What to Know Before You Pitch Your Product

What happens when you send an unsolicited product idea to a company? Make sure you know the policy before you put your product in the mail.

By Diane Warren

Alan Kravetz, a licensing agent and intellectual property attorney based in the Boston area, says if you submit a product idea to a companypitch without reading its submission policies, you’re wasting your time.

He should know. He develops unsolicited idea submission policies for businesses. These policies protect companies and inventors from conflict over idea ownership and compensation.

Before you send your product idea, call the company or visit its Web site for its submission guidelines.

Most policies require unsolicited submissions to be forwarded unopened to an employee who has nothing to do with the product development process, Kravetz says. That employee returns the idea to the sender along with the company policy and forms to complete.

Determining the policy can shortcut the process and allow you to send your idea with all the appropriate forms. You also may learn that the company is not the best target because of its requirements, Kravetz says.

Companies increasingly are seeking product and technology ideas from outside their own walls. That’s good news for inventors. Proctor & Gamble and Netflix seek ideas from consumers and inventors and are open to partnership opportunities. Kraft encourages idea submissions and rewards adopted ideas. For those more interested in bragging rights than compensation, Dell encourages open innovation through its Ideastorm Web site. Users can post ideas, promote or demote ideas by others, and see which ideas the company adopts.

Apple and Microsoft don’t accept unsolicited ideas – says so right on their Web sites. If you send unsolicited ideas to a company that does not accept them, your submissions may not be returned to you, and the ideas may become the property of the company.

Some companies have no submission policies. In this case, it’s best to send ideas directly to a top-level product marketing or product development manager. When there is no policy, it’s more critical to ensure that you have protected your concept and design idea with a patent or provisional patent application.

Once you have figured out the policy and your idea is on its way, it helps to understand corporate attitudes towards unsolicited ideas.

“Companies have teams of people trying to figure out ways to make (their products) better,” says Ruth Levy, a product development executive in the Philadelphia area and owner of 27 patents.

It’s likely your target company already has considered or developed an idea similar to yours. This is especially true for consumer products companies, which can receive hundreds if not thousands of unsolicited ideas each year.

Your chances of developing a unique or novel concept may be better if you focus on business-to-business products or in an area where you have deep knowledge.

“Companies in the medical device and pharmaceutical industry often go looking for startups with a unique product idea that is partially developed,” says Levy, “and then partner with the startup to take the product the rest of the way through commercialization.”

You can make connections at industry events such as trade shows or conferences, Levy adds, so stay informed about events in your target industry to increase your chance of being “found.”

When submitting your idea, focus on making a business case, says Frank Glaug, a senior research and development executive at Energizer in Dover, Del.

“You need a business plan approach,” he says, “to show that it’s not just a concept, but has been researched and has some potential.”

Try This

  • Phone and ask for a copy of the company’s idea submission policy. Ask to be routed to the product development or legal department if the initial contact can’t help.
  • If you get an automated phone tree, opt for the legal department.
  • Can’t get a human on the phone? Send your request for information via the “contact us” e-mail option on the Web site.