Startup NDAs: Why you shouldn’t be afraid of someone stealing your startup idea

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This is probably the biggest topic I run into when I talk to would be founders. They ask questions like:

  • How can I protect my startup idea so no one else steals it?
  • I want to find someone to help me work on my startup / raise investment, but I’m scared that if I talk about my idea, they’ll just take it any develop it without me
  • Will you sign an NDA?

The answer is that you shouldn’t be afraid about someone stealing your startup idea.

There’s a few reasons for this:

The idea isn’t the hard part, it’s the execution.

It’s commonly believed in the startup community that if no one else has had your idea before, it’s probably not very good.

It’s like music — every chord progression has been written before somewhere.

The key is that there are so many different ways to execute the same idea. And your job is to figure out the right way.

Think about the number of times a text or photo-sharing website or application has become successful. There was blogger, and then Twitter, and then Tumblr. Facebook, and then Instagram, and then Pinterest. Each of these is essentially the same idea, executed in very different ways.

But on top of that, the most important part of the execution is things you don’t see: the team you’re able to put together, the culture you’re able to build, the way you manage it, your marketing strategy. All of those things are equally important as the product itself that you’re building.

One of my favorite sayings about this comes from Jake Schwartz, CEO of General Assembly:

If all it takes to steal an idea is hearing about it, it’s not a good idea. Not to diminish an idea, they have power. But it’s about all the hard work. — Jake Schwartz, CEO of General Assembly

There’s a distinction between what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. You might want to consider talking a lot about the first and less about the second.

No one cares about your idea

Most people are too preoccupied working on their own thing to care about yours. It’s like walking outside and assuming everyone’s judging you, when in fact, everyone is worried about being judged themselves and no one cares about you.

If you don’t believe this, Dave McClure came up with an exercise for you: take your list of ideas and pick the 3rd or 4th. Not the idea you love the most, but one that you don’t care about as much.

Then try to call up a company that could be a competitor and try to convince them to steal your idea. You’ll be surprised how hard it actually is. They’re working on their own thing and they don’t have time to steal your idea. Ideas are work.

Being precious about your idea will prevent you from being able to execute it

This is probably the biggest reason why you shouldn’t worry about someone stealing your idea. If you’re worried about that, then you’re not worrying about actual important things, you’re just being paranoid.

Honestly I think the paranoia comes from how startups and startup ideas are portrayed in movies like The Social Network. Where all it takes is a flash of insight and a few hours of coding to make an idea happen. That’s not real life.

Your job as a startup founder is quite the opposite of trying to hold onto your idea, it’s to try to tell everyone about it and convince them that it’s a good idea. You have to be going around talking about your idea constantly, because you are your own best marketer.

Your pitch will suck at first, so you have to do it hundreds of times before you figure it out. How are you going to do that if you’re afraid to tell anyone in the first place?

You also have to find the right team, including investors. How will you find those if you don’t tell people what you’re actually working on.

Keeping your idea close to you is safe, but it’s also stupid. It’s a great recipe for not actually ever building it, and then being bitter years later because someone else built the idea that you “had first.”

No one will sign an NDA

Some people think, can’t I just get everyone I talk to to sign an NDA (Non-disclosure agreement) preventing them for sharing the information?

No, not really. First of all, no one in tech will sign an NDA. Especially investors. They hear thousands of startup pitches and if they had to sign NDAs for each one, they wouldn’t be able to do or say anything. They’d have to spend all their time keeping track of NDAs.

Also you have no power when you just have an idea. So why should some stranger sign your NDA? Whenever I get an email from someone saying they want to share their idea but they want me to sign an NDA first, I say “No thanks.” Why should I?

You don’t have the resources to enforce an NDA anyway

Even if you could get someone to sign an NDA, it takes lots of time and money to enforce an NDA. That’s not the kind of legal battle you can afford to get into when you’re starting a startup. It’s unlikely that you have the money.

So that’s it.

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