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Are we indeed being robbed?

Young men walking along a railway line

Just the other day, I was talking to a local developer and he brought to my attention a recurring topic which I had otherwise chosen to ignore in the past. However, this developer caught my attention by giving a personal testimony, which frankly speaking was quite sad. It got worse when he provided me with a list of friends and colleagues who had gone through similar situations. It is at that point when I decided to write this article so that I throw mud onto the wall and see what really sticks.

So most tech people do not believe in pitching their ideas to big companies or corporations because somehow the companies assimilate the ideas but never acknowledge the brains behind it. There are a lot of people that claim to have pitched ideas that are today being implemented by big companies like Econet, Powertel etc. I know people tend to get defensive when econet is mentioned because of the great man behind it: Strive Masiyiwa (me included!) but I think we have to come to a point where we divorce him from the daily operations of econet. If ideas are being stolen, then he definitely is not the culprit because he is not directly involved in that process.

Nevertheless, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves as this could purely be by coincidence. We might want to consider that probably by the time we pitch our ‘new’ ideas to companies, they might already have the same idea underway- but what are the odds? It also then stops adding up when they tell you how great your idea is and how they will get back to you, which is mostly never!

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A classic example: in March 2016, *Spanky, (I will use the name Spanky for obvious reasons) noticed how the Zimbabwean Republic Police (ZRP) had no website. He then decided to develop a prototype for the website and submitted his proposal to ZRP. He also made sure to clarify that he was offering the service for free because all he wanted was to gain publicity for his business. A month and a half later, Spanky received a phone call from his father, informing him that ZRP had launched a website. Out of curiosity, he checked it out and voila, it had disturbingly similar functions to that of his submitted prototype. Coincidence? Or maybe let’s just comply to the fact that ZRP has sensitive information and all, but was it not a noble idea to contact Spanky rather than go MIA on him after he had ‘given’ them such a useful idea? Ofcourse this is his version of what happened, and those events are not the main part of the article.

Anyway, the situation is not entirely hopeless (assuming that people’s ideas are indeed being stolen) because of the existence of entities like ARIPO and conventions like the Berne International Convention. Such initiatives are quite helpful, but sadly, they aren’t full proof. The Berne Convention for example protects an implemented idea and most startups pitch their ideas to bigger corporations because they do not have the capacity or authorisation to implement them by themselves.

Besides, an idea can always be adopted and implemented in a slightly different manner; and of course the bigger corporation is bound to get more traction than the originator of the idea. Also, the conditions and costs of signing up with the likes of ARIPO may be too high for a new kid on the block thus making it difficult or near impossible for these new startups to get the IP protection they need.

Way forward? Well, I think I’ve played my part so it’s your turn now…


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27 thoughts on “Are we indeed being robbed?

  1. An idea is what it is, nothing but an idea. Let’s build products and pitch products instead of ideas. Ideas are available by the boat load. If you want free ideas, just go to any university campus and listen to student conversations.

    Now if a big company steals your idea, it’s purely your fault. Why were you pitching somethibg simple like a website or some USSD service to them? You should be building somthing they are currently buying from India, SA, Europe or America at a cheaoer price and offer free support.

    Our biggest problem in the Zimbabwean techsphere is we focus too much on websites and mobile apps. There is this great unexplored world of enterprise applications that we can take advantage of.

    Stop pitching simple ideas and start selling products that solve complex problems. Any monkey can build a website prototype, it’s not heart surgery.

    1. Lets see.
      Google started as a website.
      Gmail started as a website.
      Facebook started as a website.
      Yahoo! started as a website.

      See what I did up there. A website is not just a website, it is a web-app and can solve real problems.

      Call me Spanky. So Spanky has a prototype that-
      1. lets members of the public track unsolved homicides.
      2. post missing persons
      3. post tip-offs and complaints (in full view of the public)
      4. engage the police force in a public conversation regarding an issue

      I see real problems being solved here. Zimbabwean problems.

      Moving on. Spank has a million dollar prototype of another unrelated project seated in his repository. Spanky is a nobody. So Spanky decides to start with small fish, build a reputation and gain references. Then Spanky can approach Econet and they will take him seriously. See what Spanky just did?

      How would you trust enterprises with your enterprise-able pitches if you cant trust a Government body with a free project?

      I can bring Big Data analytics to the MNOs, do some serious BI in R, but should I trust them?
      Do I, a small time dev, have the money to engage a lawyer to draft the required documents?

