Getting Harmed in Collaboration

The notion of someone being harmed by collaborating is something that few of us consider.  If we are collaborating, there should be an air of trust, confidence, and openness that everyone shares.

Even when people are working together towards a common goal, such at a Startup Weekend, Hackerfest, or some other event, we can actually harm each other – unintentionally.  When we have a meeting, such as One Million Cups, where we give feedback and advice to entrepreneurs, we can harm the entrepreneur – unintentionally.  If we have coffee with a budding startup company and give them a great suggestion, we can harm the entrepreneur – unintentionally.

How can we harm someone by collaborating?

This may seem counter-intuitive, but when you “give advice” to someone, you do not actually give it to them.  Not in the ownership sense.

Intellectual property is owned by the creator, absent an agreement to the contrary.  That means that if I tell you something new, I actually own that idea.  I created it and I spoke it to you, but I own it.  Where does that leave you?

Let’s assume that my advice was important enough that you incorporated the advice into your product or service.  My suggestion, even an innocuous one, might have caused your company to go forward in a new direction.

But do you own that idea?  No.  Can you get a patent on it?  No.  Do you have any documented rights to that idea?  No.

Unless we have an agreement in place beforehand, like one of the Ethical Collaboration Agreements, we can put the company on a track where they do not have any rights to the intellectual property.  Sometimes, you might paper over the problem later by bringing an advisor on as a formal advisor and getting an agreement after the fact, but most of the time this does not happen.

Is this really a problem?

Sadly, it is.  There are some headline grabbing stories, such as SnapChat, where a “co-founder” was paid $158 Million to settle IP issues.

Patents and other IP gets valued at later stages of a company, such as when your company is being valued for later stage venture capital or private equity investment, or when your patents are being sold to a competitor or you are being acquired.

These patents will have their value *cut in half* if the company came from an accelerator, incubator, or even worked in a coworking space.  This is because of the *risk* that there was some kind of collaboration between different companies, advisors, or whoever.  The *risk* is that someone will pop up out of the woodwork and claim that they helped contribute to some great idea that the company implemented.

If you want some examples that are closer to home, ask your local startup attorney if they have consulted with a company formed from a Startup Weekend or Hackerfest.  Companies founded in these weekends can be a huge mess to sort out who contributed what, even to the point that some weekend organizers are telling companies to re-form everything – with a new idea – on Monday if they really want to start a company.

How do we fix this?

This problem is easily solved.

The Ethical Collaboration Framework is a set of agreements, education, and rules of etiquette for collaborative environments.  The Framework is set up to ensure that the entrepreneur walks away from any collaboration without being harmed.  The etiquette and education components get everyone on the same page so that we know what we are doing when we collaborate.

The weird part is that the Ethical Collaboration Framework does not actually change the way most entrepreneur ecosystems work – we just make it all legal.  The Framework encourages service providers and advisors to meet with founders and give them advice.  It breaks down the barriers to collaborating in a coworking space over the coffee pot.

The Framework puts people’s minds at ease.  The educational component puts everyone on the same page, answering those nagging questions like whether we should just have a “friend-D-A” with someone (NO), or when is the right time – and wrong time – to share ideas.

The key to the Framework is to treat everybody in the community as we would like to be treated: with dignity and respect.  It creates a sense of community, closeness, and, yes, collaboration.

To learn more about implementing these principles in your group, please call or email Russ Krajec at the contact information nearby.

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