Practical IP Issues in Developing a Business Plan
What can a business plan do for you?
A business plan is a mechanism to ensure that the resources or assets of a business are applied profitably across all its activities for developing and retaining a competitive edge in the market place. For a new business it provides a blueprint for success, while for an ongoing business it provides an overview of where a business is at present, how the business is positioning itself, and how it seeks to achieve its objectives to become and/or remain successful.
Putting together a good business plan takes a lot of work. Then what justifies the time and energy you'll spend creating a plan? A business plan can be used for a variety of purposes:
- To examine the feasibility of your business idea: A written business plan forces a company to think through all the key issues - such as the potential demand for its products or services, the nature of the competition, entry barriers, the unique selling proposition of the new or improved products or services, resources required, critical employees, relevant technologies and strategic partners, raising funds, projected start-up costs, marketing strategies, and the like.
- To access start-up services and financing: Business incubators and potential investors and lenders require well-formulated and realistic business plans. This is often not the case; no wonder some 80 % of business plans received by investors and business incubators are rejected.
- To provide strategic guidance: A business plan is a reference point providing you and your management team with an objective basis for determining if the business is on track to meet the goals and objectives in the time frame set and with the available resources.
- To furnish a standard/bench mark against which to judge future business decisions and results. This standard /bench mark may evolve along with the business, and as such the business plan is a dynamic document that should be revised based on new and evolving circumstances.
Why should intellectual property be integrated in your business plan?
New or original knowledge and the creative expression of ideas is the driving force of successful businesses in the 21st century. Therefore, safeguarding such knowledge and creative expression from inadvertent disclosure or its unauthorized use by competitors is becoming increasingly critical for developing and retaining competitive advantage. Building a business also requires various types of other resources, including a network of relationships and sources of funds. The intellectual property (IP) protection system provides a key tool for (1) keeping at bay unscrupulous competitors, (2) developing relationships with employees, consultants, suppliers, subcontractors, business partners and customers, and (3) obtaining funds.
To be accepted by a business incubator or to attract investors, it is necessary to have a quality business plan that takes an objective look at the prospects of the proposed business. In order to convince investors you will have to show that (1) there is a demand for your product in the market place, (2) your product is superior to competing products, if any, and (3) you have taken adequate steps to prevent `free riding' on your success by dishonest competitors.
Most entrepreneurs would argue that the product they are offering is innovative, unique, or superior to the offerings of competitors. But is this really so? If you believe it is, you will have to prove it, and a patent (or the results of a reliable patent search) may be the best proof of novelty you can get.
Trade name, trademarks and domain names may be the prime elements that differentiate your product from those of competitors. Therefore, your proposed trade name, proposed trademark(s), and proposed domain name(s) should be carefully chosen and the steps taken to register these should be referred to in your business plan.
In addition, start-up service providers and investors will want to make sure that the product you propose to sell is not relying, without authorization, on other companies' trade secrets, copyrighted materials, patents or other IP rights as this may bring the downfall of your own business through expensive litigation. In some high-tech sectors the risk of infringing on third party IP rights is high and start-up service providers and investors may be reluctant to take the risk unless you can prove (e.g. through a patent or trademark search) that no such risks exist.
For many businesses confidential business information (such as details of production, secret inventions, and technical, financial and marketing know-how) alone may be the source of their competitive advantage. In such circumstances, it is important to communicate to start-up service providers and investors that your enterprise has proprietary and significant business information - known as trade secrets - and that you have taken adequate steps to protect it from employees and competitors. In fact, even your business plan is a secret document that should not be disclosed except on a 'need-to-know basis' and that too, generally, only after the employee, investor, or whoever else concerned, has first signed a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement.
In short, if IP is an important asset for your business (i.e. if you own patents or patentable technologies, industrial designs, trade secrets, reputable trademarks or hold the economic rights to copyright works), then it should be a key part of your business plan. An adequate reference to the assets of a company and of its market opportunities should not only list the tangible assets (e.g. factories, equipment, capital, etc) but also the intangible assets as the latter are increasingly the key to a company's success in a hyper competitive environment. As such, any indication that confirms due diligence on your part in the management of IP assets is likely to play an important role in convincing start-up service providers and investors of your company's potential.
How can IP be integrated into the business planning process?
Writing a plan requires good preparation. Before drafting your business plan, you need to think over a number of issues. You should understand what is the nature of your business; what resources would be required to meet your business' objectives; what are your target markets; what is the viability and growth potential of the business, etc. Also, you should identify the commercial relevance of IP assets, whether owned by you or to which you have authorized access, and the resources needed for obtaining and maintaining these assets.
The outline presented below lists some key points relating to IP that you need to consider while preparing your business plan. The importance of different points will depend on your particular situation and business. Further, the list is not exhaustive, and many additional issues may have to be considered depending on your circumstances. However, the answers to these questions may help you to integrate IP assets into your business planning process.
1. What IP assets do you own?
- Identify and classify your IP portfolio. This invariably includes confidential information/trade secrets, trade name(s), and trademark(s), often also domain names, industrial designs and copyright and related rights, and sometimes utility models and patents for inventions.
- What other intangible assets do you have? In this context, also consider franchise, license and distribution agreements, publishing rights, covenants not to compete, information databases, computer systems software, marketing profile, management expertise, distribution network, technical skills, etc.
