This business idea is stolen. Or is it?

I am sitting on a plane back home, my iPod ran out of batteries (so no audiobook…) and I didn’t bring an „actual book“, so I will write something.

I was unlucky to get a middle seat today (holiday eve) and my humongous and very heavy computer pretty much takes up all the space I have in this seat, but that’s okay. My neighbours are looking over curiously as I type away. I wonder if they embarrassingly turn away when they get to the last sentence… mmh. No. They don’t. Maybe they don’t speak English.

But let’s get down to business. I am not typing this to tell you about my boring, and rather ubiquitous plane stories… you’ve had them all yourselves.

So I recently decided to open up my blog to more than just the cause of human trafficking because I (being a little disappointed in myself) realized that, no matter how much I cared about the cause, I simply didn’t have as many insights to bring to the table as other people do, and just referring and linking is a little boring. I think hope I can offer you, dear reader, more than that; so let me try. Here, a recent story from my business plan coaching activities and what I find important in it.

Business Idea – Stolen, copied or taken to another level?

I regularly coach young teams of entrepreneurs and help them through various stages with their business plans, which they are creating for a Business Plan Competition back in Germany. The competition is sponsored by all kinds of alumni, business angels, companies, and venture capitalists and most of those people do their work pro-bono. In the end, the winner receives money to help start the start-up, but what all participants win is even more important: Trainings, Speeches, Networking Events; all for free.

That being said, it is obvious that stolen ideas should not be receiving awards for the great idea. It makes the competition lose credibility and the volunteer coaches will feel that their time and effort is not valued with the right amount of respect.

But where is the border of stealing an idea?

In this case, I received a really good business plan for a product for children that very well touched health issues the parents might be worried about, yet had a child friendly, cool design so kids would wish for it.

The team behind it looked awesome (people invest rather in teams than ideas, never forget that) and they even had doctors consulting the product design. The plan was well written, well structured and even in early stages they already had a showroom, test products, a Facebook page and a webpage with e-commerce and everything. They had done a competitor analysis with “all the competitors on the market” (which were more than I had thought) and they really seemed to hit a great niche. All in all, it looked marvelous and I had nothing to criticize, and suggested them for the price of the second round (there is a price for each round, the third is the last and thus has the highest prices).

A little later, I surfed around their webpage and Facebook page… it all just seemed to good to be true. Eventually I packed all the stuff together to put it away. My eyes fell on the team description again and I noticed the team member that had programmed the web page had another experience in e-commerce with a domain that suggested that it was even a similar product. I opened the webpage and found a product that to me looked the exact same. The webpage was a sales portal for a Norwegian company that sold their products there, and design, children friendly themes, all looked the same. The Norwegian company, nor the website (where the team member was still named as responsible) were shown in the business plan’s competitor analysis. The reference was never mentioned, even though they must have known those products before copying them as their own idea.

Now. What would you have done?

I decided to send another email to the committee to pull back my suggestion as winner for this team, and I wrote the team that I think that the way they had done it was by no means the correct one. I had spent hours analyzing their idea and their business plan and I honestly felt annoyed about the fact that they had hidden the original behind it.

They told me that they knew about the Norwegian Company but that they had taken it and made it better. They didn’t explain how though, and that was their biggest mistake.

Taking on an idea within the legal regulations and making it better is not copying.

Pretending it’s your own and hiding the original is.

Had they shown in their business plan, where they idea came from (e.g. in the competitor analysis) and had they shown how they made it even better and how they fit in: They probably would have won that round.

The themes were not protected, the company in China producing the product did not have an exclusive agreement as such, but the simple fact of hiding the original idea because they were afraid of being called copy-cats, made them copy-cats.

Keep that in mind when you write your business plans. Give your sources and explain why you are better. Show them what the existing products are missing. Cause in the digital world it will be a piece of cake to reveal what you are hiding to ruin your idea, but it will difficult to ruin it by pointing out that you improved the state-of-the-art.

So, do you think I did the right thing by removing my recommendation as 2nd round winner?

Please comment!

ADDITIONAL INFO FOR ALL YOU GERMAN SPEAKERS:

The Business Plan Competition is held annually and offers a great networking opportunity and much help, especially if you are able to participate in the various activities, mainly held around the Cologne area.

If you want to know more about it, check out: