The question of whether a startup idea can be stolen has been widely discussed in the Kenyan tech scene in the past week after a Nairobi company claimed Safaricom had nabbed its mobile money rent payment concept.
The Oxford Dictionary defines an “idea” as “a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action”. The other word looked up was “to steal”, which is defined as “take (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it”.
ManyattaRent claims to have presented its entire idea to Safaricom with email exchanges between the two parties, in HumanIPO’s possession, appearing to show this.
So does the word “steal” fit into the accusation?
Nobody can claim exclusive rights to an idea. An idea is generally worthless, so to speak, because there are so many out there, it is what you do in the long run that creates the value.
The best way to create value is to get out and talk to the customers. An idea really becomes yours when it has matured into something that is the root of a product, a service, or a new business.
Safaricom can make a strong case out of claiming it came up with the same idea because it spotted the same gap in the market and understood the technology in a similar way.
It is true that ideas are very cheap, and execution is everything.
The belief ManyattaRent should be holding up high is if someone steals your “precious idea”, they cannot steal the more important resources and skills.
The startup should focus on the things unique to them that their competitors cannot steal and build from there.
A typical behavior of Kenyans is they will not walk the talk to the end. They might have given Safaricom the infamous “Twitter Big Stick”, but they will be the first to use the Lipa Kodi na M-Pesa service instead of supporting their “own” startup.
Safaricom has the muscle in this fight, but it cannot steal long term vision, it cannot steal domain expertise, it cannot steal market failure driven pivots and it definitely cannot steal passion.
There is no way anyone can prove that they were the first to come up with an idea.
Having gone through the tweets from Barcamp 2013 held this weekend, one which stands out is: “An idea needs to be patentable. There is a difference between an IDEA and a THOUGHT.”
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.