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Who Cares Whose Idea?

This is a true story.

Really, I didn’t care that he tried to build a business based on my idea, without asking my help, without even telling me. What bugged me was that I liked the guy, before and after that incident, but he was never the same.

I wonder whether you’ve seen that same phenomenon in your business relationships … somebody slips up, does you wrong, and you’re okay with it, but they end up souring, avoiding you, never really getting straight again.

The case I’m talking about, the idea was developing a company to localize English language software into Spanish. This was in the 1980s, the market was young, I was younger, but I’d been involved in software and I’d lived for nine years in Mexico, I was fluent in Spanish.

What the other guy didn’t know was that I thought it was an interesting idea but I wasn’t really ready to go with it. I had other things — what eventually became Palo Alto Software — on my mind.

What he did know was that I’d talked to him about it after-hours, casually. I laid out why it might work, and how it would work. And when it came out, six months later, that he was actually doing it, I could see he was embarrassed. He avoided my eyes as long as he could. When he finally couldn’t avoid my eyes, I gave him a clear sign, indicating that it was okay, I didn’t intend to actually pursue the idea.

When we were alone, I told him explicitly: cool, it’s an interesting business, I didn’t really intend to do it, I’m glad you are.

But that didn’t work. Our business relationships drifted apart over the next few years. I don’t think he ever got over the feeling that he’d been embarrassed. I was fine with it, but he wasn’t.

Post script: nothing ever came of it.  He didn’t implement it well at all. And I could have done it myself, without any trouble, but I didn’t.

Who owns an idea, and how? I’ve also posted a video (narrated slide show) on this.


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