Someone Stole My Startup Idea – Part 1: Are Those My Initials?

In my 21 years of startups I’ve had my ideas “stolen” twice.  Once it almost mattered. This is about the time it didn’t.

Worries from the garage
One of the worries I hear from entrepreneurs (not just my students) is that Customer Development means getting out of the building and sharing what you are working on.  What if, gasp, someone steals my idea?  Then all my hard work will be for nothing.

This actually happened to me twice in my career.

The first time was at Rocket Science Games. I was positioning the company as the second coming of the video games businesses at the intersection of “Hollywood Meets Silicon Valley.”  This was a great positioning, it helped us raise lots of money and get tons of press.  I had a wonderful set of slides that illustrated (to me) this inevitable trend. At the end of the presentation was one “uber” chart I had labored over for months which laid out all the converging trends in the industry. I used it in all presentations and gave it at industry conferences.

Are those my initials on the slide?
Fast forward nine months. My co-founder, head of business development and I were in Japan raising money. We were sitting in the conference room of a large well-respected media firm when their CEO breezed in to give us an overview of who they were and how forward thinking their firm was. I thought highly of this firm and was in awe of their content and films so I was a bit blown away when the CEO got to the finale of their presentation. It was, as he explained, the sum of their strategy and strategic thinking for online media.  And the slide was….

My slide.

Not a summary of my slide, or a Japanese copy of my slide, but my actual slide. I stood up from my seat, and walked around the boardroom table to get closer to the screen just to be sure. The CEO was beaming at my interest in the details of the slide. Examining the slide, I pointed to the bottom right and said to our translator, “Tell him my initials are still on the bottom.” The interpreter’s face went white, and after a lot of “I can’t tell him that,” he did.

We weren’t sure if we should feel insulted or complimented, but after a few deep breaths (and a lot of kicking under the table by my head of business development) my smart VP of business development used it as an opportunity to point out how honored we were that there was an obvious strategic alignment between the two companies. (I sat there smiling tightly.) Given the potential for a cross-cultural meltdown all parties behaved politely.  The CEO turned out to be a very nice guy and rented a big bus to take his staff and all of us sightseeing, dinner and drinking around Tokyo. (I’m sure when he got back to the office he was handing out a personalized knife to the executive on his staff who had borrowed my slide.)

In the end, the CEO couldn’t get his board to give us the cash in exchange for the Japanese distribution rights and some equity. We ended up raising money from Sega.

I heard later that the slide disappeared from his presentation.

—–

The next time one of my ideas was “borrowed,” it was a little less benign and more like the nightmare founders fear.  More in the next post.

Lessons Learned

  • If you present slides publicly, assume everyone including your competitors will have them.
  • If you present slides privately, assume a high probability that your competitors will acquire them
  • Do not put your trade secrets, proprietary algorithms, patentable technology, secret sauce, etc. on presentation slides – ever.
  • That still leaves you tons to talk about in a first and even second meeting.
  • For slides that contain diagrams or drawings that you created, make sure your initials and date are on them.

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15 Responses

  1. Hahaha! I needed that laugh today!

    This is another story to file under: “excruciatingly uncomfortable situations”. You seem to have a bunch of those.

    • Jorge,

      If you’re not putting yourself in “excruciatingly uncomfortable situations” you’re not trying hard enough.

      I would never had those problems sitting at my desk.

      steve

  2. Yes, but he is right!

  3. Eager to hear about the less benign time! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I just found out that someone stole my idea today and also is using my name with “The” in front of it. We have been talking about the idea sometime and began development last month. We showed up at a conference today and wow… it was exactly what we were developing.

    Any ideas what I should do?

    Chris

  5. So, if I understood correctly, they didn’t steal your idea, as you assert in the first paragraph, but your slide. In other words, your story proves that an idea by itself is not worth stealing; it’s always someone’s work that gets stolen.

  6. That reminds of the story about map-makers: apparently, map-makers always put a small error in their maps — that way, if someone copies the map (along with the error), they can prove it was originally theirs.

  7. [...] Someone Stole My Startup Idea – Part 1: Are Those My Initials? In my 21 years of startups I’ve had my ideas “stolen” twice.  Once it almost mattered. This is about the time it [...] [...]

  8. In years of collaboration, I’ve had at least six ideas stolen from me but I still like brainstorming with others. I just get a written agreement about what will come from our joint work. Great article.

  9. Really enjoyed that. Thanks for that story.
    You will note that there is a particular technique used by professional speakers who publicly share their slides. It gives basic information and no meat prime. Looking forward to the reading the sequel and other “excruciatingly uncomfortable situations” blogs!

  10. Thank you for the story. I really don’t know how you managed to keep your cool in that situation. I would have gone a little bit ballistic.

    It would be interesting to see what would happen if you put a red herring in one of your slides and told those you are presenting to that you had done so. It’s a difficult thing to measure, but I’m sure the theft of the slides would go down.

  11. Note to the previous comment: Along with your credibility, of course.

  12. [...] is that someone is going to steal it. Steve Blank provides a somewhat-comical anecdote of a time when this happened to him (see part two for the less-comical anecdote). There are some good lessons learned here, for [...]

  13. Thanks for finally writing about >Someone Stole My Startup Idea – Part 1:
    Are Those My Initials? | Steve Blank <Loved it!

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