What to Do When Someone Steals Your Startup Idea

Dear Professor Investor, I have an idea that I presented two years ago and now I see other people are working on it. What should I do?

Les from Oakwood, OH

You cannot patent an Idea. On your journey from idea to innovation to patent and then, hopefully, to riches, you shouldn't be thinking you'll get rich simply by selling your idea to industry then sit back and collect royalty checks for doing nothing. Ideas are a dime a dozen. What is valuable is not an idea that it would be wonderful to have this or that functionality, but rather how you specifically envision providing that functionality. Investors who back execution note ideas, and while innovations are patent-able (i.e., ideas converted to a useful and novel original form), ideas are not. Execution not ideas generate wealth.

Start by answering this question quickly and truthfully to yourself: Did you begin working on your idea so you could build a business, or did you want to create something to sell right away? The answer should tell you where your passion is, and your passion is what will get you through the rough days.

Regardless of your answer, the next step is to study the competition and figure out what makes you unique as well as what makes your innovation novel. Why is your product better than someone else's? Does it solve a different need than theirs? Does it follow a different process or path to solve the same need? Once you know that, improve your product based on your findings. You may end up choosing to work with another company, and in that case you'll be on favorable terms coming into the discussion because you already have this knowledge. Either way, you'll have something that works better than the competition or offers a positive difference.

If you have no team, or your team is lacking what your competition has, this could be a great reason to reach out to them. Alternately, if you have the right team or the capability to build one, there is little to gain from partnering with other startup competitors. Remember: it takes a team to build a successful business and your competitors are not the first or second to go down this path.

Questions can be sent to sean.wise@ryerson.ca, Please be sure to include "Dear Professor" in the subject line.