When meeting social entrepreneurs, and others running small voluntary organisations that are developing new projects, I come across a sizable minority who are reluctant to tell people about what they’re trying to do because they’re worried that someone will steal their idea and do the project themselves.
This is not an irrational fear. In any situation where someone has a good idea, it’s ultimately quite likely that someone will copy it. The mistake is to fail to realise that – unless you’re developing a patentable technological innovation – the dangers of telling people about your idea will usually be far smaller than the dangers of not telling people about your idea.
If, for example, you’re a small social venture with an idea for tackling youth unemployment through an innovative scheme that combines skateboarding and environmental action, you would (probably) have succeeded in coming up with a new approach that isn’t currently being delivered by anyone else.
At the point you have the idea, that concept in itself has no commercial value whatsoever. By not telling people about it, the main thing you’re protecting yourself against is someone taking your basic idea and implementing it more successfully than you. They might very well do it. But if you’re developing an approach to tackling a social problem – rather than a patentable technological innovation or a branded product – there’s nothing you can usefully do to stop them.
So if, at the ideas stage, you go to your local council or a large charity tackling youth unemployment, and ask them for help with your project, it’s possible that the person you meet will politely wait for you to leave before smacking themselves on the forehead, shouting ‘I can’t believe I didn’t think of that one before!’ and setting straight to work on developing their own in-house environmental skateboarding scheme. Possible: but not very likely.
What’s far more likely is that they’ll politely wait for you to leave before having no further thoughts about, or interest in, you or your idea at all. On the other hand, there’s also a chance that inspired by your combination of passion and unorthodox thinking, and desperate for any new suggestions about how to tackle youth unemployment , they might offer you some practical support to help you try out your idea.
If you’re developing a new approach to tackling a social problem, the point where competitors – whether they’re other social entrepreneurs, large charities, public sector bodies or private sector companies – are most likely to steal your idea is when you’ve either proved that it works or that there’s a good chance that it will work.
If you succeed: (a) in getting some funding to run an environmental skateboarding pilot project (b) in persuading the job centre and other local agencies to refer people to it and (c) proving that the combination of skateboarding and environmental action does in some way enable young people to find work, then it’s quite likely that larger organisations may become more interested in the idea.
It’s also possible that these organisations – rather than paying you to deliver your project on an ongoing basis – might choose to copy what you’ve done without involving you. The business challenge for you is to demonstrate why your project, run by you, based on your knowledge, skills and experience, is more likely to be successful than your project run by them.
However well you make your case, other people might still choose to copy you badly rather than work with you. The challenge for you is to either get on with it yourself or find partners who do recognise the value you provide.
The danger is that we, as social entrepreneurs, let the painful question of whether someone might steal something get in the way of making practical judgments about the commercial situation. They say genius is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. For all the brilliance of your idea, it’s the effort you put into its execution that really matters.