How to protect your idea and turn it into a business

IT'S a situation that entrepreneurs throughout Scotland will recognise '“ you wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea.

Picture: PA

You scramble about for a pen and a piece of paper and, after jotting down your amazing inspiration, you drift back off into a satisfied sleep.

Then the hard work begins – you wake up the next morning and scratch your head as you try to figure out how to turn that idea into a business.

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For Murray McNicol and Willie Biggart, necessity was the mother of invention.

The pair had become investing directors in a catering business in Glasgow, which was delivering lunches to up to 50 companies and public sector bodies each day.

“Everything was run using handwritten notes in triplicate,” McNicol remembered.

“We searched around for a piece of software that would help to eliminate the simple mistakes – like lunches being delivered to the wrong offices – but we couldn’t find any and so we decided to write our own.”

When the corporate catering market took a nosedive following the financial crisis, McNicol and Biggart decided to sell their business but keep the software and license it to other companies – and so Spoonfed was born.

“Caterers love it because when they see the software they can tell we’ve built lots of features into it that will help to stop them making silly mistakes,” McNicol said.

“They can see we’ve got the battle scars from having worked in the industry.”

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Tracey Eker came up with the idea for Flexiworkforce after also spotting a gap in the market.

Eker wanted to return to work but couldn’t find high-quality flexible employment that fitted around childcare and other commitments.

“Searching job websites became a full-time job in its own right,” she explained.

“I spoke to other parents at the school gate and found they were in the same situation – there were doctors, lawyers and highly-skilled customer service people whose talents were going to waste.”

Eker joined Entrepreneurial Spark, the world’s largest free business incubator service, to help get her idea off the ground.

She developed the current version of her website by speaking to customers about what they wanted and grouped job seekers into six categories or circles – “55-plus”, “graduate and early professional”, “parent and carer”, “disability”, “senior executive and management” and “service leavers and sports professionals”.

Eker added: “We’ve built in other features that allow employers and job seekers to have one-to-one conversations.”

When it comes to turning an idea into a business, protecting your intellectual property (IP) is a really important step.

Richard Gibbs, managing partner in the Glasgow office at patent attorney firm Marks & Clerk, explained: “There are three main ways of protecting your IP – patents, designs and trademarks.

“If your product has an attractive look or novel design then you would use design protection.

“If you’ve created a machine or a widget or a process then you would consider a patent or if you’ve created a brand or logo or new name for your company then you could register it as a trademark.”

Gibbs’ firm deals with IP from a broad range of industries, including the oil and gas sector, life and chemical sciences, and the emerging digital technology sector.

He added: “Protecting IP can be a long and complicated process and there is an element of investment at the start – but it’s perhaps more important to focus on what the person wants the IP to do for their business.

“It has to add some value – protecting IP can help to attract investment or other interest in a business.”

Attracting investment – whether through IP or other assets – is one of the many factors that’s tracked by Young Company Finance, which has been monitoring how entrepreneurs turn ideas into businesses and raise funding since 1998.

Jonathan Harris, publisher and editor at Young Company Finance, said: “As the entrepreneurs quoted above would confirm, there is far more to raising finance for a start-up business than simply having a good idea. That said, there is now a wealth of advice available to young companies, and a wide range of different funding options suitable for businesses in different sectors at different stages of development.”

This article was produced in partnership with Young Company Finance