2. What is the status of your IP portfolio?
- Do you have a system for identification of your IP assets?
Do you have an IP portfolio? When was it created? Who created it?
- Which of your IP assets are registrable? If so, are they or should they be registered? Are they also registered in foreign countries/ export markets? Is the registration to be renewed? If yes, when?
- Do you conduct or plan to conduct IP audits? If so, at what periodicity and by whom?
3. How do you plan to protect your IP assets?
- If you commercialize your IP assets (regardless whether in-house or with a partner), do you have arrangements securing the ownership or co-ownership of your IP assets?
- If you outsource a part of your business activities, do you have contracts in place that ensure your IP rights over the outsourced work and prohibit others from taking advantage or commercializing your product without your prior agreement?
- How easy or difficult is it for others to properly acquire or duplicate your secret business information? What measures are taken to guard the secrecy of your confidential business information? Do you have an integrated security policy and plan for your physical and electronic assets? If you commercialize your IP assets (regardless whether in-house or with a partner), do you have arrangements maintaining the confidentiality of your secret business information? Have you included confidentiality or non-disclosure clauses and non-compete clauses in the employment agreements with your key employees and business partners?
- Have you ensured that confidential business information/trade secrets are not available or lost by display on or through your web site? Are all your URL headers free of confidential information? Do your web pages provide links to pages that have confidential information?
4. How important are IP assets to the success of your business?
- To what extent are your IP assets currently being used, potentially useful, or no longer of use to your business?
- Does your enterprise depend for its commercial success on IP assets, whether owned or licensed? On what types of IP assets does it depend?
- Do you have new products or processes which will provide a unique competitive advantage? If so, will they revolutionize an industry? Can the associated IP rights be secured, providing additional differentiation and bar competitors from entering the market?
- What competitive advantage do your IP assets (whether owned or licensed) provide to your enterprise? Assess and explain how IP provides or adds value to your customers and contributes to developing a sustainable competitive edge.
- Do your trade secrets, patents, trademarks, copyrighted works and industrial designs go far enough to protect those aspects of your business that determine your business' success?
5. Do you own all IP assets that you need, or do you have to rely on IP assets owned by others?
- Do you own the IP assets that you are using? Can you prove it? Do you have the records, registrations, contracts and other proof that an investor, business partner or a court of law may require? Have you identified any potential third-party claims on your IP (for example, industrial sponsors or contract research clients)?
- Are you sure you are not infringing IP rights of someone else? Can you prove it (e.g. have you conducted a patent, trademark and/or industrial design search)? Have you verified if any of your key employees, who has worked for a competitor in the past, is bound by post-employment non-compete or non-disclosure confidentiality agreements by the previous employer(s)? Do you need access to third party IP in order to exploit your business idea? Have you been granted the license(s) you need for the use of IP, which is not owned by you?
- Have you signed non-disclosure and/or non-compete agreements with key personnel, contractors, consultants or other external suppliers which assign to your business any IP they develop when working for you?
- When you use external contractors to write and design your marketing and promotional material or your web site/web pages, do their contracts specify who owns the IP that would be created? If employees do so, then is the work within the scope of their individual employment? If not, then have you taken a written assignment of copyright and other appropriate IP rights? Have you proper permissions to use written material, graphics, photographs, music or anything else created by a third party for use on your web site or in any other manner?
- Does your web site have any metatags, hypertext links, frames or deep links to other web sites? Are these duly authorized by the third parties concerned?
6. Do you know enough about your competitor's IP strategies and IP portfolios?
- Do you have a plan for gathering competitive intelligence? Do you gather or plan to use IP information/databases for obtaining competitive intelligence on your competitors? By searching patent, trademark and industrial design registers, you can gain detailed legal, technical and business information about a competitor's operations and products. You can use this information to assess whether there is likely to be a market for your products. In addition, an IP search allows you to verify whether you can protect your IP, whether you are infringing another party's IP and whether others are already infringing or likely to infringe your IP rights.
- Are there any IP related barriers to enter your competitor's market, e.g., patents, trademarks or industrial designs which underscore customer loyalty to competitor's corporate image, brands, etc.?
7. Do you have an IP policy and IP strategy for your enterprise?
- How do you currently identify, protect, leverage and manage your IP assets?
- What plans do you have in place to derive the maximum value from commercializing your IP assets?
- Do you have a special marketing strategy? Do you plan to export? If so, have you used or plan to use a regional or international filing or registration system (such as the Patent Cooperation Treaty, the Madrid system or the Hague Agreement) for patent applications and trademark or design registrations?
- Have you assessed the potential to commercialize some or all of your IP assets partly or wholly through licensing, franchising and/or selling them?
- Have you conducted an independent IP audit periodically? And has valuation been done of your IP assets? Was this done independently?
- How far have you considered taxation and incentives issues associated with the commercialization of your IP? There may be taxation-related requisites (such as registering) to the commercialization of IP. The taxation treatment of revenues and expenses resulting from the commercialization of your IP can differ widely from the accounting treatment. There may be government financial assistance measures associated with IP assets and their commercialization.
- Do you plan to use your IP assets as security or collateral for a loan, or to create a tradable security in the securities market? What is the possibility of securitization of future revenue streams linked to a bundle/portfolio of your IP assets?
- Do you have a staff education program that covers the management and protection of your IP assets?