How to file a patent

Here are eight tips on how to file a patent whether you choose to file on your own or by using a patent attorney.

Got a great idea you want to patent? Chances are, you’re thinking about the rewards that it will reap you. In an ideal world, your discovery is so revolutionary that a Fortune 500 company’s willing to license it, then sign and deliver checks to your mailbox every month. A patented idea can be as good as money in the bank if it’s something the marketplace genuinely needs.

The truth is quite a bit more sobering, though. Estimates range from one in every 500 to one in every 5,000 patents that actually end up becoming commercially successful (per InventionStatistics.com). Those aren’t good odds, and that makes it all the more important that you think through you decision to file a patent and fully commit to your idea before moving forward.

A recent article in Entrepreneur magazine estimates that the most basic patents cost anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 in attorney fees, take hundreds of hours in paperwork and can take up to six years to get approved.

If you’re still committed to forging ahead, though, here are eight tips on how to file a patent:

1) Decide whether or not you really need a patent. In theory, you’d think filing a patent on your brand new idea is a no-brainer. In practice, though, there are plenty of reasons why you might not need or want to file a patent. Think about the following factors before deciding whether filing is really going to pay off:

  • Will your design still be relevant in three to six years? If your design applies to a fast-changing field like technology, odds are, it’ll be out-dated before the patent office even looks at your application.
  • Are you certain you can turn your idea into cash? If at all possible, prove that your idea has legs before taking on a second mortgage. Hire a web designer to build a site advertising a product that’s similar to your idea, then track the number of visits and social buzz it builds.
  • In my experience, plenty of great ideas fail, and plenty of terrible ideas succeed. It all has to do with the commitment and passion of the inventor. Assess whether you realistically have the time, energy and focus to devote to marketing, filling out forms and meticulously documenting your invention. On top of that, will you be able to market your idea, even if it’s rejected by the marketplace for months or years?

2) Choose your approach. Filing a patent is a difficult process – particularly for the uninitiated. If you’ve got the commitment and gumption to go it alone, the DIY route is doable. Entrepreneur says to budget at least 150 hours to file your patent over several months (and anticipate lots of additional work in the years to come). Based on some digging I’ve done online, it looks like you should be able to file your own patent for somewhere around $3,000, payable throughout different stages in the patent process.

3) Find a patent attorney. The United States Patent and Trademark Office maintains a list of registered patent attorneys by geographic region. Search the list by state to find several attorneys in your area. Call around to find one that specializes or at least has experience in your specific industry.

4) Determine the type of patent you’re going to file. Currently, they fall into three categories: 1) Utility applications for a “new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof”; 2) Design applications for a “new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture”; and 3) Plant applications for “anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.”

5) Research the process for your specific type of patent. The U.S. Patent Office’s web site is a treasure trove of information. Depending on the type of patent you plan to file, you can click on the links below to start reading through background information, download forms and get guidance on the next steps to patent your idea:

6) Electronically file your patent. Once you’ve put together all the drawings, written descriptions (aka “claims”) and filled out all the relevant forms, you can submit your patent application online at on the Patent Office’s EFS-Web site.

7) Wait for a response. You should hear back from the patent office somewhere between 18 and 36 months after you’ve submitted your patent application. In most cases, they will have rejected your patent (according to Douglas Baldwin) because of competing patents that have already been accepted. Don’t get discouraged. The Patent Office should give you specific reasons why your patent is too similar to those existing patents, though, and you’ll have three months to organize and file a detailed appeal.

8) Wait for the results of the appeal. In one to two years, you should get a final response to your appeal. If your patent was rejected, you can appeal yet again, but we’ve got our fingers crossed for you. Hopefully, you’ll be the proud owner of a patent. And then the real work truly begins.

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Groupon CEO is a weird guy with good advice

Groupon’s CEO Andrew Mason is proof that we can all accomplish great things by ignoring the naysayers and forging ahead … just like little Frodo on Mount Doom.

Deal-of-the-day web site Groupon.com vaulted from obscurity to multi-billion dollar company in two years. Indeed, it’s predicted to “make $1 billion in sales faster than any other business, ever,” according to Forbes. Now, we’ve gotten a peek behind the curtain with the so-called “Frodo Memo” that ended up in the hands of the Wall Street Journal.

The memo, which was sent late last month, shows just how unusual Groupon’s CEO Andrew Mason is. In it, the CEO holds back little of his enthusiasm, pride and ambition, and he offers a few nuggets of wisdom that entrepreneurs everywhere should heed:

1) You’re your own worst enemy. Mason argues sites like MySpace, Friendster, AOL and Yahoo! didn’t lose to competitors, but rather lost the battle on their own. “MySpace essentially handed Facebook the keys to the castle by devolving into a service that wasn’t delighting its customers,” he writes. How did they do that? By digging a rut and being unable or unwilling to innovate.

2) Enjoy the ride you’re on. When you’re overwhelmed with the day-to-day operations of your business or job, you can lose sight of what you’ve accomplished so far. It’s OK to revel in your success. Use it to feed your desire to make your business even better. “The earth is super old – thousands of years, some say – and no one has ever done anything like this,” Mason writes. “You should all exude a borderline-annoying sense of pride in what you’ve achieved. You should be wearing a big, toothy grin – the kind that makes people want to punch you in the face.” If you take pride in your business, you’ll make the decisions that will lead your customers back to your trough.

3) Give your customers a reason to pick you. Mason’s well aware that just about every programmer and multi-national tech company in the world is working on a way to poach clients from Groupon. “They are coming HARD,” he writes. “If you feel a little like Frodo climbing Mount Doom, you can’t be blamed.” But Mason argues that Groupon can stay ahead of its competitors by surprising the company’s clients. “Life is too short to be part of another cookie cutter company,” he writes. “Surprise reminds people that they are alive, that they haven’t seen it all.”

