If you see a great business idea on the internet, you should steal it.
Notice I didn’t say copy it; there’s as little point in duplicating someone else’s online business as there is in doing so in the brick and mortar world. But the idea itself? Absolutely.
Starbucks didn’t invent the notion of “fair trade coffee,” any more than they were the first company to sell a cup of brew. But they “stole” the idea of marketing products with buyers’ social consciences in mind, and ran with it in a big way — they now sell more “fair trade” coffee than anyone else on the planet. If you can imagine a way to utilize an idea in a way that can make it more successful and profitable, you should “steal” it, and run; dreaming up a better implementation for a great idea is much, much easier than coming up with a great idea from whole cloth.
Beyond being easier, many believe it’s something of a moral imperative to “steal” great ideas. Squidoo founder and consummate internet entrepreneur Seth Godin this year put it well (and in his typically upbeat fashion): “Ideas can’t be stolen, because ideas don’t get smaller when they’re shared, they get bigger.” He went on to suggest that the responsibility of the “stealer” was then to improve upon the idea — just like Starbucks “improved” the idea of marketing fair trade. Or Apple “improved” the mouse.
Most tech-savvy folks know Apple didn’t invent the mouse. Engineers at Xerox built the first practical modern computer mouse — their version had three buttons, cost $300 to manufacture, and had practically no raison d’etre. Steve Jobs saw it, went to his engineers and demanded Apple’s version have one button, be cheaper to build, and be the cornerstone of not just an interface but the entire Macintosh line itself. Did he steal the idea? Looks like it to a lot of folks. But he also improved upon it, and that made all the difference.
Many of us who were alive in 1971 (and quite a few who weren’t) remember counterculture activist Abbie Hoffman’s publication of the highly controversial Steal This Book, a sixties-fueled polemic that targeted, among other things, the American economic system. In it, most recall, Hoffman both advocated and morally justified theft — but what fewer remember was the post-release controversy when researcher Izak Haber accused Hoffman of (what else?) stealing his work on the book without compensation.
Haber was eventually paid, and the ideas in the book went on to influence a new generation, who wrote books of their own, expanding and improving upon Hoffman’s ideas about social justice in ways that are easily visible, even in today’s highly technological marketplace. That businesses like Starbucks or Apple are even aware of phrases like “fair trade” or “non-sweatshop labor” speaks to the notion of great ideas as simply roots, upon which a tree grows; ultimately, the quality and quantity of the fruit harvest is all about execution. Anyone can plant an apple seed, but not everyone can develop a billion-dollar market for apple sauce — or see the potential for a mouse moving a cursor on a computer screen.
Put even more simply, and recognizably: don’t reinvent the wheel. Build something innovative that runs on wheels, and you’re miles ahead — even before you begin.