Since trade secrets are confidential assets that can significantly impact a company’s value and competitive edge, protecting these assets is extremely crucial when planning a business exit. To help business owners navigate this process with ease and minimum friction and losses, this article explores how to effectively safeguard trade secrets in business exit planning.

Trade Secrets In Business Exit Planning

Business exit planning is a process that business owners use to prepare for their eventual exit from a company. It involves identifying their personal as well as business goals, assessing the value of the business, and planning an exit strategy that allows them to meet the set goals post-business exit. 

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Any business exit plan aims to maximize value, minimize losses, and guarantee a smooth transfer of ownership. There are several parts to business exit planning, including:

Although proprietary secrets are not the most common types of intellectual property rights, they play an important role in any organization. That being said, careful planning is required to guarantee their protection during a business sale or transfer.

What Are Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are confidential and highly valuable information vital to a business’s success. They are intangible assets that give businesses a competitive advantage in the marketplace, especially over their competitors. The value of these secrets relies on their secrecy, and as a result, they are typically only known by certain key members of the company. 

Secrets of the trade can include a wide range of information. Some popular examples are Coca-Cola’s drink formula and KFC chicken spice blend recipe. Unlike patents, business secrets can last as long as the information remains confidential. This implies that it ceases to be a trade secret once the information is disclosed.

These secrets can be guarded through a combination of physical, technical, and legal measures, which include:

Benefits of Trade Secrets 

The importance of proprietary information in any business place cannot be overstated. They drive the profitability and survival of a company, especially in the competitive marketplace. Here are some of the benefits that these secrets offer to businesses: 

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Competitive Advantage

Whether it’s a unique manufacturing process or a food recipe, these intellectual properties enable companies to offer products or services that are different from and likely superior to those of their competitors. This provides businesses with a competitive advantage over their competitors. 

Long-Term Protection

Trade information can theoretically last forever as long as they remain confidential. This enables businesses to create long-term value and profitability by continuously leveraging their trade information. 

Flexibility

Compared to other forms of intellectual property, proprietary information offers a great deal of flexibility and adaptability. Take, for instance, patents, which are typically limited to specific subject matter. On the other hand, trade formulas can protect a wide range of information that can be changed to adapt to market conditions.

Cost-effectiveness

Protecting trade information is often more cost-effective than seeking other forms of intellectual property protection, such as patents or official company trademarks. You don’t need any formal registration or disclosure to own and control a trade secret. This can help you save costs such as application filing fees and renewal fees.

What Qualifies as a Trade Secret

To qualify as a proprietary secret, a piece of information must:

Examples of information that may qualify as trade information include:

Two main areas to review during this process are:

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Importance of Trade Secrets in Business Exit Planning

If you own a business that relies on intellectual property, you must understand that it can significantly affect the success of your business exit. If used and protected properly, trade information can help you meet your personal as well as professional exit goals. 

One surefire way to preserve your business’s value long after your exit is by safeguarding your proprietary secrets. These secrets are an important part of your company’s intangible assets, and potential buyers will likely want to purchase this information that sets your business apart. 

By protecting your proprietary secrets during exit planning, you maintain the value and attractiveness of your business to prospective buyers and investors. This way, you can get more from the sale or otherwise exit of your business.

How to Protect Trade Secrets When Exiting a Business

Taking trade information into consideration when planning for a business exit is important for many reasons. It allows the business to keep its competitive advantage, preserves its value, and reduces the risk of unauthorized disclosure or misuse of confidential information. 

Here are some ways to protect your trade information during business exit planning:

Start with a Plan

As a business owner, you should have a plan in place to protect your intellectual property long before executing any corporate transaction, such as a business sale or transfer. A proprietary secret protection plan should outline the strategies for identifying, safeguarding, and managing proprietary secrets throughout the exit process. 

Identify your Trade Secrets

The first step in protecting proprietary secrets during exit planning is to identify every confidential information that qualifies as trade information. This includes formulas, processes, methods, and any other information critical to your business’s success. Once identified, document and categorize them to guarantee a thorough coverage.

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Assess Vulnerabilities

Evaluate potential risks, both within and outside your company that could affect the secrecy of your proprietary secret. These include: 

Implement Security Measures

After identifying your vulnerabilities, you can take steps to protect your trade information from unauthorized access, use, or disclosure. There are several ways to do this, including: 

Follow the Plan

The effectiveness of your trade secret protection plan depends solely on its implementation. So, it is important to strictly follow the laid-down steps for protecting your trade secrets when planning to exit your business

To guarantee your plan is strictly followed, you can provide training and awareness programs to educate employees on their roles in safeguarding confidential information after your exit. You can also make use of monitoring tools to detect any unauthorized access to confidential information.

Enforce and Protect

Regardless of whether you are selling the business or transferring ownership to a successor, you must take measures to protect confidential information during negotiations, due diligence, and other activities that come with a business exit. Limit access to sensitive information to a need-to-know basis and use secure communication channels both in and out of the office. 

Additionally, enforce the non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) signed by employees, contractors, business partners, and other parties involved in the exit planning. You must also be prepared to take legal action against violators. Consult with your attorney on the best action to address any confidentiality breaches and hold violators accountable for their actions.

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Related Questions 

Are Trade Secrets Protected by Law?

Yes, trade secrets are protected by law. Many countries have common laws in place to safeguard intellectual property from misappropriation or unauthorized use. In the United States, proprietary secrets are protected by the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) of 2016 and the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), which has been adopted by 47 states. 

How Long Do Trade Secrets Last?

Trade information can last for an unlimited time as long as they remain confidential and continue to provide a competitive advantage. Once a trade secret is disclosed to the public, either intentionally or unintentionally or acquired legally, it loses its status as a trade secret and becomes public information. 

Can You License a Trade Secret?

Yes, trade information can be licensed to third parties. A trade secret license grants the licensee permission to use the confidential information for a specific purpose and duration of time, typically in exchange for some form of financial compensation. Licensing proprietary secrets allows businesses to monetize their intellectual property while retaining ownership over its use.

Conclusion

Like every intellectual property right, trade secrets play an important role in any business organization and, hence, must be protected during the exit planning process. To do this, business owners can develop trade secret protection plans to go hand-in-hand with their business exit plans. It is advisable to hire a qualified attorney to guarantee legal enforcement and protection.