If you're afraid someone is going to steal your idea, you're not alone. This is a very common fear. Will a patent help? No, not really. Not in the way you've been led to believe, anyway. Here's the truth. Protecting your idea completely -- meaning excluding all imitators -- is going to be difficult at best. If your idea becomes a successful product, the copycats won't be far behind. There will be infringers and knockoffs. This is simply a fact of life.

As a person who is coming up with new ideas, I know this is not what you want to hear. It's a little bit discouraging even. But you shouldn't let this reality stop you, because there is good news. Today, success in the marketplace is all about selling first and fast, and the quickest way to transform an idea into a widely distributed product is by partnering with a company already in business. That's why licensing your invention to a company that has great relationships with major retailers is the best form of protection you can get.

When it comes to protection, speed is paramount. By putting your idea on the shelf faster than you would be able to if you started your own business, your licensee can help you establish your product as the "original." And if a copycat or "me-too" product enters the marketplace? Your licensee can apply gentle pressure to retailers to have it removed.

You can help your licensee establish perceived ownership by filing a portfolio of intellectual property, including, potentially, design patents, trademarks, copyrights, and provisional patent applications that include variations and workarounds. I recommend familiarizing yourself with the benefits of all of the different tools at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

So, how can you find companies looking for ideas? It's not hard, but it does take work. With a little bit of research, you will find there are many companies that practice open innovation and treat inventors fairly. By doing this work yourself, you can avoid getting taken advantage of. Before you reach out to any company for licensing consideration, closely examine their website, product line, and price points. Is your idea truly a good fit? Ask them directly: Do you work with inventors?

Here are a few tips and strategies to identify inventor-friendly companies.

1. Review their track record.

How many ideas have they licensed from inventors? When was the last time they licensed a product idea from an inventor? These are important questions to ask the companies that you would like to invent for. Remember, as you get to know one another, you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. If they're truly working with inventors, you should see a lot of success being shared on social media. If you don't see any successes on their website, that's a red flag.

2. Be wary of middlemen.

Open innovation companies that truly value inventors have an internal department set up to review product submissions. Typically, this is what's known as Inventor Relations. If they rely on a middleman or an independent contractor, that's a red flag.

3. Keep track of their response time. 

As inventors, we must be patient. But if the company is taking forever to get back to you, their submission process seems like a black hole, and you're not getting any type of response, well, that's a red flag.

4. Avoid unreasonable requests.

A successful licensee-licensor relationship is a two-way street. If a company is asking for too much from you -- such as a patent, looks-like works-like prototype, or CAD drawings -- it's a good time to reassess. Some companies will ask for these items on your first call! Many companies that aren't truly serious about working with inventors have made these items a prerequisite to a discussion.

But, as inventors, we must be practical. If we patent, prototype, and pay for CAD drawings for every idea we have without determining whether there's any interest first, we won't be in business for long.

5. Verify they have a presence on social media.

Today, companies that aren't doing right by their customers tend to avoid using social media as to avoid getting poked in the eye.

6. Read the fine print closely.

Review each company on your list's policy for receiving new product idea submissions. If the fine print doesn't sound reasonable or well-balanced, run! It's worth your time to "interview" these companies. A licensing deal represents the beginning of your relationship, not the end. It needs to be fair and balanced for both parties.

There are many companies that truly value the creativity and passion that inventors bring to the table. They respect us an asset. By making it easier to work with them, we can focus on devoting our time and energy to coming up with new and better ideas -- a win-win for all of us.