It seemed like a regular visit to his Vietnam-based development office for Keaz co-founder Tim Bos, but after touching down in Ho Chi Minh, the founder quickly realised something was wrong.
Sitting in the car with a member of his team, Bos was shown a local news article featuring the winners of a local pitch competition, and initially thought nothing of it.
“The only thing I recognised was the word ‘car sharing’, so I assumed they were telling me that we had an opportunity to partner with a new Vietnamese company,” the founder told StartupSmart.
However, scrolling further through the article, Bos saw the photo of the team who’d won the prize, and immediately recognised one of his lead Vietnamese software developers hoisting the trophy, someone who he’d worked with and trusted for years.
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The team had won the hackathon and pitch comp off the back of a new car-sharing platform they’d pitched, and with Keaz operating as a technology provider for car sharing, car rental and fleet management, the co-founder knew this was no coincidence.
“After delving deeper, they had essentially presented our software, which we’ve spent years developing and refining, and we also found they had published some of our proprietary code onto the hackathon website,” Bos says.
This was all the information the founder needed to deduce his lead developer had tried to take the company’s IP and present it as his own.
But Bos knew he couldn’t go in all guns blazing, and instead took some time to gather evidence while striving to make sure the staff member was none the wiser, enlisting the help of one of Vietnam’s top IP lawyers to get some advice.
In the end, the founder took three steps to remedy the situation.
1. Providing the evidence
Bos says he wanted to ensure everything was done in due process and by the book, confronting the staff member in question with the company’s HR manager and directors present. After showing the staff member the evidence, he quickly fessed up, though Bos says he tried to deny it initially.
“I basically gave him two options: he could sign the resignation letter I put in front of him, or we’d follow up and take him to court,” he says.
“Amazingly, within minutes of him leaving the office, most of the evidence online disappeared. This reinforced that we made the right decision to keep quiet about this until we’d gathered enough evidence.”
2. Taking immediate action
Along with the resignation letter, Bos also had the employee sign a letter of confession, which he could use if the employee was found to have used the company’s code in any manner in the future.
That letter of confession was then taken to the organisers of the pitch competition, who Bos insisted revoke the prize and also issue statements about the incident on their social media channels.
Additionally, all other members of the pitch team were required to say they had deleted all copies of the code and would never use it in the future.
3. Preventing it from happening again
Immediately after the experience, Bos and his company took action to prevent being put in a similar situation in the future.
This included publishing a brand new IP policy and updating employment contracts to include specific provisions relating to IP and competition.
Additionally, the company further segregated its code base to ensure developers only had access to the relevant code they were working on, and Keaz copyrighted its code across multiple countries.
Looking back Bos says he initially thought situations like these didn’t often happen in the startup community, but he says he’s now convinced they happen “quite a lot”.
“I’ve heard a few stories of people taking their code or IP with them when they leave, with the expectation that because they wrote it and put all the work into it, they have a right to own it,” he says.
“I don’t think companies are clear enough with staff on their expectations around IP protection, and the potential repercussions if they break those rules.”