They've taken my idea! My business is ruined before it's started!

By Viren Lall, Managing Director of In our teaching at different London universities, we are often asked ‘How do I get an original idea for my business? Every time I check, my latest idea has already been done!’. A fundamental principle of entrepreneurship is that everything starts with you – who you are, who you know and what you know. Think Apple were the first to think of the iPhone? Check out GO, a US firm from 1992! What Apple did was started with what they could do already – the iPod and iTunes. They added a phone to it. So the place to start is with you. Start with a skill that you have, and think of a business that you can build around it. Your idea is an opportunity unique to you A new business idea is closely tied to the skills and the passions of the entrepreneur. In workshops we have conducted for several years, we have never found two people with the same idea. In a thought experiment we conduct with the participants, we ask people to swap ideas and ask if they would like to pursue someone else’s idea. The answer is an overwhelming no. Why? The idea is only a true opportunity when an individual backs it. Is the opportunity uniquely mine? Do I have the skills around it? Can I build a team around the concept? Is the timing right? Do I have the skills, passions and connections to pursue it? You can see that it is highly unlikely that two individuals feel exactly the same way about an idea. The world is teeming with entrepreneurial ideas, most of which die because they are not validated, improved and executed. If an idea was that easy to copy, it wasn’t great in the first place In this talk by James Caan, he answers a question raised by a participant on whether she should share her idea with others. As a successful entrepreneur, Caan has always discussed his idea with others. He doesn’t ask if it was a good idea, as he knows that all you will get from people are responses to make you feel good. What he wants is to find flaws. What would make this idea fail? What must he do by way of experiments, conversations and validation activities to make the idea a really robust opportunity? It’s all in the execution and hitting milestones Entrepreneurial businesses that just have an idea are the highest risk, lowest value ventures. As you move through the journey of developing the concept, validating with your target customers, building a proof of concept, a minimum viable product, proof of market and revenue and proof of growth potential, you increase the value of the idea and the venture step by step. This diagram explains the journey. This is covered in detail in their Spring 2010 article on MIT Sloan review, the conclusion is “The typical start-up process, whether in nascent entrepreneurial ventures or in the innovation units of established businesses, is largely driven by poorly conceived business plans based on untested assumptions. This process is seriously flawed. Most new ventures, even those with venture capital or corporate backing, share one common characteristic: They fail. There is a better way to launch new ideas — without wasting years of time and loads of investors’ money. This better way is about discovering a business model that really works: a Plan B, like those of Google Inc. and Starbucks Corp., which grows out of the original idea, builds on it and once it’s in place, helps the business grow rapidly and prosper.” In summary, your idea is going to change. Many times. So don’t worry too much about the original idea – just get on with it. But shouldn’t I protect my idea?  In fact, unless your idea is a based on a unique invention, spending money and effort on patenting is counterproductive and just a distraction from getting started and building your market. It will rob you of valuable focus and resources that should be put towards building your company. The video above by James Caan covers this topic beautifully. Getting started is the key The point is, you start with you and you start somewhere. Because then you have something to talk to customers about. Customers then buy or don’t buy. You learn more about what they need or want, and you change what you do to win more customers and build a business. Whatever your business ends up looking like, one thing it won’t be is the same as when you started. There are hundreds if not thousands of great books on entrepreneurship, “Getting to Plan B…” by Mullins and Komisar is a great one to look at look at economic models and sustainability. Komisar’s book “The monk and riddle” is an interesting narrative on why a purpose is important behind building a better faster cheaper alternative and Mullins’ previous book “The new business road test” is a must read on what you need to do before writing a business plan. If you want to learn more about how to start a business, you will find evidence based, research backed, strategies that successful startups use here. Includes how to launch products, enter new markets and develop customers. If you want to know where to get help, you will find researched options on what support you may need at each stage of your business here. Use it to help you avoid the most critical mistakes that cause business failures.