The battle to pioneer driverless cars is already underway, with big names like Google and Tesla already piloting their own versions. Close on their heels is Uber, which stands to gain a significant amount of money using autonomous driving technology. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Google-Uber rivalry is that they once were on the same side of the industry. Only recently has Uber CEO Travis Kalanick found himself racing against the company he once considered a partner.
According to a recent New York Times piece, Kalanick spent a great deal of time with Anthony Levandowski, a Google autonomous vehicle engineer who left the company last year to form Otto. Otto is a self-driving trucking startup that has recently been acquired by Uber, leading to legal accusations from Google of theft. Whatever the outcome of those issues, there are a few things other businesses can learn from the battle between Uber and Google’s driverless car division, Waymo.
1. Research your partners.
Even if you’ve known your prospective business partners for years, take the time to get to know more about them. Contact mutual business acquaintances and search online for information on the person or business. Before hiring employees or working with contractors, screen candidates or use a background screening company. A small amount of effort on the front end could save you months of headaches.
2. Trademark your name.
If you haven’t already, you should trademark your business name. If an issue arises, you’ll have that trademark on your side, especially if your name and business description make it clear what you do. Create a thorough business plan that includes information about the products or services your business is engaged in. This documentation could become useful if one of your business partners tries to steal those ideas.
3. Protect your secrets.
When you’re partnering with other businesses or individuals, a certain amount of trust is necessary. Even with that trust, though, you don’t always have to share every single detail of your business operations with partners. Take the approach of sharing only what you need to share to work with the other person. Even then, make sure you have signed non-disclosure agreements on file for everyone who will be working on your project, including your business partner’s employees or contractors. Before working together, have a signed partnership agreement in place and, if at all possible, involve an attorney in reading and overseeing the signing of these documents.
4. Limit your employees.
Even the best bosses can find that good employees leave to join the competition. In the case of the Google-Uber situation, a valued engineer took his knowledge to his own company, and soon thereafter started working with the competition. Even if your employees or contractors don’t leave to start a competing business, they may be poached by another company that appreciates the value of their skill levels. One way to protect against that is through the use of non-competition agreements that restrict where your employees can work immediately after leaving your company. However, courts often rule on the side of the departing worker in cases involving these agreements, so think of them only in the sense that they might cause a worker to pause before going to a competitor.
5. Patent your ideas.
One way to protect specific business secrets is through applying for a provisional patent, which puts your concept into writing in the event a dispute arises. This does not give you a provisional patent on your ideas, as many think, but it does put the wheels in motion. Within a year, you can apply for a non-provisional patent to take your idea to the next level, but that process can be pricey. Like non-competition agreements, often having a provisional patent in place could serve as a preventive measure. If your partners know you’ve applied for one, they may be less likely to try to take your ideas offsite.
Protecting ideas can be challenging, especially as businesses increasingly work with contractors and business partners to bring products and services to market. By taking measures to legally protect themselves, businesses of all sizes can keep their ideas safe while still working with other organizations and individuals. While contracts aren’t fail proof, they can serve as a deterrent to those who don’t want to risk a lengthy legal battle.