A few weeks ago, entrepreneur and Tesla CEO Elon Musk did one of the most interesting things I think any entrepreneur can do - he opened up all of his patents. His company, which develops electric automobiles, will now not initiate lawsuits against people who want to use their technology.
This led me to think about the many startups I have had pitching to me, be it in my day job or on Dragons' Den. One of the most common mistakes they make is spending a huge amount of time and money on patenting their idea, rather than getting out there and testing their idea. Speaking to potential customers and industry experts should be one of the first things you do, because you need to know if your idea is commercially viable. If you're sure that it is, only then should you think about patenting, but even then I wouldn't be overly worried in most cases.
In a way it's the natural thing to do - if you feel you have a unique business idea you automatically want to protect it. But what you need to remember is that anybody can copy your idea. They will go to a good patent lawyer and simply make a few alterations. Ask your own lawyers what somebody else would need to do in order to duplicate your idea without infringing the patent. If the answer turns out to be 'not a lot', then ask yourself whether it's worth patenting it in the first place.
Another thing I sometimes notice is that people become secretive and almost paranoid when it comes to sharing their idea. This links in with the thinking that you must patent your idea, and it gets to a stage where you're not able to take on board any feedback. Share your idea as much as possible - the feedback will tell you what you are doing right and wrong.
Remember however to not just ask people such as family and friends. As I mentioned above, ask people who you will be targeting. Also ask the right questions. Human nature means people will naturally want to say positive things but what you really want to know about is the flaws in your business model.
Whenever I'm contemplating whether an idea will work, I never ask "Is the idea good?". I always ask "What's wrong with it - why wouldn't it work?". If the reasons that are given are not fixable, then I have just saved myself all the potentially wasted time and money.
In all honesty, there are very few unique ideas out there. One of my favourite sayings is 'you don't need to reinvent the wheel' - in other words you don't need a brand new invention. You just need to find something that differentiates you. This is the exact philosophy someone will apply to make your expensive patent invalid.
What really matters is how the idea is executed. That's what makes the difference. Things like your brand, your marketing, the attention you pay your customers, and crucially - the passion you have for the idea - are what make your proposition unique. Success is built on people, not products or patents.