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How to protect your business idea

You’ve had the most amazing business inspiration – and you’re so excited you can’t sleep. Then the horrific thought strikes: what if someone else gets there first?

And so begins the quandary of who and how much to tell, because a secret business is no business. You need to write a business plan, talk to financiers and test the idea on potential consumers, so silence is not an option. And even though you trust friends and family, could they accidentally spill the beans?

1. Careless Talk costs ideas

You’re not being paranoid – careless talk can be costly, so tell people on a purely need-to-know basis. Keep track of who you’ve told.

2. Protect your uniqueness

Focus on protecting the area that makes your plan unique. That might be a piece of technology or a formula which you should guard with your life, or your brand’s look, values or personality. Qualities like reliability, ethics and style are almost impossible to copy and take time to build.

3. Invest in legal protection

This could be as simple as keeping notes. We posted our first business plan to our solicitors, complete with logo, where to this day it remains dated and unopened on file, should we ever need it. It costs nothing, so why not?

4. Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)

These signal the importance of discretion to potential partners and suppliers. Mark any associated and sensitive documents as confidential – on every page.

5. Register a Trademark

Trademarks (brand name or logo) can be registered at the International Property Office (ipo.gov.uk) for as little as £170, though the legal work attached might cost substantially more. Find out more at the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (itma.org.uk).

6. Know your Copyright

Copyright covers literary, artistic or creative work and automatically comes into being when a relevant work is created. It lasts for up to 70 years after the creator’s death. Own It will tell you more (own-it.org).

7. Design Rights

Design rights arise when a product is created for manufacture, but it is often advisable to apply for a Registered Community Design. Anti Copying in Design (ACID) can help (acid.eu.com).

In their book, Rework: Change The Way You Work Forever, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson encourage us to think like the celebrity chef who uses recipes to publicise his business. “No-one’s going to buy his cookbook, open a restaurant, and put him out of business. It just doesn’t work like that.” Go by that and you should be able to sleep at night.

Sophie is MD & co-founder of notonthehighstreet.com. Tweet @SophieVCornish and read all of Sophie's columns here.

Picture credit: Rex Features

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