One of the more difficult challenges first-time inventors and entrepreneurs face is determining which individuals and companies are safe to work with, and which aren't. This is true whether you choose to venture or to license. It's a major concern, and not without reason. A shady manufacturer overseas could throw a wrench into your product launch, or derail it entirely. You could end up spending tens of thousands of dollars having your invention analyzed and patented, with little to show for it.

It is perhaps unsurprising then, that my YouTube channel is flooded with variations of the following question.

"How do we know they're not going to just take our idea?"

I've been coaching and mentoring product developers for 20 years now.

The answer is simple. You don't. You can't.  But you can and must do research! That way, your decision is informed.

For years I've been advising product developers to Google the name of whomever they're considering working with followed by 'lawsuits' and 'complaints.' It's difficult to hide on the Internet. This year, I'm updating that advice to include, "And check out whether they're active on social media."

Making a website look legit is fairly easy. Include some endorsements from third parties and client testimonials, but don't link, date, or provide any further information. Voilà! To the less than discerning consumer, that may be enough. On most websites, there's no mechanism for dissatisfied customers to publicly express their sentiments. Publishing a blog takes more time and effort than many are willing to spend.

To those companies that enable customers to post reviews of their products on their own websites, I applaud you.

On social media, on the other hand, it's possible to hold brands accountable for their actions. They have to be! Anyone can fire off a complaint in seconds. And have that complaint quickly amplified by others. The potential for a PR nightmare is ever present.

Put another way: Companies that are up to no good aren't active on social media, because they can't be. If they were, they'd be fielding inquiries and comments from irate customers constantly. Needless to say, that's not a good look.

An experience I had recently really drove this home. Last month, I politely reached out to a magazine requesting to cancel my subscription over email. No response.

I emailed a second, third, and fourth time. No response still!

At the end of the month, my credit card was charged for another yearlong subscription.

Feeling annoyed, I logged into Twitter to tweet my frustration at the brand. No response.

It wasn't until I began leaving comments on the brand's tweets -- meaning, so that my complaints were public to their followers -- that I received a prompt apology. Hours later, I was issued a refund. They could ignore me privately for weeks, but not in a public forum.

At the end of the day, having great customer service is hands down one of the best ways to protect your invention and ensure its success. So if a potential licensee on your list that you look into is slow to respond to their customers on social media, take note of that. That could very well affect your bottom line. If a company is barely present on social media, try to find out why. My guess is there's a good reason.  

It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I am biased. I love using social media to grow the reach of my company inventRight and awareness of how we help inventors. Namely YouTube, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (in that order). Social media has become the primary tool my team uses to engage and dialogue with our community. The benefits are enormous. We can pose questions, solicit feedback, determine which stories are resonating with our fans, and receive encouragement -- with just a few clicks.

This quarter, I'm doubling-down by getting on Instagram. And to be clear, I'm talking about the free versions of these platforms. I've experimented with paid advertising on social media a few times, but never stuck with it.

I look at it like this: Even negative reviews can be beneficial. No one likes a negative review. But they're also an opportunity to turn a customer into a fan for life. How can you transform a negative situation into a positive one? Be transparent. Don't delete negative reviews -- address them. People are watching to see how you handle them. Sometimes that allows you to shine. Admitting to a mistake is powerful.

Please, when doing your research, look beyond the first two pages. Don't be afraid to read between the lines. Sometimes complaints are just coming from trolls, or someone who has a bone to pick. 

What I find very surprising is that people will look pour over Yelp reviews before going out to dinner, but don't do enough of a background check on a company they're going into business with. It's one thing to have a bad meal. It's another to spend your hard-earned money on a service that fails to be provided.

Published on: Jan 15, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.