In this article, Ptolemy Banks discusses the pitfalls of sharing ideas with other people. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author and do not represent the views of Warwick Enterprise or the University of Warwick, nor are they being presented (by the author or the university) as expert advice. We recommend that you research the topic of Intellectual Property before discussing your business idea. Please see Unit 5.3 and 5.4 of the Warwick Innovation and Entrepreneurship Programme, or the resources available on the IPO website, for more information.
Perhaps you have written an essay and been extremely proud of it, having thought deeply about the idea and invested a lot of time and effort into its realisation. Perhaps a course mate - tasked with the same assessment - has then asked to read your essay for inspiration. If so, you may have worried that they would plagiarise your work, evade the labour, and bask in the glory of a seamless essay that you adroitly put together. This is a feeling commonly experienced by a budding entrepreneur: excited by a concept for a business but too nervous to let it be heard by those who might copy it. Here are some things to bear in mind.
The idea isn’t worth getting paranoid about, only the work you put into it is.
I hope to outline an important distinction between things such as essays and business ideas: the essay is a thing whereas the business idea is not. The value of an essay comes not from the essay idea; anyone can have an idea for a topic, but this won’t get you marks. The value comes from the time and effort you put into that idea and into the words you write. Hence you cannot legally protect an idea for a book, but you can protect the words you write. With this, you see that a business idea holds no value. The time and effort put into making that idea reality hold value. It is also why having an idea does not make someone an entrepreneur. Many people have ideas/realisations in the shower, but the value of an entrepreneur comes not from their ideas but from their ability and proactiveness to make those ideas reality when others don’t. Don’t share any products you have created, however, without legal protection. This would not be giving your idea, but the work you have done to make that idea reality.
If you only tell someone an idea, it is unlikely they would copy it.
Many people feel particularly vulnerable if they have an idea but no team with whom to develop it. Paradoxically, the ideal prospective co-founder seems to also be the ideal prospective idea thief. A proactive, entrepreneurial student may make your idea flourish with or without you, which makes you scared to share your idea. ‘Don’t teach your apprentice all your tricks lest he become the master’, one may think. But realistically, if someone told you about an interesting business idea, it would be arbitrary to pursue it without them rather than join them. If you never share your ideas, you’ll certainly never find a team anyway. That is not to say there is no risk…
In the circumstance that someone copies your idea and does better, it may be for the best.
The only reason someone would pursue your idea without you is if you can’t contribute anything past the ideation phase. Anyone can have the idea of an app that identifies cancerous skin lesions using computer vision, but if you don’t have any experience/knowledge/contacts in business, computer science or biology, someone may run with the idea without you. This may seem unfair but remember that the value of a business is in the work behind it not the idea. If you cannot plausibly contribute to the realisation of an idea, you add no value to it and it is better in someone else’s hands.
The hard truth is that your idea will be in the public eye at some point and if you’re not the best person for the job, it is best if your idea is stolen and beaten sooner rather than later. If you want to act on an idea, tell it to people in the confidence that you are the person that will make that happen due to your mental and physical resources. If someone else hears the idea, makes it and deploys it faster and better than you, you can thank them for saving your time. If you are the rightful entrepreneur for that idea, people won’t be able to compete.
Sharing your ideas has more potential benefits than risks.
Without sharing ideas, you will never find the right team to work with. You can’t do business alone due to workload and narrow-mindedness – disagreement between colleagues ultimately leads to better decision making.
Without sharing ideas, you will never be connected with resourceful people or businesses beyond your network. The people you talk to may not be resourceful, but they often know someone who is. To my great surprise, I frequently talk about my own biotech business only to find that the listener’s dad works in a biotech VC firm, or their friend is a researcher in the field, or something of similar resourcefulness and importance.
Without sharing ideas, you won’t have people notify you about relevant opportunities for support/funding/etc. they hear about. Sharing your ideas has the wonderful result that they keep an eye out for relevant things they hear about and forward it to you.
Perhaps most importantly, without talking about ideas, you don’t hear people’s feedback. You may fall in love with your idea, but love is blind. Hearing what people have to say - good and bad - will give you a better perspective on your own business and increase your success.
A final word
I’d love to hear your views on this topic. I appreciate others may have different perspectives, and I’ll be running a session about intellectual property (how to protect your ideas and products) for student entrepreneurs on Wednesday 30th October, 13:00-14:30, if you want to learn more or talk to me in person. Additionally, I and the other innovation fellows are always available to talk to you about a business idea or any uncertainties you may have so do feel free to get in touch.
My field of interest is healthcare and biotechnology. I study psychology, spent a year in Beijing studying biomedical science, I've worked in hospitals, published in a medical journal, and co-founded a robotic prosthesis company in China. Through doing all these things, I've learnt a lot about the healthcare industry - from research to practice - and as CFO of my company, I've had to meet/negotiate with VCs, incubators, lawyers, etc. Now I have the pleasure of using what I've learnt to help other students start or progress their dream of running a business. Please have a chat with me if you're interested in science and technology, or if you want some help with finance and strategy.
p dot banks at warwick dot ac dot uk