Too often, university-based innovators say that they are not yet ready to do customer discovery because they haven’t yet applied for a patent. They assume that customer discovery entails sharing their solution with potential customers, i.e. selling. Scientists and engineers generally do not like to sell; they prefer discovery and development, so they tend to avoid customer outreach. In fact, these innovators have it backward: outreach to potential customers is totally about discovery and development. It’s all about discovering customer problems so that you can develop meaningful solutions.
To quote one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a self-help book published a generation ago, you initially should Seek First to Understand. If you share your proposed solution too early in the customer discovery process, then you’ve cut off conversation. You get a narrow discussion, while what you need is a broad-based understanding. Open-ended early conversations will help you refine your technology and potentially strengthen your patent application. With these customer insights, you can refine a technology and also better articulate how your invention is useful, novel and nonobvious, several required characteristics of a patentable invention.
And the nice thing, is that you haven’t prematurely revealed anything that could jeopardize your patent.
Justin Wilcox’s video (embedded above and taken from his Customer Development Labs blog) is a useful guide to what to ask in a customer discovery interview. Note his first rule of validating your idea: don’t talk about your idea.
Of course, as customer discovery proceeds, you will start revealing your solution, because you need direct feedback on how effectively you are addressing customers’ problems. That’s where the Minimum Viable Product comes in. An MVP is simply a way to depict your solution so that potential customers can wrap their heads around it enough to respond. It may be a diagram or a video or a wireframe or a crude nonworking prototype or a working prototype. In fact, as you gain more customer insights and experience with your technology, your MVP will become more robust. As Eric Reis, one of the primary evangelists of the Lean Startup movement puts it, an MVP is “an experiment on the way to excellence.”
When you start sharing an MVP, or presenting at academic conferences, or publishing journal articles, then premature disclosure can be an issue. Sometimes, you’ll want to patent first, publish later. Other times, you can determine specific boundaries within which you can share in academic settings without undermining patentability. Sometimes a nondisclosure agreement will be appropriate. Often an NDA will not be an option, and you’ll need to decide what and how much to reveal. Don’t try to figure this out on your own! Get help from your university tech transfer office or an IP attorney.