Successful entrepreneurship is rarely a linear process of having a great idea, developing that idea into a product, and then being wildly successful in the market. Instead, entrepreneurs typically roll out a concept to potential customers and find it isn’t quite right. So they execute a pivot and modify the product or service so that it is more interesting to customers. A start-up will often go through multiple pivots before finally nailing what the market wants. The pivot process is standard for truly innovative ideas. The inventor has a good idea how to refill an unmet need, but it always takes lots of experimentation and feedback before she gets the details right.
These regular pivots make it more difficult to protect valuable innovations. Too often an inventor will quickly file a patent application to protect a great idea so that he can freely disclose the invention and offer it for sale without losing any patent rights.
Offering an innovation to customers is the best way to discover the changes needed to improve the product. However, an offer for sale also ends one’s right to file for patent protection in most countries, and starts the clock for when patent protection can’t be obtained in the United States. So an early marketing trial in the United States can preclude later valuable patents in China and Europe.
Disclosing great ideas to potential suppliers and customers also often spawns competitors who are impressed with the potential of the invention. Filing for patent protection makes assures priority for the inventor, and prevents losing one’s right to file. As a result, it is often imperative to file for protection before disclosing or selling an invention.
However, patent applications filed early in the development cycle often become obsolete when a pivot is made. The features and inventive elements that were key to a first version of a product or service are suddenly much less valuable.
To protect the future patent rights of great ideas that are likely to mature through repeated pivots, one should file flash provisional patent applications. Provisional patent applications preserve the right of patent protection for one year, both in the United States and internationally. They are not examined, and are kept secret by the patent office. However, when a utility patent application is later filed claiming priority to the provisional, then the utility patent application is treated as though it has the filing date of the provisional.
Provisional applications allow an inventor to protect an idea by for a fraction of the cost of a utility patent. She is then free to sell the idea, and gain the market information for a product pivot. Then when the idea pivots, a new provisional is filed so that the updated concept can also be sold without losing patent rights. The inventor only files a utility patent application when she finally nails the concept. By filing flash provisional patent applications, the inventor gets the market intelligence of early sales while preserving patent rights worldwide.