Let’s say you own a business that makes something, whether it’s a software product or a hardware device. Your success depends on filling your customers’ needs better than anyone else. You innovate to make your products better, faster, cheaper. You solve your customers’ problems. That’s what your engineers and coders do. But you’re stuck on a plateau. Your sales are flat. Your new product pipeline is dry. Your competitors are stealing your customers with new, low-priced products.

Where will your help come from?

Three possibilities.

I.

Many business owners look outside, hoping the grass will be greener, that others are smarter, more creative.

You could offer a prize! This is the Wall Street Journal’s latest and greatest way to jump-start a moribund business. See “Facing an Idea Deficit, Companies Splurge on Prizes,” WSJ p. A1 (Dec. 10-11, 2016).

Perhaps the most famous example in history of a prizewinning invention, unmentioned by the Journal (maybe too long ago to be relevant), was the “sea clock” or marine chronometer invented by John Harrison in the 1700s. The prize was worth millions in today’s dollars. The only thing is that it took Harrison most of his life to complete and prove the invention to a skeptical Board of Longitude. King George III and Parliament had to step in to reward Harrison. A chronometer industry ultimately emerged. The fascinating story is told in the bestselling book Longitude, by Dava Sobel.

Crowdsourcing is a current fad in the category of prizes. Good luck with that. Aside from the messiness of IP and other issues, the fact is that the “crowd” knows very little about your industry and your customers’ needs. Maybe that’s why the Journal concludes that there is “little evidence that crowdsourcing” has done anything to alter the “innovation landscape.”

II.

Where can you find outsiders smarter than the crowd? Remember: They have to know your industry and your customers’ needs.

Ah, they work for your competitors! Go ahead, ask your competitors if they’d like to sell their patented technologies to you. I have made this ask, and with some success, believe it or not. But I can tell you from experience that most competitors are not friendly to such overtures.

You could hire their smart people to duplicate their products in your shop. Be careful: That’s a good way to get sued. I’ve handled these kinds of cases in court. Do yourself a favor and talk with me before you make the hire. There are better ways and worse ways to make job offers. Sometimes you’re better off to take a pass. Or if you don’t mind a good fight, at least be ready for it.

III.

That leaves your engineers and coders. Yes, I know, they’re not the smartest people in the world. They’re not inventors. Just ask them.

No, not me, they’ll say. I just solve customers’ problems. I just use what I learned in engineering school, or in coding, to solve the problem in front of me. Nothing new about that. I’m not an inventor. I don’t want to blow my own horn.

Before you give up on your own people, consider this: Your engineers and coders know your industry. They know the state of the art. They know your technologies. They know your products. They know your customers’ needs. And they know how to solve those problems.

That, my friends, is invention. And it might be patentable, which is a good way to protect your innovation, market leadership, sales, profits, and capital valuation.

For more on the sparsity of “big ideas” and the secret to spurring invention, see my article Patent Incentives, Innovation and Profits, published at Beem on Patents.

You can make your company so valuable that a bigger company will pay you handsomely to buy you. Or you can operate your company for a profit.

What better prize could you ask?