If you love your idea, set it free….

This week I was contacted by someone with a common question about starting up:

My question is regarding intellectual property in the tech field and VC start-up: You wrote that at the pre-funding stage, all you need is a couple of slides / mock-ups. Even if you don’t know your target customer directly you can get to them. How do you ensure, if you are sharing your idea, that it won’t be stolen and copied before you get the funding needed to launch it yourself?

This is a common concern. You don’t want to share your idea for fear that someone will steal it. My feeling is that ideas are not where the value is. I thought of Yammer a few months after I got on Twitter (and long before Yammer was born) and I did nothing about it. There is zero value in that.

My response to this reader was the following:

Ideas are useful, but it’s all about execution. I actually think you benefit more from sharing your idea than otherwise. If you share it and people nod their heads, you know you’re onto something. If they don’t, you should pause to ask yourself “why”.
I don’t propose that you be reckless with your ideas, but don’t hold back on sharing them if it will help you refine your thinking and/ or secure capital.

On that note, investors will not sign NDAs.
Finally, speed is key. If you are worried about your idea getting out there, then the faster you can get your idea funded and in market the better.

So, if you have a startup idea, don’t be shy about sharing it. It will refine and improve your thinking (either in terms of making the idea stronger or confirming that it is a bad idea). It also creates some momentum around your project. Finally, I think that the spreading your idea and intention creates some positive social karma out there. People start rooting for you. Put you in touch with people that can help. It’s all good.

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  • Great post and 100% on the money. It's not about the idea it's about having the passion, sweat, and heart to make it happen. Interested in your take on patents since a lot of people think "I won't tell anybody until you patent that idea". My take is that patents aren't gold. The defensibility of a patent is what matters and that will only be tested if someone actually takes you to court. If you have something truly amazing then maybe do a provisional patent; but don't get hung up on spending money on patents, focus on getting to market!

    • I don't think highly of patents. Many of my companies are web startups where patents don't play a role. Even for more traditional technology, you can do provisional patents quickly so this should not be a barrier to getting your idea out there.

  • Hiro Maeda

    Great Post! I agree that it is all about the execution of your idea. There are thousands of people who come up with the same idea. You should always be pitching/exposing your ideas to people who may be able to give you great feedback. You always want to "fail early." You don't want to spend months building a product and realizing afterwards that nobody wants to use your product.

  • Ian Graham

    Great post Mark and I concur 110% One other point you might want to consider. Execution is key and getting ideas to work the really hard part. Even if you do share your idea with someone they probably won't have the same passion and drive to make it happen. Most people have their own ideas that they want to work on. IMHO sharing an idea only tends to make it better and more robust. done properly there is also minimal risk. Here are a couple of posts I wrote that offer some more thoughts on ideas; ” target=”_blank”>http://www.thecodefactory.ca/blog/2008/12/02/the-… ” target=”_blank”>http://www.thecodefactory.ca/blog/2009/11/17/big-…

  • Mark MacLeod

    Interesting. Toxic customers should definitely be avoided. Back when I was in accounting firms we would routinely fire bad customers. This is especially important in a services business because some customers can just chew up cycles.

  • danielharan

    "People start rooting for you. Put you in touch with people that can help"

    Absolutely. I can't say how useful it has been so far. Lots of free advice, introduction to Angels, potential customers, etc.

    Surprisingly, one thing that I've never seen mentioned is that people will warn you against toxic customers: those that will be impossible to please, won't pay or won't result in a reference.