The claim that there is nothing left to invent or discover in the modern world is the all now too common battle cry of plagiarists and the creatively challenged everywhere. I do not agree with this, I believe that the people of today are as creative as ever before, if not more so. Why would anyone look at a typical third world country with its myriad of problems and challenges that desperately need solving and still hold such a limiting belief?

On the opposite extreme there are those who hold the belief that the world around them is not only devoid of but is desperately looking for any ideas that have even a remote chance of making money. I am talking about the dozens of young people who crop up on social media crying foul each time a big corporation introduces a new product – “they stole my idea”, they will wail and enjoy temporary internet fame until everyone loses interest after realising that the product in question is a commercial flop.

Somewhere around the middle there exists the rest of us who just hope to be rewarded (or just recognised) for any light bulb moments we may have. We try to take reasonable but prudent measures to protect our ideas. Lawyers and the internet are always there to advice. But are patents and non-disclosure agreements useful or they just distract us from finding other more effective ways of protecting and profiting from our ideas?

Patents cost money, defending them costs so much more

Patents are the widely touted means of protecting ideas. Whenever there is a workshop for prospective entrepreneurs, they will almost always be a lawyer invited to educate the attendees on the importance of protecting their ideas using this largely ineffective method. I think the main appeal of a patent lies in it being a very official and impressive looking piece of paper declaring you to be the owner of some property. Don’t get me wrong, owning a patent announces to potential investors and customers that you mean serious business and should be taken seriously but aside from that these documents lure you into a false sense of comfort.

The problem with patents owned by individuals and small companies is that they are notoriously difficult to enforce if big companies decide to infringe on them. The patent itself will set you back by a significant amount of money. In order to challenge patent infringement in court you will need a lawyer, lawyers cost money, and that will not be the end of your problems. The company you are challenging will rather keep throwing money at its own lawyers until you cannot afford your own rather than giving you a single cent of all that money for your idea.

At the end of the day the only people who can really profit from patents are lawyers – no wonder they are so eager for people to apply for these slick looking but ultimately useless pieces of paper. I am not discouraging anyone from seeking a patent for their creations but I am urging you to take a closer look at your idea and think if a patent is really the way to go.

NDAs don’t go well with elevator pitches

Some of us dream so big that there is no way we can possibly bring our dreams to life without outside investment. This entails seeking out people with deeper pockets than our own to help fund our undertakings. Unfortunately Africa has a shortage of rich people who actively seek out people with nothing but ‘ideas’, infact they actively avoid them. This means that if that wealthy person whom you want to get to is nowhere near your so-called network (the one you build through all your networking ofcourse) some shenanigans are necessary.

Trust me, you will never despise secretaries and receptionists at any time in your life more than the day you decide you want to talk to their bosses. You see, it is their job to keep people like you away from their superiors. So suppose you are lucky or devious enough to get a moment with your target. It will be time for what is called an elevator pitch. It is called this because the clock will be ticking and unlike the similarly named business competitions your audience will be waiting impatiently for you to go away. Now imagine that you have convinced yourself that in order to hear your idea one has to sign a legally binding and usually verbose document called a non-disclosure agreement.

It is highly unlikely that the very busy and irritable lady or gentleman behind the desk who did not want to see you in the first place will continue to humour you after that. My point is that cold pitching is usually difficult on its own without you having to drag around a scary looking legal document that is guaranteed to put off even the friendliest of people. Remember that unless that person is a venture capitalist (very unlikely in Africa) you are the beggar up to and until that person hears and likes your idea.

In addition, pulling out an NDA before a pitch may raise the expectations of the pitch to follow a little too high and thus you end up disappointing. You do not want your handing out of the NDA papers to be the climax of your presentation.