Q. How do I license this great idea?

A. Well, it depends.

It’s a classic story: basement inventor dreams up an idea, a product, a concept for a movie or even a new slogan for a company. He’s sure, certain, positive, that the idea, in the right hands, has huge legs. And it’s the idea that matters, right?

"This fishing lure is dramatically better than what’s out there."
"This swoosh logo is really dramatic."
"This promotion for a bar in town will make them a huge amount of money."
"If I could just get Mark Burnett to listen to this idea for a Survivor sequel…"

And most of the time, you’re right. Your better UI/software/concept would make more money in the right hands.

This disconnect drives people, especially engineers, crazy. The processes of improvement and ideation demand that you take things that aren’t so good and make them better. If someone has go to market power or even better, sales and influence power, then why wouldn’t they want to improve?

The problem is this: 99% of the time, they don’t.

It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s just that they’re not organized to turn your big idea into something that actually works.

They don’t have someone on staff who will get promoted for finding you.
They don’t have a team on staff who can develop your idea and get it out the door.

There are exceptions (book publishers, for example, are good at publishing new books). But most of the time, that’s not the business they are in. They are in the business of doing their job, and their job rarely includes taking the time (and the risk) of hunting for new big ideas outside the organization.

First, there’s the huge problem of NDAs and being accused of stealing stuff. If you want me to keep something a secret, and you won’t tell me the secret before I sign a piece of paper, my risk is huge. On the other hand, if you tell me an idea (almost always non-protected) before I sign the paper, why sign it? Big paradox.

Second, there’s the problem of what it’s worth. What is the basic idea behind Star Trek or Mission: Impossible worth? Would a different two-paragraph treatment really have made the difference between success or failure? The producers of those shows would tell you it was the 10,000 little things that happened after the original idea that made the difference between success and failure.

In other words, it’s how you tell it.

If you think your idea is worth a lot, and the producer of the product (whether it’s a widget or a business process) points out how many choices she has and how little the original idea is worth–you guys are stuck.

True story: I helped invent the first fax board for the Mac. Pitched it to a dozen companies. No one nibbled. Apple launched it soon after seeing ours, and the product quickly became a low-profit commodity. I’m confident that if we had created a substantial organization and built a marketing aura and system around the product, it would have worked. The idea itself… nah.

Just because you’re a good cook doesn’t mean you should run a restaurant. And a restaurant that succeeds rarely does because they have special recipes. All the recipes in the world are free online. That’s not what makes a restaurant (or a business, for that matter) work.