As VP of Engineering for a start-up company developing intellectual property software for real-time due diligence auditing, I learned quite a lot about IP law. I had many detailed discussions with the legal experts on our team about the rules and how they are broken. Through that experience, I developed a unique (and arguably dangerous) perspective. My science brain thrives on factual information. It helps me sort through on my own a lot of the little procedural questions most folks have. That saves the company money in those rare cases we need to seek legal counsel. I can cut to direct questions about scenarios and outcomes, bypassing a lot of the time folks normally spend having their lawyer explain some complicated shit to them. I’m not a lawyer and don’t want to be, but it’s nice to have an insider’s perspective. That is, until you find out someone has shamelessly copied your idea, taken it as their own, and attempted to compete with you directly, all after having been an employee some few months earlier. What’s worse – this is completely legal.
I am collaborative by nature. I am an active participant in the open source community. It was hard for me to take a job in IP because at the time I believed patents to be stifling more innovation than they inspire, and the notion of copyright was amusing. Protecting bunches of binary data seemed counter to the way of the 21st century. I still believe ideas can not be owned, but now I understand why specific things are protected in specific ways. Some ideas are held in strict confidence because they are so incendiary, so disruptive, that the mere mention of a few words together in public might spark a creative geyser in anyone within earshot. Those ideas are best protected by simply not sharing them in public. The upside to this is protection of your trade secret. The downside is you can’t build awareness for your new brand until you’ve already sunk some capital into it to have momentum, in the inevitable event that someone copies you. Let’s face it. Just about every great idea has been copied.
Instead of the trade secret route, my partner and I took the open approach, discussing the project publicly, even via Twitter. Months went by, and we quietly published our app as a public beta. We’ve had limited success, but there is a steadily growing trend of users and downloads, and we’re very pleased with the analytics we’ve collected. In fact, we’re very close to the official 1.0 launch. One day last week, as I was coordinating pre-release binary distributions for device testing, I saw an email from my partner, wherein I found a link to a website for this competing product. I looked just long enough to notice they have not yet launched and don’t appear to offer anything we aren’t offering. I knew it was inevitable. The space was ripe when we started. I am very confident in our ability to deliver a superior product to anything on the market. Then, my partner did a little digging.
As it turns out, the company promoting this new competing product is based in Sarasota, only an hour from our office in St Petersburg. At quick glance, I often ignore little details of things like websites, especially when I don’t normally care about things like bylines because I’m not writing a book report on yeti and I don’t need to contact the author or credit them. This was one of those cases. It took a few glances to notice that the byline in this case was amazingly the same name as a former employee of my partner. Must be coincidence, right? It couldn’t be. A quick search on Facebook reveals that this former employee had indeed recently changed their employment status to Lead Developer for the very company introducing a competing product. There was ample opportunity for this employee to hear detailed discussions about the product, including features and concept themes. Instead of expressing interest in participating in the development, this person chose to secretly take notes and use the opportunity to steal the concept.
I want to publicly shame this person by revealing their name. I really do, but I am better than that. Instead, I choose to take a different approach. Consider this a challenge.
Dear Copycats & Concept Thieves,
I brought something great to market through careful and deliberate consideration. I dare you to do better. I wake up every morning thankful for the opportunity to stand up and say,
“I built this company and others from nothing, without fear of rejection or potential competition. I don’t give a damn about what you do. If you want to go out and make something to compete with me, good luck to you. In fact, competition validates my investment. Know that all you do will only inspire me to work harder and smarter.”
I hope you brought your A game. You’re going to need it.