Startups: Keep it secret, keep it safe..

I hear this from entrepeneurs all the time: “I’m keeping my startup idea secret”.   In my opinion and that of others, don’t! Talk about your idea to almost anyone who will listen.  Everyone! Investors, entrepreneurs, friends, ex-coworkers, etc. In fact, anyone! Why? Because the more people you talk too, the more you will learn.

In Eric Karjaluoto classic post Why your web startup will fail’, Eric says: ‘No one is looking at you. No one is listening to you. Even if you create a portable fountain-of-youth, your startup’s biggest challenge will be to get anyone to pay attention. Really–it’s that hard.’ You therefore have to talk to lots of people and there’s a ton of benefits when you listen to their responses:

  1. Evolution – Others will give the idea refinement and improvement suggestions.
  2. Make better – By taking to people you will discover flaws and hopefully correct them.
  3. Learn – You’ll understand a lot more about the sector and industry you’re aiming at.
  4. Competitors – You will learn about competitive products that exist or are being built.
  5. Find needs – You will gauge people’s excitement level for the product and for various features.
  6. Practice – You’ll refine your all important sales and investor pitch.
  7. Bad idea – You might even discover your idea is a bad idea and save yourself a world of pain.

Despite the clear benefits there’s always the counter argument: “but someone will steal my idea”. In reality there are, at most, a handful of people in the world who might actually drop everything and copy your idea. Unfortunately, most people will think your idea suck’s.  However his does not mean your idea is stupid. Entrepreneurship is about seeing needs that other don’t always understand immediately. So, who’s going to copy you..?

  1. The big company employee – They or their company will steal your idea. Not likely! Their employers normally have a product in the market and its hard to change direction, particularly for big companies. They are personally in a big company because its safe. Are they really going to leave their fat paycheck for the unknown.. I doubt it!
  2. Other entrepreneurs – Most founders, who are going to build something, are already working on their project and are highly unlikely to drop everything to copy you.  Even if they are in the idea generation phase, high integrity entrepreneurs are unlikely to copy your idea.
  3. VC’s –  They will either like your idea or not. If they like it and like you enough, you’ll get funded.  VC’s prefer to fund an existing teams than taking an idea and building a team.  The team owns it! The one risk is if they have entrepreneurs workingon a similar project.  But most VCs will disclose this first and let you decide.

The handful of people in the world who might copy your idea are entrepreneurs just starting up with a very similar idea.  Don’t worry competition is good and their will always be smart founders out there with similar ideas. Remember ideas are cheap and execution is everything. Also remember, an idea changes as it grows.

Finally, the conversation moves onto the NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) – I’ll tell you if you sign an NDA”. Unfortunately this blows everything:

  1. Shows inexperience – Few experienced entrepreneurs or VCs will sign them.  Asking them to is widely considered a sign of inexperience.
  2. Consequences – There value is not clear unless you are a big company. Are you really going to spend years suing someone who signed an NDA and broke it?
  3. Time – As a startup you don’t have much time. Don’t waste it writing unnecessary documents.

Ideas grow and branch off in unexpected ways when they’re given the light of day. Don’t keep them secret to protect them. Talk to everyone who will listen and you’ll probably learn a thing or two 😉


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4 Responses to “Startups: Keep it secret, keep it safe..”

  1. Jon Says:

    I totally agree, this is a very common mistake.

    Keeping your business ideas a secret protects them from deeper inspection meaning you might spend 3 months developing an idea in ‘private’ only to be surprised when it does not work out how you expected.

    Also, these days there is often a competitor that you are not yet aware of. Chatting to people about your idea is sometimes the only way to find out about the company that has been doing the same thing for several years!


  2. Nick Barker Says:

    Thanks for the comment Jon.

    Interesting there is still a strong pro case for being in stealth – Trada CEO Niel Robertson says in his ‘The Stealth Mode: Trada’s Position on Staying Stealth’ blog post:

    “The last major argument I have in favor of stealth mode is simply the most obvious – that you should play your own game for as long as you can. Being able to pick and choose what is correct for your business with as few outside influences as possible is a luxury that you won’t always have. This doesn’t mean don’t talk to people and adjust based on what they say. You absolutely have to do this from day one. Just don’t have the conversations in public. I don’t know a lot of people that take their relationship issues to the park and invite anyone walking by to opine on what would work best for them. Take advantage of private conversations and reduced noise for as long as you can get away with it. Focusing on a small set of objectives will allow you to learn quickly and fail things out of the system that won’t help your business.”

    However, I still disagree. You should open up as much as possible to those that are interested. If you don’t ask you’ll never know

  3. Bob Business Says:

    I think it’s a matter of discretion – knowing whom to speak to and how much to reveal.

    • Nick Barker Says:

      Good point! You don’t, and perhaps should not, reveal absolutely everything to everyone. Many won’t be interested in all the detail and others will bring you no benefit.

      Share degrees of your idea and plan to everyone who’s interested. Don’t keep the whole idea secret from all but a small inner circle of friends!

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