What happens if someone steals your idea?

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A month ago a story made the headlines in Algeria: in 2014 the well-known, deep-pocketed media entrepreneur Kamel Haddar allegedly stole the idea of the startup he mentored, Dirassatti, and launched iMadrassa.

Now, Dirassatti is going bankrupt.

“Yes, I consider that my idea has been plagiarized but it’s not what’s bothering me. The real problem is that Kamel Haddar, being our coach, had access to strategic documents (business plan, business execution, benchmarks, production process, etc) without which he wouldn’t have been able to launch the platform,” Sidi Said told Wamda in an email.

“Even more important, he influenced our choices, choices that lead us to bankruptcy,” he said. He’s now suing Haddar over this.

Haddar disagrees, saying the idea was old and the execution was all down to him.

“I’m the one who did the business and communication plans, I can prove it,” he told Wamda over the phone. “The idea, it has existed in Algeria for more than five years, it’s a young woman who did it, the website still exists, it’s called eduDZ.net. The second partner left at the same time as I did […] It’s a story of two partners who didn’t get along, that’s it”

“They’re not capable of executing, I executed, period,” he concluded.

Vol d'idée
Can you even steal a startup idea? (Image via les Sims)

Whether an idea has been ‘stolen’ and breach of trust will be up to the courts. But one thing is sure, this story is a story of coworkers who didn’t get along.

So does this mean young entrepreneurs should keep their ideas to themselves? Does this mean they shouldn’t enter competitions or confide in mentors?

Ideas don’t matter

Wamda sent out a number of tweets and Facebook posts to find out if this has happened to anyone else. After several discussions with entrepreneurs, we couldn’t find a single person who considered their idea to have been stolen. Dirassatti seems to be an exception.

When we asked our followers if they believed it was ever okay to be inspired by another person's business idea and execute your own version of it, they replied, on mass, that it wasn’t stealing.

It’s competition.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with a startup scene that is run by one motto:Ideas don’t matter, execution is key.

Ideas are plentiful and rarely original; it’s unlikely that you’re the only one with ‘your’ idea so what matters is how you do it.

Entrepreneurs frequently get inspired by concepts that are raging somewhere else. Sometimes, they do come up with brand new concepts, but oftentimes someone else has had the exact same idea at the same time and launches a similar service a few months before or after their rival’s launch.

Look at the online classifieds market in Morocco, ecommerce marketplaces, the carpooling market. Did the each of those entrepreneurs steal an idea or had an idea’s time simply come?

Competition is a good thing

Competition can accelerate companies’ failure or success.

Yassine El Kachchani launched an online food delivery service called LaCartePlz in Morocco in June 2012. A few months later, Rocket Internet launched a similar service, HelloFood, there. By January 2013, El Kachchani had pivoted; in the end competition helped him take the right decision for his startup.

“We had the right product at the right time, but not in the right market. I should have realized that the product wasn’t right for the market,” El Kachchani told Wamda in 2013.  

He cited two reasons for what happened. First, the market wasn't mature enough so it was difficult to do marketing there with a small budget. Second, the product was not a good fit for the market, as customer service was not restaurant owners’ biggest priority.

El Kachchani is today managing a successful startup, Hidden Founders, which is an agency acting as a “temporary CTO" for EMEA startups.

In the fashion industry, copying designs is frowed upon yet there too competition can be a strength.

Salma Tabiat and a friend launched a fashion brand, whose name they’d rather not disclose, from a touristy village in Morocco. They found old pieces of clothing in markets and reinvented them by adding traditional fabrics. Quickly, locals started copying their design and selling them for half the price.

“It was rough. It made me feel my product wasn’t special anymore,” Tabiat said.

But her morale and motivation weren’t the only thing that was threatened: locals had actually asked her suppliers not to deliver to them and to set a higher price for the raw materials.

“Success would’ve have been [the same even if their idea hadn’t been stolen] but it takes a lot of energy away,” she added. “I learned that it doesn’t matter, we are stronger in online sales, marketing and actual recycling (which was the main goal). We don’t sell a product but a style [and] lifestyle people want to be engaged with.”

The founders focused less on their local market and more on an international market. “I remember saying ‘let them have the tourists, we can have the world and get a higher price and pay our employees more’.”

Surrounding yourself with the right people

Sidi Said’s story brings us to another question: should you share everything with your mentors? Can you trust mentors, jury competition, support organizations, investors?

“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,” Carlos Domingo, a startup investor in the region, told Wamda in March.

Take the Haddar story. According to an Algerian source, who wished to remain anonymous, everybody in the Algerian startup scene knew not to work with him before the Dirassatti story broke, first in the ecosystem and then in local media outlet Tamurt.

Still, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t share your story. The more you share, the more you protect your ideas, believes Aurore Belfrage, of Swedish early stage investors EQT Ventures and cofounder of Wrapp.

“Don’t try to protect your ideas. Tell everybody, all the time, everywhere about your idea,” she told Wamda last month. “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.”

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