So when should you license your technology to other companies? This can be a complicated question, since I always say “no one sells your product like you do.”
Depending upon your tendencies, there is a bias toward holding everything you develop close to the vest, unwilling to give that hard-earned technical advantage to another company. Or you may be on the other side of the fence, and want to very quickly “cash in” on a technological development—thinking that there are very large companies out there that can do a much better job selling the product than you can.
So really, what’s the right approach? Just like most other decisions facing managers of technology companies, there is no one simple answer. It really does depend on your situation.
Have a Process
The best way to approach a decision of this nature is through a methodical, logical process. It shouldn’t be done emotionally, or without proper data. To come to the optimal answer, you need to be very honest about the position of your own company in the market, your priorities, company strengths and weaknesses, and the level of resources available to you. In addition, you need to have a solid understanding of the potential of the technology in the market, whom might be an attractive licensee, how interested they may be, and “can you license to someone else and still sell your own version”?
These, and many other questions, should be answered before you reach a conclusion. All too often, however, I see companies make a snap decision on whether to pursue a licensing strategy or not. This is very strategic question for a company, yet I have seen the decision made on a whim—with less thought than “where should we have lunch today?”
What have you got?
So let’s walk through an example process. First of all, what have you got—really? Is this IP something that is a fundamental step forward, or a “nice to have?” Things that are fundamentally unique, you will want to think very carefully about before sharing with others. It may be the best thing to do, but I would recommend thinking it through most carefully, if you have something truly unique and desirable. Lesser inventions carry lesser risks of lost opportunity costs, if they are licensed out.
Does it fit the Core Business?
Second, how does it fit with your current business? If it doesn’t fit with your core business, and you have no reason to “run away” from your core business, the decision becomes a lot easier. If your current business is thriving and you have quite of bit of runway left to pursue in that market, opening up a second business has a high likelihood of becoming a distraction—potentially harming the core business. Plus, it is very likely in this instance, that you will not be able to do the new opportunity justice, anyway. So to avoid sub-optimal outcomes in both business areas, it almost always makes more sense to license the technology to another player, whose business is a better fit—and one who will dedicate the resources required to gain success.
Can you “have your cake and eat it too”?
Third, if it does fit the core business, can you license it to other segments on a non-exclusive basis? This is an important question to consider. If the answer is yes, I call this “having you cake and eating it too.” The answer to this question is dependent upon a couple of things. Are there “fences” that can be set up between your market segment, and that of the potential licensee?
As an example, let’ say you have a new enterprise application that is different, but complementary, to your existing core product. This new product can be sold to the same type of large corporate customer that your existing product is sold to. But this new application also has strong potential in government markets, where you have no current presence. The government market is very different, and contacts are crucial to success. Instead of trying to build distribution into this new government market from scratch (which can be time-consuming), it is potentially a very wise move to license the new product to a company with existing, strong government business. They can sell it under their own label, put marketing money behind it, provide support, etc. In this way you have accessed that market, without entering into an area outside of your core competency, and without spreading around your scarce resources.
Non-exclusive licensing can be a great compromise
This is the type of “complementary” licensing deal that can be very effective in optimizing your total return on a technology. The key to this strategy is for there to be a good “fence”, so that you don’t create channel conflict between you and your licensee. In this example, you’re in the corporate market, and the licensee is in the government market. So it’s very clean and complementary, basically incremental revenue with little costs.
There are other examples of non-exclusive licensing where you end up competing with your own product under a licensee’s label. This can work as well, but it’s a lot trickier to manage. You will run into channel conflict issues, much like selling your own labeled product through reseller channels, with the added twist of another brand involved in the competition.
The final thing to consider is timing. How well protected is the technology, and how fast is the technological curve moving in this market space? If the market isn’t moving fast technologically, there may be no one overtaking you quickly. A sleepy, slow moving market tips the scales toward keeping the technology and developing the market for it in-house, rather than aggressively licensing it to others. Regardless of your resources, it becomes more likely that you will have time to exploit the IP, when there is little fear of someone leapfrogging your technology. If on the other hand, you’re positioned in a brutally competitive market with rapidly evolving technology, the arrow moves the other direction. In this case, IP is a fleeting advantage, and one that better be used ASAP, before it becomes obsolete. This scenario begs for a strategy of aggressively licensing the technology, to obtain the best return possible, in the short period of time that the IP will be relevant.
There is, of course, much more to consider when undertaking a decision to license/not license out your technology. This discussion provides an introduction to some of the major points that should absolutely be reviewed in any licensing discussion.
I’d love to hear some stories about your own licensing efforts, and hear points of view from a different angle.