Monday, April 16, 2007

The Shy Inventor

A quick follow-up to my Dragons’ Den post of the other day.

While I was between “auditions” of potential Dragons’ Den participants, a young guy came up to me with a question. Pulling out the yellow legal form that all pitchers must sign, he asked if it was true that, if he signed it, anyone on the DD team could steal his idea and run with it themselves.

I hadn't read the contract, and said so, but I took the liberty of telling him that's the way the world works. Once you disclose your idea to anyone, you risk idea theft and knockoffs.

The question is, what’s your idea really worth? Few ideas are so original or brilliant that they need to be kept under lock and key. Instead of keeping everything secret, and fussing over patents and non-disclosures, I think most entrepreneurs should talk up their ideas and actively seek out feedback, criticism and help.

Very few people are going to drop everything to compete with you when you have a head start in time, effort and (presumably) relationships and planning. So yes, the CBC crew could steal his idea, but the chances of them doing so are just about nil; and the chances that they could do it better than he can are probably even less.

So would he tell me his idea? He smiled and said he’d think about it.

As I write this, I recall that I dealt with this subject a year ago in a post quoting tireless CEO blogger Jim Estill of Synnex Canada in Guelph, Ont. "It is not the ideas that will make a business successful, it is the implementation," Jim said.
"When EMJ (Jim's startup firm) was public, I was worried people would see our statements and public disclosures and copy what we were doing. Some tried. Over time I came to realize that implementation is hundreds of little things that tend to be almost impossible to copy..."

"Most entrepeneurs could be more successful by simply implementing now and faster rather than trying to keep everything a secret. I have seen more failures caused by inaction than caused by having ideas stolen."

BTW, as I was leaving the Dragons’ Den auditions Saturday, the shy inventor came up to me again. He said he’d decided to tell me his idea.

I won’t give it away, but it’s a big idea, visionary, and probably expensive. I doubt a single entrepreneur with limited financial resources could pull it off.

So I suggested he get in touch with established players in his industry and try to work with them to push the industry in the direction he wants to see it go. Strong, helpful relationships can do more to make your business competitor-proof than the best patent lawyer in town.

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