Doing your research
No matter whether you have a 'big idea' or simply want to promote your own skills and capabilities as a consultant, you will need to research the market within which you will be operating. This will not only enable you to spot gaps in the market and assess the competition, by seeing who or what is already out there, but it will also give you an idea of the types of people and organizations you might be dealing with in the future.
For those of you who are thinking of developing a product or service, keeping up-to-date with current trends at the global, national and local level is vitally important so that you ensure your 'idea' is both viable and future proof i.e. it will have some degree of longevity or at least can be adapted in line with new technological developments etc. This means reading and analyzing business and specialist press in your field and also paying attention to wider issues that might impact on your particular project e.g. European legislation or the merger of two of your potential rivals.
If you are based in London, the British Library offers a number of useful resources for budding entrepreneurs via its Business & Intellectual Property (IP) Centre, which runs business advice sessions and free e-courses focusing on developing and protecting your ideas. The centre also gives you free access to a range of extremely informative databases and directories. These include business and industry information and financial news (Amadeus, Economist Intelligence Unit Viewswire, Euromonitor, Factiva, Fame, Financial Times, OneSource and the Complete Business Reference Adviser (COBRA), market research reports (Mintel, Datamonitor and Frost & Sullivan) and UK and overseas trade directories, giving company information on suppliers.
Safeguarding your idea
Once you've established that your product or service is viable, you will may want to ensure that it is recognised as your intellectual property (IP). This means that you are identified as the 'owner' of the idea and are allowed to manage how it is used and who is able to use it. The type of protection you need will depend on what you are protecting and how you intend to develop and use it. IP can refer to copyrighted material such as art, music or films, particular designs, including brand logos, and patents, which protect the technical and functional aspects of products and processes.
A good starting place is the UK government's website on IP: Intellectual Property Office. They provide a host of easy to understand information all aspects of securing, managing and protecting your IP. They also provide a very handy leaflet and off the shelf non-disclosure agreement, which you may want to use when speaking to others about your idea.
The Business & Intellectual Property Centre is another place that can help you search a large number of databases listing patents, trade marks and registered designs, including Derwent Innovations Index, Esp@cenet and Optics. This will enable you to make sure that your own 'idea' doesn't infringe another group or individual's intellectual property. The centre also runs courses on IP and you can access their introductory slides to IP here.
As well as securing your intellectual property, you will also need to ensure that all your entrepreneurial activities have a legal framework around them, whether you are going to be simply self-employed or plan to set up a company, social enterprise or charity. This may not be something which, in your case, it is essential to do straight away or necessarily involve scary amounts of paperwork or legal fees, but you need to be aware of the types of legal statuses available and suitable for you. Your legal status can be changed later on, in fact it is likely to change as your activities evolve.
However, you need to get started somewhere. HM Revenue and Customs: Starting Up is a useful place to find out more. General information about the regulatory framework in the UK is also provided by the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Charity Commission if you are thinking of applying for charitable status. Additionally, ByteStart has a comprehensive directory of Small Business Legal Guides to help you get orientated
If, in the early stages you opt for the simple option of registering as self-employed then the HMRC also provides information on how to register, pay tax, National Insurance and keep records. If you find you have more specific questions, you can also call their helpline for the Newly Self-Employed on 08459 15 45 15.