      Just feeding your thoughts

      1. My 2 cents.

        1. The description you mentioned for the prototype is basically CRUD stuff. What makes you think their I.T department can’t implement this? In this case, they did not steal your idea, you gave them your idea on a silver platter.

        2. B.I, I work for Big Company X. They have a B.I department doing analytics and everything. The challenge at Big Company X where I work is the Marketing department is not using that data in their decisions. So you are going to pitch your idea at this company and think they stole your idea, yet they have been doing this all along, you just didn’t know.

        3. You are right, all those companies started as websites. What you don’t mention is their complex backend systems. Your website has no complex backend, it’s basic CRUD. Another factor you forget when you pitch your nice ideas is that a company has no trust in your coding skills. They may think, have someone put crappy code in our codebase or just have our experienced devs work on it?

        1. Dude, those basic crud systems solve simple real life problems. Not all problems require complex algorithms.

          A basic html website serves a need. To share info. Zvenyu zvekuda kutanga nekuvaka data center yaa imwe nyaya.

      2. You are right, besides the zrp website just looks like other GISP websites. crapy sites

    2. Its both ways. As much as the technosphere has been reduced to websites and mobile apps, enterprise applications still create the same problems for you from a different perspective thought. Unless there are patents involved, anything else is subject to cloning

    3. lol, websites & apps. Noticed too. Was embarrassed even Tech Zim calls websites ‘startups’ + saw a couple of them pitch on Simba Savannah.

      1. Facebook started life as a start-up.It was a website for sharing images. Now its one of the bigest Tech Companies in the world…

    4. @TheKing and @Spanky. Wow, guys. You have some really good points here. This is quite an enlightening discussion. And speaking as a small developer myself, I wish there was a good way to educate our upcoming generation of thinkers about this stuff. I don’t have much of a contribution to the discussion but just to say thank you.

      Oh, and Mostly thank you @Trycolyn Pikirayi for the article.

  2. Its really tough for Zimbabwean Startups. Virtually they are not meant to succeed in Zimbabwe. In as much we have the flashy startups that seem to be visible to everyone, we also need the behind the scenes work horses bridging the gap between MNOs, Parastatals, Private Businesses and Government Departments. Taking into account human being’s propensity for having hidden agendas and other factors, there generally doesnt seem to be willingness to embrace new initiatives from outside the organisation. How do I measure this? By the looking at the amount of APIs available to developers.(by the way these APIs can still be made by local developers). It can only be read access only. Our developers could be linking various Apis across various systems to create even more innovative products. Right now we are forever stuck at the ground. I see a lot of potential areas, for bringing together these things.

    For now my best advice for these developers is, make something that is so open but too complex for them to replicate. Otherwise find somewhere else to go with the idea or invest your efforts in something else.

  3. Amazon, Google, E-Bay, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram. All these companies are valued at more than $10Bn and they are either websites or Apps, so I don’t understand what you are saying when you say Websites are not startups? We all have to start from somewhere, on point A before we get to point B. How do you just start building an enterprising solution that will disrupt the market without first building a site or an App that sucks?

  4. You are all right. Facebook, Google e.t.c are all websites and apps. Now let’s look at their backend, they have complex algorithms solving complex problems. What’s the complex problem to be solved by a ZRP website? It’s just a website to share information. ZRP probably has an I.T department. Don’t you think when you show up with your simple prototype they are not going to run to their I.T department and ask them to implement it? After all anyone can get a theme and change a few things and there you go, they have a website.

    What I have noticed here is people talking about American companies being worth billions. That is very true, but those companies made billions mainly by solving American problems. Our problem in Zimbabwe is we are outsourcing enterprise I.T work to S.A, India, America e.t.c. Why don’t our developers focus on this instead of trying to build websites and apps that display static content. Why are we not challenging ourselves to fight the foreign companies taking over our enterprise solutions? With all the developers we have, how come IBM and Erricson struggle to find local software development partners? It’s because we are all focused on websites and apps. With how easy it is becoming to build apps(with frameworks), in a matter of years everyone will be able to build one.

    I’m not saying don’t build apps, but solve complex problems and build apps later. For the case of ZRP, here is what I think we should be building and selling to them:

    1. A camera system that identifies speeding cars, takes a pic and sends tickects to the registered address/ or publishes names of offenders in the press. The system can also be used to identify combis at Mshika-shika points. This is not new, it’s there in South Africa and other fairly developed countries. This can be built with Intel Edison or Raspberry Pi boards and components.

