Anyone manufacturing their product wants it to be on time, within budget, at the right level of quality and reliability, and in compliance with market regulations, but in terms of safety, they also don’t want it to be copied! There is a certain order to bring a new product to market safely, then, which reduces your risk of your product IP being copied by China copycats who can and will beat you to market if you have an attractive idea.
A customer recently asked us about which order to do things in, so let’s discuss why prototyping, patenting, and then going to market is a misguided concept that could land you in hot water.
Protoype > Patent > Market? A misguided concept.
Someone asked us if they should contact Chinese companies to make a prototype of their idea, and their plan was to patent the product idea afterwards when they had got the confidence to move forward from the market and investor feedback on the prototypes. However, they were worried about the Chinese manufacturer they used to create the prototype ripping off their idea and launching the product themselves instead.
This is a very common fear among people who want to develop a new product in China, as copycats are out there. It is not unfounded… but the way to think about this is profoundly misguided.
The common misconception about the order to proceed goes as follows:
- Get a prototype made.
- Show it to potential customers and investors.
- Decide if a patent is needed for the product (because patents are expensive, entrepreneurs and smaller businesses don’t want to risk spending that money on patenting too early).
👉 Related: read more about when to get a patent.
The problem is, doing these activities in this order reduces your new product launch’s chances of success in several ways…
A more sensible approach
In most cases, we’d suggest that you take this approach instead:
- Mock your idea up in creative ways and show it to potential customers – this might be making a mockup out of card, plasticine, pieces of wood, or even by 3D printing it.
- Based on your feedback, improve the mockups and refine your product idea until you see it gets a strong response from potential customers, and document it.
- Talk to potential investors, show them the market research you have already done and the results you got. They will be far more likely to be interested in investing if you can show them tangible interest from your chosen niche.
- Only after that, if the idea shows promise, work on the design (industrial design, early proof of concept…). This can be kept in your own country.
- Only when needed, and with the right precautions (such as a manufacturing agreement), approach a company in China to put together initial prototypes. All along, keep getting feedback from potential customers. You may prefer to use a contract manufacturer rather than OEMs or ODMs as the risks of them taking ownership of any product IP they work on is lower (read more about the differences between these manufacturers).
- Skip any “highly visible” marketing (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, YouTubers and other influencers…) at the start, as that’s the highest source of risk of getting copied. Chinese copycats do check these sources online to gauge if new product ideas are worth copying.
- Look into provisional patent applications if you believe patents can help, and register the trademark, but resist the IP lawyers’ pitch for a full-blown patent for as long as possible.
- Focus on winning in the marketplace as proceeds from sales are arguably more important than protecting your new product idea with a full patent due to the expense of the latter. Your V1.0 product is a valuable source of market feedback and funding for later, more sophisticated versions. Perhaps these are the versions to patent when you know that you have good market traction.
Remember, even if you’ve invested, say, tens of thousands of dollars into patenting your product, you also need to have the funds to defend that patent by bringing litigation to anyone that copies the product. This could be very costly, so you also need to take that into account. Without the money to pay lawyers to defend the patent, having the patent is actually not very useful except, perhaps, as a form of deterrent.
The following articles and long guide will help you to further understand the ins and outs of IP protection, prototyping, market feedback, and patents.