Relax: no one will steal your idea

Some startup founders are rabidly protective of their ideas. Their dreams are haunted by the fear of their intellectual property being stolen, and their one shot at startup stardom being snatched from their heads while they sleep. But this culture of possessiveness is the opposite of productiveness. Could we as founders get further by sharing our ideas rather than gatekeeping them?

Facebook is a horror story in many different ways. But perhaps most famously for the plight of the Winklevoss brothers.

The Social Network (2010) chronicles the real life events of the Facebook takeover with little exaggeration. The precocious young Mark Zuckerberg is brought in by the Winklevoss’ twins to collaborate on their original concept for Facebook. Zuck takes the idea, cuts contact, then codes and launches the platform himself.

Set in a world before social networks existed, let alone the ability to patent them, the brothers are met with skepticism and ridicule for thinking their idea was ‘worth’ stealing, or could even be stolen given its intangible nature. As Harvard President Larry Summers tells the twins when they protest Zuckerburg’s theft of their “multi million dollar idea”, “You might just be letting your imaginations run away with you”.

As viewers familiar with the Facebook saga, we know this is terrible and maddening advice in the context of the real life events. But in the reality we face as entrepreneurs, it might be worth its weight in gold.

Why no one will steal your idea

Most ideas are not Facebook

In the past 30 years, maybe four or five ideas have changed the way the world turns. Facebook is one. Smartphones, Google, and Bitcoin are some others. 

You might just have an ‘idea of the decade’. But it’s unlikely. 

The vast majority of ideas are not completely new inventions, but extensions or reimaginings of concepts we already have. Unless you’re in the one-per-decade category, you don’t need to worry about intellectual larceny as much as the Winkelvosses should have in early 2003.

There are no original ideas

Mark Twain elegantly described ideas as “the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages”. 

If you’ve had an idea, someone has probably had it before, and someone probably will again. Out of 100 people that have that idea, the 1 person with the ability to execute it is the only one who matters.

The downsides of non-disclosure

Not telling anyone about your idea is the enemy of progress. In a vacuum, your idea will receive no creative feedback, and no galvanising input. There will also be no one to hold you to account if you start to get complacent.

Ideas are cheap, execution is expensive

Almost everyone in the developed world, at some point in their lives, has uttered the words “I’ve just come up with a really good idea for a business/app/shop/money-making scheme”. Firstly, “really good” is highly subjective. Secondly, it’s a vanishingly small percentage of people that have the will and wherewithal to do something about it. 

The percentage of people able to bootstrap or raise funds is similarly tiny. There are 100 steps to be taken between having an idea and executing it successfully and many of them are capital related.

If you’re prepared to take those steps, and believe there’s something unique to your skills and leadership abilities that makes you the right person to execute the idea, then chances are it will remain yours no matter what.

Passion will (usually) win

An unrelenting affinity for your idea is what will keep you going through the inevitable highs and lows of the startup rollercoaster. Copycats simply won’t have this same fire. Be sure to have regular check-ins with yourself and your team to keep the passion alive, and triple-check that you’re all still driven by the original problem.

One-(wo)man bands are for funfairs

The entreps that get ahead are the ones with a trusted partner sharing the helm. They’re speaking to developers, leveraging their networks, bringing investors in early, and outsourcing what they can’t do themselves. It’s not just what you know, it’s who you tell.

VCs don’t sign NDAs

Lastly but crucially, walking into an investor’s board room with a non-disclosure agreement in hand is bad form at best. The reason investors don’t sign them isn’t because they have a secret folder waiting under their desk labelled “ideas I dismissed in the meeting but plan to steal later”. It’s simply that they hear dozens of ideas a month and a signed NDA is an easy route to crossed legal wires.  

Secondly, no one in business should sign binding legal agreements without input from their lawyer. Investing professionals certainty won’t, and asking them to do so is a drain on their time and resources. 

Thirdly, NDAs are notoriously difficult to enforce, and expensive to sue over. They’re often not worth the paper they’re written on, and certainly not worth your credibility.

Protecting yourself from the sharks

It’s highly unlikely your idea will be commandeered by a potential hire, advisory figure, or someone who overheard your conversation in a coffee shop.

But as your enterprise progresses, you’ll naturally need to start considering the competition. Here are a few ways you can keep the sharks at bay.

Focus your energy on spreading the word, not locking it down

In the words of computing pioneer Howard Aiken, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” Focus on branding and marketing activities that maximise your reach and keep your product unique to you, even when competition emerges.

Don’t stop at the first idea

Even if your original concept is market-shatteringly genius, a single invention isn’t enough to sustain your success. You’ll need to keep innovating. Copycats aren’t too much of a threat in the early stages, but once you’ve blazed the trail, others may try to follow.

Know your territory

Red Oceans are saturated, shark-infested markets where competition turns the waters red with blood. Are you in one? If your business is based on an existing idea, or you think copycats and competition are likely to be a major threat, the answer is probably yes.

If you think you’ve spotted clear waters where no other sharks have gone before, you’re likely in Blue Ocean territory. The way you think about and plan for competition will be totally different. Understand which ocean you’re navigating towards, and strategise accordingly.

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