Getting in to the right people at the right companies is the step that trips up people who want to license their ideas for new products the most. Fear of rejection is partly to blame. But until you begin reaching out to potential licensees, you're not really in the game. Too many inventors focus on perfecting their prototypes, when in reality what they really need is feedback. Will someone pay you for your idea? Are you on the right track? You need to know -- and you need to know sooner than later.
Getting in to potential licensees to show them your sell sheet can require creativity and diligence, but it is possible. These are the strategies I use.
1. Believe you are an asset. Having the right attitude is everything. I'm serious. You're doing the companies you reach out to a favor. You're bringing them what could be their next great product! That's it. You're not selling. You don't have to. You're merely delivering a package, aka your sell sheet. Are they interested? Don't take gatekeepers personally. They're just doing their jobs. You may need to be quite persistent to cut through the clutter. And that's okay.
2. Focus on getting in to companies that embrace open innovation. Almost all of the businesses I met at the Hardware Show and Housewares Show this year told me, "Sure, we're willing to look at new ideas wherever they come from." Which is only sensible, if you ask me! Before you exert a lot of effort trying to get in touch with that one company you love, do some initial research. Ask the company: Do you look at outside ideas? Can I send you some of my ideas? Many, many companies these days work with independent product developers. But there are also those that don't, including most Fortune 500 companies. If a company states that it will only look at ideas that are patented, that's a clear sign it has not embraced open innovation.
3. Seek out product managers. If you can, the best person to get in touch with about your concept is a product manager. Product managers have a lot of responsibility in that they oversee products from start to finish, which is great. And crucially, they don't care where ideas come from. Because these individuals are often difficult to reach, you will need to be persistent. In fact, you may need to reach out several times before hearing back. Which is fine. When you are persistent, you send a message: You have something they need to see. So don't give up too early.
If you aren't able to reach a product manager, try the sales department. Salespeople are easier to get in touch with because they answer their phones. If a salesperson likes your idea, they may walk it up to the marketing department and start selling it for you.
If you can't reach a salesperson, try the product development department. When I'm trying to get in to a smaller company, this department is never my first choice, because I may step on some toes. But if you're trying to license your idea to a large company, this is actually the first door you should knock on. The department will need to vet your concept before showing it to their marketing team.
Try to avoid the legal department, which isn't user-friendly and moves slowly.
4. Call corporate first. If you can walk in right through the front door, why wouldn't you? Don't overthink getting in. Before you do anything else, try calling corporate. When you reach an operator, introduce yourself as a product developer. State that you would like to submit a product idea to the company. Then ask, what is the correct procedure for doing so? Is there someone you should talk to? Most operators won't know quite what to do with you. So it's up to you to guide them in the direction you want to go. When the operator hesitates, ask, "Is there someone I should talk to, like a product manager?"
Make the operator your friend. Get his or her name, because you might have to call back, and make sure to express your gratitude. If the company is on the smaller side, this person could become an important ally! For example, my students have shared with me instances in which they had such a good conversation with the person answering the company's phone line, the operator contacted the owner directly about their idea after. The gatekeeper working the phone could be the owner's assistant. You never know.
5. If no one is answering the phone, and you can't get anyone to call you back, try LinkedIn. Identifying employees of the companies you want to license your idea to is easy using LinkedIn. Please, start slow. There's a wrong way and a right way to go about this. Make your initial message short, sweet, and to the point. Tell the employee you're a product developer and that you'd like to submit one of your ideas. Who should you contact? What is the correct procedure? Do not pitch. Do not link to your product. Gain a little insight first. When you uncover who the best person to pitch is, you can then call corporate and ask to speak to that person directly, stating that "so and so" recommended you. That's powerful. If you get the email address of the right person to pitch, you can do the same thing. State "so and so" referred you. Essentially, you're name-dropping. It works.
6. If you can't get in using social media, attend the right trade show. Trade shows are pretty democratic. Everyone -- from marketing managers to CEOs -- are milling about on the floor, smiling and in a good mood. The focus is on new products. But, again, there's a right way and a wrong way to go about getting in during a trade show. Companies have spent a lot of time and money preparing for the show. They're there to sell their own products. My advice? Dress up. I always wear a jacket. Compliment the company on its products and its booth first. Get a flow going. Then, when the person you're talking to asks you what you do, tell him you're a product developer. Don't pitch your idea just yet. Ask, "Do you take outside submissions? If so, who is the correct person to follow up with after the show?"
You can meet just about everyone there is to meet in your category at a trade show if you work hard. Pick up cards. Make connections. And don't forget to carry a sample of your product with you. Someone may want to see it. You could also have a short video of your product queued up and ready to be played on your phone.
Of course, before you begin showing potential licensees your idea, you will want to establish perceived ownership, like by filing a provisional patent application. In my opinion, asking a potential licensee to sign your non-disclosure agreement at that point -- meaning right then and there -- isn't appropriate. If you must have them sign an NDA, you can always choose to follow up later rather than share your idea in that moment. If after you share the benefit of your idea they want more information, then ask to sign an NDA. Most likely they will want you to sign theirs, so read it very thoroughly. Personally, if I've filed a thorough provisional patent application, I don't worry about non-disclosure agreements.
My ultimate advice is, don't take no for an answer. It's not uncommon for different employees at the same company to give differing answers about whether they look at ideas from independent inventors.
With a little practice, you'll be getting in to potential licensees without any trouble. For strategies on getting in to large companies, read "How to Do Pull-Through Marketing Like a Pro."