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Patent Potency

I’ve been feeling traction for a particular product concept that I’ve been testing—with enough clarity on what the product would do and how it would work—that I felt it was time to explore my freedom to operate (FTO).

Patent searching

I prepared descriptions of my invention and the keyword phrases I would use to search, and after several hours of work I turned up a couple dozen patents that were similar to my product concept.

It was a humbling and upsetting moment for me, confirming there are no new ideas, and stressing over whether or not I could continue.

I wrote earlier about Ideas being cheap, and I think there are a couple of new lessons I would add to that:

  1. When I wrote about feasibility as an early barrier, I was thinking more about technical feasibility, and not legal feasibility, or FTO. I’m now learning that technical and legal feasibility are intertwined (more on that below).

  2. The fact that I’ve seen dozens of patents for an idea similar to mine, and yet no commercial product yet exists is further validation that ideas themselves are, in fact, cheap!

FTO forces innovation

After I got over the shock of my search results, I started examining each patent in detail, with the intent on determining where my invention would differentiate itself. To my relief, I found only 1 patent in that large stack that got my attention in this regard.

It was surprisingly fun to find creative ways to design around that patent, and in the process, came up with a few new differentiators that I believe will make my invention even better.

Even more interesting to me is that all three of these new ideas involve simplifying the product and its manufacturability, rather than adding cost and complexity.

Add patent searching to Product work

The last thing I expected from this patent search process was that it would push me to improve my product. It seems obvious now, but before I started, I was procrastinating and was somewhat afraid.

The next time I go through this process I might take it on with more zeal—it’s a great exercise for a Product person!

Not only did the search help me improve my own invention, it connected me with my competitors on a different level. Reading my competitors’ patents helped me understand a little more about how they think about technology, and where they see the value they’re creating for customers. The more I can learn about my competitors, the more that helps position my company amongst them.

Just as valuable, however, is that there are also some excellent ideas and concepts in their work that can legally serve as inspirations and influences for my own.

Indirect competitors and partners

Lastly, I learned about other individuals, companies, and organizations outside of my direct competition. Perhaps they could be indirect competitors, or maybe they could be potential partners. These other companies also allude to secondary markets that might be available to me through this product concept.

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