I consult to companies. I specialize in problem resolution, project management, research and occasionally, if there's a call for it, development.
Recently, I was contacted by a development manager at a small company. I was referred to him as someone who can help him move some of his (mostly) hardware products into "the cloud". We met at his office so I could convince him to retain my services. It was a long conversation. He outlined his need to get "new directions" to differentiate himself from his competitors. As I was there to sell my services, I went along with it. At one point, an idea popped into my head - something no one has done before. I outlined it to him. He was skeptical at first, but I, as I'm wont to do whenever under the influence of a new idea/technology, kept talking and finally convinced him my idea is the best, brightest, coolest way to go. We agreed I'll do a feasibility research of my idea and quote him on a proof-of-concept.
Not a single paper was signed by either side (lawyers, I can literally hear your slap to the forehead).
For almost 2 months, silence. I kept contacting him and he had all kinds of excuses for not starting a contract. He just kept asking questions about my idea: will it run in this or that environment, what equipment would it require, etc. At one point, I became suspicious and started answering very vaguely.
Cut to this week. The guy calls me and tells me the reason he was busy was because they had their annual customers meeting. Oh, and by the way, they 'unveiled' a future product to the customers, and got cheers and interested inquiries. The 'product' was my idea - exactly as presented during the meeting.
As I was picking my jaw from the floor, he told me why he's calling me. Apparently, he thinks I have 'good ideas' and would like to buy a bank of hours from me, to chat for an hour or two every week, and see if I can give him new ideas. I kid you not. I tried talking about my original idea. He ignored (literally) the question and asked for a quote on the hours. I'm delaying my answer.
My questions are basic, but not simple:
- Do I let go of my idea? I have no papers, so I assume I can't sue. Should I just chuck it up to a lesson to keep my mouth shut in future sale calls?
- Since I did not sign an NDA, can I go on with developing my idea, or even selling it to his competitors (now that he ha done the market research for me)?
- Should I do business with this person/company at all? Would doing that be proof in the future that I gave up on my idea?
- Bonus question: how do you go about selling/proving your knowledge and expertise, without providing it for free?
Update 5/15/11: Just thought I'd update you about the situation. I spoke to the guy again. He acknowledged me being the originator of the idea, and promised that if/when they will decide to take it to market, he'll come to me first to develop it. In the meantime, he hired me for 2 other projects.
I should have said "no", but I took the advice I was given, and quoted the highest hourly rate I ever charged for such a task - and he signed the SOW.
I'm not sure about the long run of our relationship. But I will keep trying to develop my idea on my own. After all, there's at least one party already interested :)
I want to thank you all for sharing your wisdom and time. Hope I'll get to do the same for you.