’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea when they try to help inventors. They don’t want to discourage them and will often be generous with invention advice. But they just haven’t the time or resources to help the inventor who needs a lot of support to develop his or her invention idea to a point where the company could take it on. Some inventors grasp this, some don’t. And those who don’t are, we suggest, the source of most of the NIH complaints.
So what can inventors do to improve their relationship with companies? Plenty, but these strategies are close to the top of the list:
•…Find out if the company is likely to be interested at all in your invention idea. Send a very brief letter or email – a couple of well-crafted paragraphs – stating what your idea does and its potential benefits. (If you’re not confident of your ability to do this, get our help.) Ask if they’re interested in knowing more. If they say no, that’s the end of it. Don’t waste any more of their time or yours.
•…Don’t look just at market-leading companies in your field of invention. This applies particularly if you offer a company an improvement to one of its own products. That’s often a hiding to nothing. Unless they’re deeply complacent, they’ll be working on their own improvements and probably won’t need what you’ve got. Focus instead on smaller or less successful companies who might see your idea as a way of competing with the market leaders.
•…Always act in a businesslike, professional way. In person, in documentation, the lot. Prove that you can be useful to a company and not a disruptive or distracting element. In short, act as little like an inventor as possible!