Take heed. Mason graduated from Northwestern University in 2003 with a degree in music. That makes him, what, 31? A thirty-something with a music degree has built a rapidly-growing Internet marketing juggernaut the likes of which the world has never seen. He’s proof that we can all accomplish great things by ignoring the naysayers and forging ahead … just like little Frodo on Mount Doom.

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Few people have sat through as many business pitches as the founder of Y Combinator, Paul Graham. Use his ideas to determine whether or not your business idea has legs.

Few people have sat through as many business pitches as Paul Graham. The founder of Y Combinator (YC), Graham’s life work is devoted to helping entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. Twice a year, YC invests in a small group of start-ups (at an average cost of $18,000), moves them out to the Silicon Valley for three months and helps them refine their business pitches. It’s not necessarily an incubator, per say (since entrepreneurs are supposed to work out of their own homes), but, at the end of the three months, all of the start-ups get a chance to pitch a large group of investors on “Demo Day.” If they’re lucky, they get the kind of cash they need to turn their ideas into businesses.

During a recent interview with Entrepreneur magazine, Graham dished on what draws him to particular business ideas. Here are three of his most intriguing points. Use them to determine whether or not your business idea has legs:

1) Are you determined? The founder’s drive is the most important part of any start-up. “If you imagine someone with 100 percent determination and 100 percent intelligence, you can discard a lot of intelligence before they stop succeeding,” Graham says, “but if you start discarding determination, you very quickly get an ineffectual and perpetual grad student.” Access whether or not you’re truly committed to the business you hope to start. If you are, you’ll be able to will it into reality.

2) Do you know your industry? When asked what most impresses when he hears a business pitch, Graham claims its a founder who truly understands his or her niche. If you’re treading water in a realm outside of your expertise, you’re probably going to scare off investors. Stick to what you know, and your business idea has a much better chance of succeeding.

3) Is your idea groundbreaking? My favorite quote from Graham comes when he’s asked how he spots a great idea. “It often sounds like a bad idea,” he says. He goes on to give the example of Facebook. In its early days, who would have wanted to invest in a social directory aimed at Harvard students? “The very best startup ideas, the ones that are the biggest success, tend to be the ideas that you don’t know are even going to work,” Graham says. The moral? The more nervous your idea makes you, the better it might be. If you truly have the grit to see it through, it just might be successful.

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Five cheap franchises to start with less than $10,000

Find an industry you truly love, and you’ll probably be able to find a franchise that fits your budget, especially since cheap franchises can be started for as little as $2,845.

Franchises are so ubiquitous we often don’t realize we’re shopping at one. From McDonald’s to Hampton Inns and doggie day cares to campgrounds, they’re literally everywhere. All told, franchises account for 10.5 percent of all businesses in the U.S, and they employ 7.9 million workers in a work force of 59 million, according to Entrepreneur magazine.

Here’s a short list of five cheap franchises to start with less than $10,000:

1) Travel Leaders, $2,845. As a “direct descendant” of “Ask Mr. Foster,” founded in 1888 in St. Augustine, Florida, Travel Leaders claims to be the oldest travel agent network in the country. The agency serves two sectors: business travel and vacation travel. Counting sales volume from franchisees, the company eclipsed the $6 billion mark last year. Once a franchise has been established and demonstrated success, it can graduate to a lower-fee franchise that would be operated under the brand name Results! Travel. Franchise royalties for both brands are a flat monthly fee between $450 and $995 month.

2) Fiesta Insurance Franchise Corp., $3,400. An auto insurance and tax preparation company might not be the easiest franchise to start from scratch, but it can be lucrative – particularly if you use the franchise as a starting point for additional services the company offers such as Refund Anticipation Loans. Fiesta makes up for its low barrier to entry with an extremely high royalty fee that ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent.

3) Mojo Photo Booth, $6,495. Not a franchise, per say, but Mojo Photo Booth takes a simple idea and helps you build your own business around it. They provide you with a photo booth for use at weddings, and you do all the marketing, branding, billing and legwork.

Here’s how it works: Set up a portable enclosure where wedding guests can pose for shots with props, then print out two sets of photos: one for the bride and groom and one for the guests themselves. The bridge and groom then get a nice scrapbook filled with goofy pics of all the wedding guests they invited, and the guests get a nice memento to take home from the wedding. The average photo booth rental fee is $1,027, according to Mojo, and the industry generates some $42 billion a year by servicing more than 2.2 million weddings. The turnkey model Mojo offers is particularly appealing as it doesn’t require royalties or fees beyond your initial investment in the photo booth.

4) Vanguard Cleaning Systems, $8,200. Started in 1984, Vanguard now has more than 2,000 franchises cleaning more than 9,000 offices in the U.S. and Canada. The company’s selective in picking the right franchisees, though, with their strong emphasis on customer service and low cost (two things that rarely go hand in hand). Still, the rewards can be large if you make the grade. Vanguard’s franchising fee is just 5 percent.

5) SuperGlass Windshield Repair, $9,910. A company that focuses solely on glass repair, SuperGlass argues that too many automotive companies urge consumers to replace windshields that could otherwise be repaired. The company offers franchisees the means and training to fix scratches, cracks and chips from home or a brick-and-mortar-based retail outlet. At 4 percent, SuperGlass has the lowest percentage-based franchise royalty fee on our list.

“We still reject more (franchisees) than we accept,” one of the founders of SuperGlass, Bill Costello, tells Entrepreneur. “Not everyone is cut out to be a franchise owner. We give them the correct information, but it’s still a huge, emotional decision for them and their family.”

Want more? Check out our updated post: Five MORE cheap franchises to start with less than $10,000.

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