Contrary to my usual protests, there are rare occasions when you should worry that an idea you have will be “borrowed”. I have a customer with a product idea that lends itself to being copied and frankly, I’m not sure how to have the conversation. The issue of possible design theft never came up because she’s not paranoid. I’m hoping you have some ideas and suggestions to offer.
[First a short reminder for those new to this site; you have little to worry about from pattern makers, fabric salesmen and sewing contractors. Most of the people who will copy you are other people on your same level.]
I struggle to describe the product without giving it away so let’s describe it as a functional change that could potentially be used on any shirt cuff. The market could be defined as 25%-50% of the population (in North America -for starters) that buys shirts with cuffs.
The idea is solid and useful but it hasn’t gotten any traction either. By traction I mean that no one is doing it commercially. I think it is very educational to explain why it is that the concept hasn’t become common from a manufacturing standpoint in the event you face a similar dilemma.
In the big picture, button down shirts are largely a commodity that span a broad range of pricing. There isn’t much new about shirts; factories that make them have a lot of specialized equipment and established operations to do it. The margins are pretty small but still profitable because it is steady business -men mostly buy them and will need to constantly replenish their wardrobes. The problem with implementing this new cuff style is that in order for it to become widely adopted, it will force a retooling of all the equipment and dies in factories all over the globe. Now, since manufacturers are reluctant to retool with new equipment for the demands of new cuff design -for which there are no demonstrated sales- this new cuff design is not likely to be adopted overnight. This means my customer will need to have the shirts produced manually, without the automated equipment.
Having to produce the shirts manually presents two problems. First is that the costs of production will be higher and of course, so will retail prices. Second is the chicken and egg problem of scale; since the shirts can’t be produced by a larger factory, it will take longer for the particular design feature of the shirts to become known or popular and of course, for the shirts to be sold in the typical sort of retail outlets that sell them. And this is beside the point of my customer being a very tiny operation and not prepared to manufacture 100 shirts much less being prepared to fill an order from the likes of LLBean.
There is still a third problem -styling. The new cuff design is not such a game changer that a man (or woman) will buy and or wear a shirt they think is ugly. This means that my customer will have to design a broader range of styles to entice consumers than a start up would normally want to.
I should mention that I haven’t overlooked the possibility of a patent. I don’t think it is advisable because it would become nearly impossible to enforce. If the concept became popular, my customer wouldn’t have time to manufacture anymore because all of her time would be spent running after infringers and she’d need a very big pot of money to do it. Reason is, it would be an idea whose time has come -not an idea so pivotal it would change economic forces (like the cotton gin) and also, not destined to be as ubiquitous as the elimination of beverage can pull tabs. One can have a patent but if you don’t have the money to enforce it, the patent is close to worthless. And sure, a larger firm could license the patent from my customer but then the larger firm would then spend all of their time policing the marketplace instead of making stuff themselves -because it is that sort of idea. The cycle of adoption would be akin to the new type condiment bottles that squirt from the bottom. Customers begin to expect that and won’t want to pay extra for it.
So, I think the most likely outcome for my customer in this situation is that she makes and sells some shirts. Maybe she makes a little money and enjoys it but her business will really become that of a shirt maker, not a nifty cuff design producer.
If she is successful, other shirt companies will do a cost benefit analysis for the cost of retooling the shirt manufacturing process to incorporate the cuff feature into some of their styles. However, being that they are so much larger, will be able to supplant my customer’s advantage. Which is why I say that to retain a portion of the market potential, she must develop a very sophisticated shirt making operation in a relatively short period of time.
I think my customer could make a go of this as long as she realized that it would be inevitable that her cuff design is adopted by other manufacturers and of course, that she retained a sense of humor about it. Ideally her branding would say that she is the original designer of XYZ cuff feature and if she made good shirts with styling people liked and at a price they were willing to pay, she’d have a nice business for herself.
So hopefully I’ve laid this out properly -namely that although a person can have a great idea that affects a large segment, it doesn’t mean that the idea is a guaranteed money maker. So what do you say?