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The Pathology of Brilliance

Think back to a time in your childhood or at university, or perhaps in a career situation, where you did something creative or special. Perhaps you were in school and had studied hard for a test, only to have someone else copy your answers. Or you may have come up with a good idea, only to find that someone else, after you had disclosed it to them, had pretended the idea was theirs and perhaps had gotten credit for your work. They may have stolen your idea for a business, plagiarized something you had written, or appropriated for themselves a cool idea or concept that you had thought up.

How did you feel?

Upset? Furious? Anxious? Did you wish upon them all sorts of malignancies and bad luck?

My question is: Why?

Why did this simple act, where someone took one of your ideas (it’s only an idea, right?) and passed it off as their own, why did this upset you? Why did you think about it and ruminate on it for ages afterwards. Why did it hit you in the gut in the way that it did?

What did they actually do to you?

When I ask people this question, they usually reply that they’re not entirely sure, but they all say that it felt like someone had stolen something from them.

But what had they stolen? It wasn’t a physical object - perhaps you’d caught them copying your answers in a test, or perhaps they didn’t do their bit on a group project but got the same marks as the rest of the team - but it wasn’t anything tangible that they’d pilfered. It wasn’t money that they’d stolen. It wasn’t as if they’d taken off with your girlfriend or boyfriend.

The Intimacy of IP

No, they’d stolen something much more intimate. They’d stolen your Intellectual Property. Your thoughts and ideas that you had worked hard at to conceptualize and eventually convert into some physical or abstract form had been stolen, or appropriated or trodden on by someone else.

Usually when I use this example people start realizing that the loss of IP can hurt just as much as the loss of a physical possession. Sure, it’s not irreparable (most of the time). Of course it can be re-done (most of the time). Yet it has a marked impact on the human psyche and can cause a lot of anguish, resentment and tension.

The Psychological Factors Determining Success

There’s no arguing with it - people mess new products and ideas up A LOT. As mentioned before, ninety-five percent (yes folks, 95%) of new products or concepts never make it to the real world or die shortly after being released. Some studies say 99% don’t make it, others say 94% don’t make it.

Whatever the actual percentage is, it’s still a huge waste of brainpower, effort, and hard-earned money, and a lot of these failures could have been avoided by getting a couple of the basics straight, identifying self-defeating behavior in your own mind, and having realistic expectations. That is what I’d like to focus on in this part of the program.

Most people tend to focus on external factors dictating business success, but few look at the internal, personal and psychological factors that tend to more often than not dominate the failure or success of a new concept.

As mentioned, I’ve been through this myself before, having set up a medical devices enterprise that manufactured and sold life-changing technology to people all over the world. I’ve fought with competitors, shareholders and co-directors, been held to ransom by inventors, seen profits fly out the window, experienced the havoc and excitement of foreign product launches, negotiated licensing deals with enterprises all over the world, experienced the frustration of dealing with governmental departments, and seen the remarkable change in people’s lives when a product that I helped bring to market changed their lives forever.

Crucially, however, I have experienced the theft of key pieces of Intellectual Property, which we managed to thwart in the nick of time. Twice. I can assure you it was more stressful than any of the other aspects of business risk because I immediately felt it was personal in nature. It hit something inside of me.

But here’s the painful truth - it’s unlikely that your patent will be completely watertight or will stop all infringers as mentioned before. It’s important to realize that a patent is a strategic business tool that you can use in negotiations, negotiations that would otherwise not have happened if you didn’t have any rights to your invention secured.

I want to get the message across that in this new era, IP rights won’t be tools of exclusion, but collaboration, but for this to work inventors have to realize the limitations of their brilliance and also of their Intellectual Property rights.

Let’s first have a look at what I call ‘the pathology of brilliance’, which gets in the way of so many potential business successes.

Let’s start off with a real world reality: there is no such thing as a billion dollar idea. In fact, there are very few million-dollar ideas. Every single person you’ve ever met who’s a millionaire or billionaire did not get there with a single flash of brilliance, a single concept, a single patent, or a single idea. Making money is a series of small steps, requiring improvisation and, most importantly, flexibility at every turn; invention and commercialization are a series of small steps that build on one another. But I’ve seen inventors turn down enormous sums of money with this reasoning: ‘if they’re offering X, then surely it’s worth 10X’.

Or 100X, or (yes, I’ve had this, as has every other venture funder or patent attorney that I know) 1000X.

I’ve been on both sides of the negotiating table, and I’ve been there when the inventor’s paranoia kicks in. It’s usually after the second or third potential funding meeting, when things start to look good and the funders start getting interested in working with the inventor. Funders would have done some initial investigations and a due diligence and, if everything comes up smelling like roses, they’d start talking money. This is when things tend to get derailed.

The inventor is happy with what we discuss around the table. But then something strange happens when he or she is lying awake in bed that night. Instead of thinking of ways in which we can get the product going as soon as possible by working together and collaborating, he/she starts getting paranoid. This is normal in any transaction of any consequence.

But the invention, that until that stage had been an intangible idea, something potentially worthless, and an item that even the inventor wasn’t even sure had any worth, suddenly becomes a reality. A reality in which he’s cut out of the deal, someone steals his idea for a zillionth of its true worth, and he’s left with only the paltry amount of money that they offered him for it... All of a sudden it’s not worth the $750,000 that’s on the table, or the $2 million cash injection for a 50% stake of the start-up. No, in their minds it’s now worth at least $100 million. $200 million. $10 billion.


I’ve seen this behavior kill extremely good, extremely favorable deals. People sometimes just get in their own way, become distrustful, and think that everyone’s going to do them out of their fair share of the invention.