Stop worrying about people stealing your startup idea

I want to start by admitting that I was guilty of this on my first few startups. My father is so paranoid he would “hush” me when I started talking about my startup idea in a public place, as if the person at the table next to us was going to drop everything in their life and start pursuing an idea they overheard at dinner. It’s actually become quite comical to me at this point when he does this.

Staying silent about your idea is not only silly, it’s actually quite harmful. When you have a startup idea, you need to be thinking about it all the time, and the more you can talk about it the better — because talking about it out loud helps you flush out ideas and hear different perspectives. It’s also how you get other people interested in working with you or investing in you. The benefit of this far outweighs the insanely small chance that you’ll be hurt by creating more competition. There’s a reason no investors will sign an NDA to hear your startup pitch, because they knew it’s all about the execution, and ideas are a dime a dozen.

I recently started reading Founders at Work, by Jessica Livingston. She is one of the co-founders of Y Combinator, her and Paul Graham are married. In her interview with Steve Wozniak, Woz tells the story of how Apple got started. I’ve hard this many times, having read both Steve Jobs biographies during the last few years, but I had never heard it told like this. Woz explains how he was working at HP and when he came up with the idea for the Apple Computer, he pitched it to his boss, his boss’s boss, and his boss’s boss’s boss. Woz had already created all of the schematics and he laid out an entire plan on how to do the project. Woz wanted HP to do the project so badly because he loved working there. And guess what? They weren’t interested. Woz even checked with every department he could at HP to see if there was any conflict or anyone was interested. Nope. Nothing. Nada.

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries discusses how this fear of other people stealing your idea is ridiculous, and you couldn’t get a big company to steal your idea if you walked into the manager’s office and pitched it to him personally. What a great example of that with Woz and HP. Keep in mind we’re talking about quite possibly the greatest startup idea ever, and no one at HP was interested.

Eric Ries also writes that if you fear someone can steal your idea the second you launch and beat you, you’re doomed anyway. Startups actually have advantages over big companies and people forget this, myself included. My favorite case of this is Snapchat. After Snapchat had some moderate success but was by no means mainstream the way it is now, Facebook just cloned it (I believe after failed attempts to acquire the company). A reasonable business person would probably have assumed Snapchat is doomed, because Facebook has more resources, more users to market to, and Evan Spiegel might as well give up. Well, funny thing, by cloning Snapchat Facebook actually helped it take off. All the journalists covered the story, and Snapchat’s name was everywhere in the press. And Facebook Poke, the app created to destroy Snapchat, hasn’t been heard from since. It taught me a great lesson though about the advantages startups have over large organizations. Facebook was branded as the site that stores all your information forever. They make it so hard to delete anything that there’s a even a funny shtick about in a How I Met Your Mother episode where it’s impossible to delete a photo off Facebook. So when Facebook came out with Poke, Facebook was asking consumers to use an app that said it was going to delete everything after X seconds, which directly conflicted with the idea of what Facebook was in people’s minds.

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