Is it really necessary to protect your ideas?

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Protection in all its glory
Gotta protect those brainwaves. (Image via FamousInventors.org)

It’s an all too common scenario. An entrepreneur comes up with a brilliant idea or concept, begins working on it, and dreams of being the next big thing in the startup world.

A couple of months later, word on the street is that an ‘acquaintance’ has begun working on an all-too-similar idea all of a sudden. Sound familiar?

The truth is, ideas or concepts come and go, and protecting your ideas doesn’t necessarily benefit your new business in the long run. But somebody lifting your idea can be a nuisance.

So how should you handle rivals? We turned to some MENA-based business owners, legal advisors and startup investors for their advice.

Accept that some of your ideas will be too good not to ‘borrow’

Being in the PR industry, Shamim Kassibawi, managing partner of Spread Communications, has to regularly share ideas with potential clients in order to win business.

“We try to limit how much we share in a proposal, so we only stick to top-line ideas, and we explain why we don’t share too much during the pitching process,” she told Wamda. “Having said that, unfortunately you do have to share some ideas in order to show your thinking, but sometimes companies [take advantage of the process] and end up taking the ideas and implementing them themselves.”

Marianna Boguslavsky, digital strategist and founder of Boguslavsky & Co says that’s why she tends to avoid the ‘traditional’ pitch.

“I find them a bit barbaric, as potential clients sometimes expect you to come up with a three-month strategy for them without signing you on.

“Instead, I focus on discussing my agency's past projects, the digital industry, and higher level strategy ideas that we could potentially apply to them without going into specifics.” 

The law can protect you

Irina Heaver, MENA regional counsel for Svitzer, and regular advisor to startups and VCs says that while one cannot protect an idea, you can protect confidential information that surrounds the idea.

She explained that in the UAE “confidential information is protected under the criminal, civil and labor laws [in respect of employees]”. The Patent and Design Law also contains some provision protecting specific industry know-how.  

Fake it until you make it

“Many novice entrepreneurs insist on confidentiality agreements (CAs),” said Heaver, “but in general very few investors will sign them. Even if they do, CAs are very hard and expensive to enforce.”

She advises that when pitching limit the information you provide – do not reveal your ‘secret source’. Talk about what problem you are working on solving, but limit the information on how you will do that.

“Mark your pitch deck as ‘confidential’ when pitching at public events and include a ‘confidentiality expectation’ clause when pitching in private.”

Investors are on your side

Carlos Domingo, senior executive officer of new businesses and innovation at Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, is a startup investor in the region. He told Wamda: “Experienced investors do not invest only in ideas, but in the team, so do not be afraid to share your ideas with them.

“Investors have a reputation to protect, so it is very unlikely that they will steal ideas from an entrepreneur since that could be the last time they can participate in a deal when word gets out.”

Or it could be the tough love you need

Aurore Belfrage, of Swedish early stage investors EQT Ventures and cofounder of Wrapp certainly has an interesting viewpoint regarding protecting a concept. Instead of keeping quiet – advertise it… all the time.

“Don’t try to protect your ideas. Tell everybody, all the time, everywhere about your idea,” she advises. “Gather feedback. Don't be afraid to be annoying and if somebody steals it and executes better, then, tough. That means you were not the one. Find the next good idea.”

Worry about execution rather than concept

Let’s face it; it’s very rare that you will have come up with idea or concept that is completely original. But even if you think someone is about to steal your million-dollar idea, you can still prove yourself through good old-fashion hard work.

“Ideas aren’t actually worth much without execution, so I worry less about others plagiarizing my ideas and more about how I’m going to action those ideas with excellence,” says Muwaffa Lahham, founder and CEO of E3 Corporation. This company partners with clients in healthcare, manufacturing and distribution in order to optimize its business solutions via technology.

“Even if someone does take an idea of yours, you can still blow them out of the water with stellar execution.”

Maya Itani, editor and consultant at The Marketing Spark concurs.

“I completely agree with his viewpoint,” she said. “People in this region are far too worried about ideas being stolen and they end up limiting collaboration and constructive feedback out of fear of idea theft.”

Finally, believe in yourself

As cliché as it sounds, it’s true. Just ask Thea Myhrvold, CEO and founder of TeachMeNow.com, which recently won $40,000 in seed level funding courtesy of Infiniti Labs.

“You ultimately need to believe that you can implement your idea better than anyone else and stay ahead of the game, as there will always be competition,” she said. “An idea means nothing without execution. Most people will not share the same vision or have the time or know-how to implement it – look at Facebook vs. Myspace.

“Talk about your idea, get feedback and work on continuously optimizing your idea or product and pitch.”

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