When is it safe to share your idea?

I once heard “ideas are cheap – execution is the differentiator”.  That said, it’s a little scary going out there and sharing your startup idea with a friend of a friend.  When is it safe to do so?  Can you really keep an idea locked up until you get a patent?  That doesn’t seem realistic or a good recipe for being a fast mover.

  • Basically don’t share it with anyone who is capable of starting a competing business. In general though I don’t like to share my ideas with others because it gives a feeling of success without having accomplished anything.

    I read/heard from many sources that people who tell others their goals are far less likely to accomplish their goals than those that keep their goals a secret. It’s because saying we’re going to do something gives us a false sense of accomplishment.

    Check out this video for instance: http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_keep_your_goals_to_yourself

    • I’ve heard the opposite as well, that good ideas are usually not apparent so even if we share it, and its a good idea people don’t naturally “get it”. Look at SnapChat. It didn’t catch fire immediately, so after they launched, anyone could’ve easily created a copy – but they didn’t. AFTER its been proven though, people will jump on to copy it like lemmings off a cliff.

      Personally I haven’t created a “great” idea but come up with a lot of decent ideas and have been fine with sharing them and nobody has tried to copy me, but hey they are just decent ideas (well they are Billion dollar ideas to ME – but I know myself better).

      • The reason for that is because most of the people who are smart enough to copy your idea are likely working on their own ideas, which is why they would be unlikely to try to copy your idea if you told it to them.

        But, once you succeed with your idea, then people will naturally try to imitate it since the idea has already been validated; at that point it isn’t about proving whether or not the idea can work but rather who can grab the most customers using that idea.

        This explains the phenomenon of all the clone companies like those that cloned GroupOn, or all the clones of Uber, Snapchat, etc. Even Facebook is itself a clone website; which brings up the important fact that someone doesn’t have to come up with the idea, they just have to be better at executing it in order to win.

        By the way, I’m the guy that left the first response.

        • I’m the guy you’re replying to. Yeah so my point is while you haven’t gotten traction, there’s little chance people will steal your idea.

          Some people may say Mark Zuckerberg stole the twins’ ideas. Well if one follows it closely enough, that’s not true. Mark had is own idea but it was somewhat in conflict with the twins’ idea and he decided to screw them. Yeah he may be a dick but he didn’t “steal” Facebook. Plus there were “facebooks” in other colleges at that time too that didn’t go anywhere.

          • I didn’t mean that Zuckerberg copied their idea completely. I wasn’t even referring to the Winklevoss twins, but rather how other social networking sites existed before Facebook like Friendster and Myspace.

            Facebook wasn’t a completely original idea; just a tweak of old ideas that succeeded because of good execution. Like you said, there were social networking sites at other colleges at the time that didn’t become as successful as Facebook.

            So, the lesson might be that a good idea is meaningless if not paired with the right founders. That’s why if a person is confident in their abilities, then they shouldn’t be scared of competitors copying their idea, since better execution is what matters.

            Eventually though, every successful business will face competition; there’s no way to avoid it. The only thing you can do is try to delay that competition by flying under the radar for as long as possible, which means avoiding press as much as possible.

            Pintrest is a good example of that since they grew their company into a large one before they started getting a lot of press; they didn’t seek out press like a lot of new startups do before they even gain traction.

            Now, even though there have been many clones of Pinterest created, not one of them has even come close to the amount of users that Pinterest has since they got to a critical point and now the network effects have kicked in.

            It’s like how even though Google is a huge company that spent billions of dollars trying to market Google+, it’s still a small social network when compared to Facebook, since Facebook has the network effects in place, which makes it hard to beat them.

            In order to beat them you have to get people on Facebook to convince their friends to come along with them to a new social network which is hard to do.

  • Share your damn idea. Get feedback. Ideas are not special.

    An acquaintance of mine shared an idea he had with me. I liked it, and had the technical skills to do it myself, without him. I chose to work with him instead.

    Fast forward a year – our bootstrapped startup has traction & revenue. It also looks completely different than his original idea, because we reacted to user feedback, market conditions, and new ideas that came along later.

    My acquaintance (& now business partner), while technically much less skilled, was instrumental in making product and business decisions that led to our success. If I had run of with the idea and done it myself, I don’t think our startup would have had the (small amount of) success that it has.

    The point is: people tend to think of an idea as this one, special seed that must be carefully guarded and tended to so that it inexorably grows into a business. It’s not. Your initial idea is, at best, a push that will get you moving in a certain direction. Your success or failure will depend on the next 10,000 ideas you have, the people you work with (and their ideas), and the competitive/technological/cultural landscape you travel through.

    Your idea is not special. Share it.

  • I was paranoid about it too…but eventually I let go. You have thought about it more than anyone, and if you’ve done some detailed business planning and customer testing you’re already ahead of someone off the street wanting to be a copycat. Yes, people might come up with more money to execute, but if you have some kind of secret sauce/differentiator that you don’t share (the “how”), there’s not a lot of downside.

    One potential positive outcome is the phrase “you really should meet…” that results when you share your idea. You never know what doors will open.

  • Well, I guess there is no general rule for that. My idea, for instance, has been stolen by a much more powerful competitor. He came in touch with me at an early stage of our start-up, as we were already public, but still small. He got some pieces of information and now he presented our product idea to the press as being the result of his own thoughts. Apparently he didn’t find out that we had it patented as a utility model (patent granted). Or perhaps he did, but he just didn’t care. Our lawyers send him a letter a week ago asking him to take that info out of his website and to offer us a license agreement. So far, no reaction from him. And at our current stage we cannot really face a court case. So I wonder if all the money we put on that patent has been just wasted money… Any experience on that?

  • On a lark, I pitched an idea at a startup weekend last September. It wasn’t selected. A couple of weeks ago, I found out about a startup in my area that started after that Startup Weekend event… and one of the cofounders was at that Startup Weekend event… and the service that their startup is providing is what I pitched. Coincidence?

    Now, I had no intention of working on that idea. So it’s not a big deal to me. HOWEVER be aware that if you pitch your idea, someone else might run with it. From everything that I’ve read, it doesn’t happen often. But it does happen.

  • As a founder of a company that’s just getting our first traction today, I went through this same thing. I think it’s important to realize, however, that as the founder, you are more than a developer. You are the champion of the business. Get out there and talk about it like it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, you and your team are rock stars who know how to do it and I think you’ll find that the feedback you get is more rewarding than you expected.

    The odds of your idea being stolen are incredibly low. Deliver what you say and you won’t need to worry. Best of luck.

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