    2. Dashcams to record the activities at road blocks

    1. Zakabeg akatanga nechi ‘website’. Complex backend yawava kutaura iyi yakazouya later.

      Kana Usain Bolt chaiye akatanga neku kambaira wani…

  5. The guy was wrong to go with his idea to ZRP without having some form of protection for his idea. There should be a readily accessible body that protects developers for a reasonable fee. It’s being closed-minded to say a website cannot solve problems. Look at blogs that have earned the owners lots of cash at the same time providing vital assistance to readers..

    1. 1. How can we be sure he is the only one who went to ZRP with this “idea”? Big organisations usually have different teams pitching the same idea to them.
      2. Is this website idea unique and can we prove Spanky is the first one in the world to come up with such an idea?

      Patents are necessary, yes, but shouldn’t Spanky be patenting something more original like an algorithm or a new protocol? Think about it

  6. We seem to not get how tech, or any product at all works. You never place your cards on the table and reveal all in one go.
    Facebook started as a simple face-time web-app, then it went on to become a data analysis and ad company, years later. In 2012 later.

    See when you pitch your prototype, sell the basic idea of it. The dumbed down version. See the response, then scale up.

    Now lets go back to a simple web-app like the ZRP one, doing CRUD stuff. One of the things Spanky may have hid from the good members of the ZRP is that phone numbers, emails, names are everywhere on the web. All you have to do is search. Thats it.
    Post a missing person, the system goes to work. Post a wanted person, the system goes to work.
    Nobody ever trully vanishes. Ever.

    Facebook’s nice API, that lets you link directly to it. That could be useful in finding missing persons. I see a community of 1 Billion plus people helping to solve crimes.

    Naff said. Maybe some day, with enough resources, these and whatever else was under the hood could get to become something.

  7. There are some ideas that you simply cannot patent.In my view the author could have looked for better examples as the Spanky story is not the best example.If we are to grow the tech industry in Zimbabwe we need to be a bit frank with each other.The ZRP idea was simply a website.
    We need to look at ideas that were stolen that actually resulted in financial gain on the part of those who stole the ideas.
    What TheKing is saying in the comments makes a lot of sense but people are not paying attention coz we all reading with this mindset that says “its an unfair world for small developers.”.If we keep looking at it that way then it will be.
    There are a lot of opportunities in the enterprise applications space and my advice is “Pay attention”.
    We can give examples.There are many huge enterprise companies who now have their ERPs running in the cloud and these have opened opportunities for developers to create enterprise apps that can work with these solutions.
    If Oracle/SAP/SAGE for instance has a talent management solution they are offering in the cloud and do not have a Zimbabwe payroll solution this opens up opportunities for developers to create cloud based payroll solutions specific to Zimbabwe and that can work with these solutions.You can then go in this case and pitch your idea to a company that offers cloud hosting facilities and get into partnership with them.This is just a simple idea of how we can generate income as developers,there is a lot more you can do and achieve if we are willing to go the extra mile.Lets not be limited to Zimbabwe we also need to understand we operating in a global environment.With some of the companies IT purchase decisions are made at head offices which may be based in countries like USA and SA and thus it is no longer sustainable to look at the Zim market only if you want to develop systems/apps that compete with the best out there.Multinational companies are these days now deploying the same system across their IT landscape.This is mainly more for business and reporting purposes and it does make sense to do that.For instance Implats and Zimplats will probably be running on the same systems,same can be said for companies like Stanbic,PPC etc and their parent companies.
    The honest truth is for the companies that are spending/investing in IT,most decisions are not done in Zim and the zim component in most cases does not have a say over the purchase decision.
    My appeal to local developers is please dont be greedy,develop partnerships and networks with other developers,marketers,designers.It doesnt make sense to have a 1,000 developers in Harare or bulawayo all working on almost similar apps for instance that are sold separately.Why not come together and develop a single strong product.A good case study is not far away just down south,there are companies that found niche markets in areas such as interfaces and they making a killing by focusing on those areas only and guess what they are flying in and out of zim weekly to do work.
    In summary “Pay Attention” and understand whats happening in the market.

