Every day across meetings, trainings, events and consulting, I meet people with great ideas but unwilling to push those ideas further because someone else might steal it from them. Interesting enough, after getting most of them to share their thoughts, I could clearly point out why their ideas are not ‘unique’ to them – someone was already working on something similar. True that, nothing is more heartbreaking than discovering the idea you so much cherished, conceptualized and developed has been ‘stolen’ by some other people and I have had my fair share – you lose the product, the profits and annoyingly the bragging rights! Ideas are difficult to protect and it is not enough to have a business idea. Lots of factors are responsible for opening up opportunities for ideas to everyone and anyone; therefore you cannot claim sole ownership for it – bad news. If you are waiting for a time when you will be paid royalties for offering an idea, think again; many people will have great ideas, but what separates those who gloat over ideas from those make money from it, is a well defined execution strategy that bridges the gap between a mere idea and a strong brand that exhibits every form of a great asset.
In fact, it is difficult to prevent others from creating a version of your big idea, but then, the good news is that the expression of ideas can be protected and you can secure yourself in business through registration. For your ideas to ever amount to anything anyway you must have taken steps to give it expression – a product/invention, a model, a book, a method, song… you gorrit, it’s time to get beyond just an idea.
In a digital age where anything related to media content (music, data and video) can be digitalised and distributed globally at negligible cost–coupled with the disintermediation of traditional distribution processes – two things are being challenged. First, the methods and approaches to protecting the ownership of creative ideas. Two, the use of creative expressions.
Meet Linus, the Linux
The story of Linus Trovalds, the founder of Linux, remains a classic case study in the world of free sharing and development. In 1991, when he was just twenty-one and working out of his family’s apartment in Helsinki, he wrote the codes of a new computer operating system called Linux, an open source software which he posted for free sharing, development and distribution on the internet – and invited anyone interested to help improve it. As at the time he did this, Apple and Microsoft had begun to build a reputation for making huge sales on their products while protecting its rights to the source codes and didn’t give him much thought.
With Linus Trovalds having written only 20% of the complete Linux Operating software around, he opened a gate for the Open Source movement in which software code is shared and developed in a collaborative manner rather than limiting its potential to one individual. Looking back on this move to relinquish sole ownership of the software, Peter Gumbel succinctly puts in his article in TIME Magazine’s November 2006 edition; ‘By giving away his software, the Finnish programmer earned a place in history’.
Since then, Linux has had tremendous growth even against the copyright-protected Microsoft. It is the technology used to run most dependable computers and mobile phones. Not only that, Linus Trovalds has an asteroid named after him-9793 Trovalds an Annual Geek festival, he is also recognised as one of the pioneers of the Open Source Movement. With Linux offering an alternative to Sun, Apple and Microsoft, most of Silicon Valley’s richest venture capitalists have invested in Linux operations. Linux was later persuaded to own and manage its trademark rights under the Linux Mark Institute.
The unconscious strategy to relinquish ownership eventually become a strong enough strategy to help him as leverage against strong industry giants. Before you hide your ideas under the carpet, what good will it be if it were 100% locked?
What did Linus do right?
Learning from Linus
Business growth and strategy needs to be considered especially when developing and protecting your brand assets. The product of your extensive market research may be a free incentive given out to open up the market by your competitor. Using ‘free’ as a strategy is already at the heart of freemium business models which offers core services for free while charging premium for advanced or special features. It may be feature limited–likeDropbox, Skype– or time-bound-like Microsoft.
I once saw this posted on Nairaland;
Is it possible to share an idea while it’s still yours? Even when a well-protected idea/product is launched, it can easily be imitated in a fraction of the time taken to develop it. It is easier for other companies to analyse, disassemble and create improved/ less expensive alternatives of your product within a shorter period of time. Since only the expression of ideas can be protected, a different expression of your original idea is not covered. For instance, a quick scrutiny of price wars and packages within the Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), banking and telecommunication sectors will reveal only a slight difference in product offerings.
So often, entrepreneurs get to this point when they have to choose between covering up their ideas and letting it go. At some point, you will need to let go of your ideas to make it fly. For a bird to fly, see many worlds, conquer places, it has to leave its cage: you may need to give your idea that freedom to see it grow, transform into something bigger. Keeping your ideas only within your grasp in the name of not wanting anyone to steal it is probably an indication that those ideas are not big enough.
Most businesses that become great at one time or the other were built through partnerships. When investors and venture capitalists are involved, they are more careful about investing in ideas that are managed, owned and nutured by one man; what happens to the business since one individual is the soul of the business? They are more likely to invest in ideas that have involved others, who invested time, funds and effort. How can you then afford to treat potential investors suspiciously? How will you hide your ideas when you need technical advice for your feasibility report? How will you push your business plan when you are distrusting your investors?
Linus opened it up to the world, it got better. What do you stand to gain by opening it up? What do you stand to lose by keeping it under wraps? Weigh your options.
Every entrepreneur is a risk taker that is unafraid of taking leaps of faith. At those times you are faced with the choice of both taking necessary precautions and disclosing your idea to build a great business or to keep it to yourself and build nothing except a dusty registration paper; it’s time to draw on that faith.