I have a great idea for a phone accessory that has never been done before. I don't have thousands of dollars to patent the idea, so my idea was to try and find a Chinese manufacturer to produce my accessory. Would I need a prototype first? Would a NDA help in protecting my idea until I can afford a patent?
I want to begin by assuring you I don't want to rain on your parade. Now...
Ideas are a dime a dozen.
Execution is what is critical, and hardly anyone does execution well.
NDAs are nice but they won't protect your idea from being ripped off in the medium term at the latest, if it's a winner.
Your best protection is that execution thing...people sure like to talk, but they don't like to Do.
Do NOT have your prototype made in China. It will take months in shipping back and forth, misunderstandings, finding the right manufacturer, and other difficulties. Do not embroil yourself in that mess.
Absolutely you should get a prototype made first. Will it cost you 10-100X what the final version will cost? Of course. Do you need something to show investors, suppliers, channel partners, retail outlets? Yes.
All a patent does is protect your idea for awhile from being duplicated in the exact way you are executing it.
I can't go make a sticky-note that uses a strip of lightweight glue to hold the paper onto something. 3M has that patent. But I could find another method for holding the paper on, and that would be fine.
Worrying about protecting your idea is kind of a waste of time. You should do what you can afford and what makes sense in terms of your time invested to accomplish a level of protection, but don't let this be all-consuming. It's just not worth it.
Get out there and make your product and find paths to market. That's what will really pay off. Someone WILL copy your product sooner or later if it's a money-maker. That's why developing great branding is so important: keep the knock-offs in the knock-off category in your buyer's brain, and you as the top quality original.
A prototype is a good start, plus it will allow you to get feedback from consumers before spending money to produce a larger batch. You can use services like Maker's Rowe to find domestic producers or even try to 3d print your initial prototype. If your idea is great you might consider gaining resources through kickstarter or quirky.
I am a serial inventor and have been producing new products since the early1990's . I have had many patents to my name, have worked for the UK Government as their innovation advisor and for the past 15 years I have been Chairman of the Judging panel for the World Innovation Awards.
Your product sounds interesting and if you believe that it is unique, innovative AND that consumers will want it then there are several things that you should do, in my opinion.
NDA's are useless in terms of what protection they may be able to offer to you HOWEVER, I always believe that you should get them signed by ANYONE that you share your idea with. Why? because they form a part of your IP inventory and if later on you are seeking any kind of funding it will be great to be able to tell potential investors that you have been diligent enough to insist upon NDAs because is will be testament to your management skills and your eye for detail. They are also CRUCIAL if anybody decides that they wish to challenge your patent one day on grounds of it having been in the public domain prior to you priority date.
Patents are very cheap, initially, and are an excellent form of protection. Again, as a balance sheet item they are also hugely valuable; whether you are seeking investment or an eventual exit route. For the first year, you will have worldwide protection at minimal cost. Later on, if you decide to go for individual territories then you can backdate your patent applications to your priority date. This must be done , however, within a year of your priority date.
Patents, of course, don't only protect you with regard to manufacturing rights, they also protect sales. So, if someone is breaking your patent in terms of manufacture, you can slap an injunction onto anyone trying to import/distribute/retail your product in a protected territory.
With regard to prototypes, I would strongly advise that you DO consider China. There are absolutely incredible prototyping companies and services available there and they generally produce immensely fine products at a fraction of the cost of western companies. And generally in a far more timely manner too! The thing is that you must be very wary about who you approach and also make sure that you have great refences on them. I would always suggest a face to face meeting or the use of a local ex-pat to guide you in this process. It would be foolhardy to approach manufacturers or prototype makers by email or phone other than to establish initial communications with a view to an eventual face-to-face meeting.
I spend about half of my year in China and know plenty of design, prototyping and production management firms (generally run by ex-pats) where security is tantamount and quality and service is second to none. Conversely, I have had many prototypes made in the west and although quality has been fairly good, these have tended to be slow and overpriced affairs. My Chinese prototypes, on the other hand, have always been of the most astonishing quality, regardless of the complexity of the product.
Finally, in my experience, one rarely has problems with copy-cat/rip-off manufacturers until a product is hugely successful. Counterfeiters are not in the business of developing new markets, that is far too risky for them. They prefer to steal their way into established markets where demand is high.
I am sure that I can assist you and I am happy to have a follow up call with you if you wish to get any further information or contacts from me.