  8. Very thought-provoking article & contributions. The issues raised here are similar to those raised a week or so ago on this forum on the relevance of University education vis a vis entrepreneurship. Many contributors here mentioned web sites as a starting point, ok, how many have current and running websites?… a professional email address (not gmail, yahoo, zol etc)? … a registered company? These 3 pre-requisites add to your credibility when established business wants anything to do with you. I assume most contributors are developers – which, these days, is a very generic term. What else are they? System Designers, System integrators, API specialists, Testers, Trainers, Support analysts etc The thrust of my contribution is that you need more inside knowledge of at least one domain before you can effectively contribute to it, benefit from it or disrupt it. For example Insurance, banking, administration, retail, ICT etc Try and avoid the thought that being a “developer” is an end be “more” and innovation does not reside inside the CRUD boundary that’s why one contributor has suggested Enterprise Cloud computing, working with APIs, procols or complex algorithms etc as opposed to limiting oneself to cook-book frame works or design patterns of web development. Payment systems offer a lot of opportunities but the banking fraternity does not work with individuals (high risk), they work with reputable companies (managed risk/liability), which squeezes out the lone developer. Most developers are good at cutting code, but how good are they at other critical aspects of software like “Security management”, good design principles, “fault tolerant” systems not to mention innovation and other aspects of the software development cycle etc. There are no quick and easy answers to success. I refer contributors to the dot com bubble or internet boom between 1995 – 2001 which was the “excitement/delusional” stage of the internet. We have to have more foresight than that.

  9. A colleague of mine with a great IT company had this to say: his company had a product and it was going to be the first for Zim. However, their one and only would-be customer insisted that whatever technology they had, they wanted to see where it had been used. This statement is one of the challenges for start-ups! We tend to forget that even the now reputable companies supplied their product ‘for the first time’ in some other part of the world. Basically if the person/organisation you are approaching is not an innovator or a risk taker…. tough luck for you! My friend ended up partnering with another org though the name of this org is never mentioned any time the Zim company is talked about!

  10. Hie

    Let me add my 2 cents.
    The problem is that most of these developers actually do not have the necessary experience or information about software development in general. I would not be surprised if Mr spanky is self taught programmer. The problem is that software development is not just about developing a killer site you have to at least know the following items

    Programming (Obvious)
    Business Law
    Contract Law (Critical)
    Marketing
    Accounts
    Not forgetting common sense

    When i started my Information System degree i was at first angry that they wanted to teach me about Business and Contract Law but after finishing that module leaned a lot about software contracts. Any programmer worth his salt needs to know the fundamentals of contract law. Without it you will flying blind and crying at every turn when you get screwed over.

    To help mr spanky and everyone in the future, before you demonstrate your killer product you need to have a contract with the company either an NDA (non disclosure), ROT(restraint of trade) or just an ordinary agreement that species that you will be showing them your idea and that they will be bound not to copy it. All the companies mentioned Google have big lawyers and airtight contracts for everything. If you followed the facebook story you will also realise that ownership of ideas and the company are two different things. If you can’t control your idea then they are worth nothing and someone smarter will benefit from them. The twins who helped Zuckerberg come up with facebook got screwed in the end. So contracts contracts memorise that put it on paper

    Ask the guys at Purple Devine Technology they will tell you get it on paper first before you show it. If they don’t want to sign tany agreement then don’t show them your ideas simple as that. Hopefully this will save a few tears

    1. From a legal perspective, what’s the difference between a proposal and an idea? Let’s take the case of ZRP, they did not a site and receive multiple proposal to build a site from multiple individuals/vendors. Would we say these individuals/vendors were pitching their ideas to ZRP, or they were just vendors soliciting business from ZRP? Now what if ZRP accepts the proposal from Vendor X because it makes more business sense to them and it so happens the solution is similar to that proposed by Vendor Y, does it mean ZRP stole Vendor Y’s idea?

      1. Its really the same thing but it really depends on the particular legal context….Ideas only become a Legal Entity when they are based on legally binding contracts. The issue here is that you need to protect your ideas using the appropriate legal framework..

        To your question..an idea is just something you thought about and under common law there is no way you can just protect it. You have to develop the idea into something that you can Patent or have ownership of using legal instrument like contracts or patent laws. Now a proposal usually happens when you have had some formal understanding with the company or they have requested you to present something to them. The legality of a proposal really depend on the legal framework behind. For example if you just get into an agreement to demonstrate your proposal or idea with no conditions set then you will be exposed if they decide to screw you over but if your contract is airtight and contains protection clause then you are in abetter position to protect your idea or proposal

        If there was no legally binding document between Mr spanky and ZRP then ZRP is in the clear in this matter. It wa Mr spanky who was not careful with his ideas. Remember Ideas are money protect them the same way you would protect your wallet

  11. Ps. Im preparing a contract for a company im demonstrating a web application. i will post it when i’m done

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