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.

Learn How to Launch An MVP In One Minute

Key Takeaways

A Minimum Viable Product centers upon the idea that you should release a new product ASAP. Don’t spend nine months building all the features. Instead, build the most important features — just enough to learn whether or not people even want the thing you’re making.

Repeat after me: an MVP means getting the most learning for the lowest amount of effort. Ask yourself, “How can I get this product in front of people as quickly as possible?”

Example of Minimum Viable Product in action

  • Dropbox started as an MVP
  • Here at One Month, we use Launchrock to build a landing pages, and to collect email addresses for classes that aren’t yet in development. This helps us learn which classes are most in demand.

How to Learn to Build an MVP Today

  1. Steve Blank, and Eric Reis: Read about the experts and follow them on Twitter (5 minutes).
  2. Data Drive Products Now! (slideshow): Check out this cool case study from on Etsy developer Dan McKinley (12 minutes).

Additional Resources

No One Cares (About Your MVP)

In this Founder Friday, I answer your questions about MVPs. Questions like:

“How early should I release my MVP?”

(It was basically just iterations of the same question haha)

Look, there are three parts to an MVP.

Product, that’s the obvious part.

Minimum, it should only have the features that it needs. Here you should tend towards less rather than more. It’s your baby and you’re afraid people are going to make fun of it, so you want to give it as much of a chance of success when you release it as possible so you keep adding all these features and polishing it up so it looks good.

But what you don’t realize is that by doing all that adding of features, you’re likely killing its chance of success in the real world — first, because you risk someone else coming in and building it before you, and second, because more features and more polish doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Many products that are successful are actually simplified products of things that already exist. Twitter is just Facebook without all of the other features, and a 140 character limit.

But what counts as minimum? Well that depends on the second word, Viable.

You will only have a GUESS as to what minimum features constitutes a viable product, and you have to actually release it to see if your guess is right. If your product is too minimal to be viable when you release it, then it won’t get usage. So what? No big deal. At least you didn’t waste any time building additional stuff that no one needed.

Then you can go back to the drawing board and think about how your product needs to change in order to be viable. But at least you got really useful information.

That’s one thing that a lot of people don’t realize. If you release your product and it’s not viable — aka no one uses it — then no one will care. It’s not like everyone will know your product is lame and will boycott it and never use it again. No — repeat after me: NO ONE CARES (about your MVP). And that’s a good thing. Now go learn something.

What is a Minimum Viable Product?

It’s a tool for finding product market-fit (AKA when people love your product and/or want to pay you for it) Wikipedia some great info on when you’ve achieved product market fit.

It’s something you can change quickly.

According to Steve Blank “An MVP allows you to gain maximum amount of learning in the shortest amount of time”.

It’s a tool that helps you discover your early adopters, get early revenue, and gather data on the viability of your business. Whether you’re building a business to business application or a consumer facing app, an MVP is a critical tool for helping ensure you nail your startup’s business model before you invest in scaling.

Here are important aspects for discovering and building a useful Minimum Viable Product.

The prototyping team.

If you’re in a startup, chances are you’re burning through cash and that you need to move quickly from idea to revenue. Perhaps the most important aspect of any startup is it’s team. In the earliest stages, this team should consist of three types of people, the hacker, hustler, and designer. I won’t go too deep into each of these roles but it’s important to note that skills in sales and rapid prototyping are key to being able to move quickly and iterate on the design of your product during MVP development.

Build things that don’t scale.

Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, wrote an excellent article about the idea of building things that don’t scale. A common mistake entrepreneurs make is writing code too early and trying to build out a fully functional product. Depending on the market you’re attacking, you may be able to build a high-fidelity MVP that is really just a bunch of interconnected and clickable mockups. This could be enough of you to pre-sell early adopters without actually writing a single line of code.

Another option is to leverage existing services like WordPress and Google forms and create a version of your service that looks automated on the front end while in reality, you’re behind the curtain manually making the service run. The point here is to try and test whether someone will pay you to actually execute your value proposition.

Know what you’re measuring.

When I’m testing a B2B Saas business, I often use a version of the High-fidelity MVP to try and get early adopters to either sign a letter of intent or pre pay me to build the service. In this case, I’m measuring the number of customers I talk to who are actually willing to pay. However, when building say the next Twitter, you might be testing ways to drive traffic to a landing page where you’re asking people to give you their e-mail to get on a waiting list. In this case you’re measuring conversion rates and you have a pass/fail metric that will help you determine whether the MVP is a success or not.

If you aren’t measuring and capturing data with you’re MVP, you’re going to have a tough time demonstrating the evidence for why your business will be viable.


It’s important to remember that the MVP is not a final version of your product. Whether your MVP is actual code or clickable mockups, you’re not intending to keep any of the work you’re doing. You need to have mentality that the MVP is just a prototype that can be changed at anytime. This is why the prototyping team is so important at the earliest stages. You need people who move quickly and don’t get stuck in building something that’s perfect but rather something that gets you maximum learning in the shortest amount of time. When the evidence dictates you need to pivot, they’ll be ready to pull an all nighter and pump out the updated version.

But wait, How do I even decide where to start? and Can I start now with just a one person team?

In my work with startups, schools, and corporations, these are a questions I get all the time.

Start by talking to customers. If you’ve got an idea for a specific market, reach out to target users and ask them to tell you about the challenges they face. Try and focus on their pain points and then sketch out your first MVP on the back of a napkin. Then get feedback from the user. Repeat this ten times until you have a good understanding of the pain you’re trying to solve. This will help you have a much better understanding of what MVP you should try to build first.

A huge part of being an entrepreneur is being able to recruit talented people to join you. You’re constantly selling your vision and mission to potential partners and employees and asking them to give up cash and opportunity to follow you into your startup. That said, it is possible to start building your startup with just a one man team. In our One Month MVP course, I’ll dive deep into the steps you need to take to help sell, design, and build your first MVP without writing a single line of code. If you’re working alone or with the ideal prototyping team you’ll be able to use the evidence you gathered and the prototypes you build to help sell your vision to investors, partners, and you’re first customers.