Your Idea Is Probably Not The ‘Next Big Thing’

My Unfortunate Encounter With A Wantrepreneur And His NDA


This is my first attempt at blogging. Henceforth, this is how I intend to spew my numerous TLDR thoughts about the startup world among other random things.

Further down in this post, I have included an interesting email conversation I had with a wantrepreneur after he convinced me to sign the first and last NDA I ever signed for an idea 3 years ago. All the emails in the thread below are real and the first names included are also real.

I had worked casually with Mark xxx (last name withheld) at an on campus job for the majority of my sophomore year at Columbia University, and at the beginning of my junior year he approached me for a meeting to pitch his idea for the ‘next big social network’. As a general rule, I tend to accept these types of meetings, mostly because I enjoy brainstorming with people about everyday problems and how they can be solved with technology. I also figure that I already bore most of my friends half to death with all this tech stuff, so I should probably listen to others when they begin to catch the startup bug.

I kid you not when I tell you that many computer scientists hear requests like this on a weekly basis and most are burnt out by invitations to become a technical co-founder for the ‘next big thing’. In a future post I will talk about a couple of efficient ways to approach technical people about your ideas without sounding like another Jobs/Zuckerberg wannabe, but today I will keep my focus on my encounter with Mark xxx.

So I met with Mark, he told me his idea, which was essentially a paid version of Facebook with mesh of extra features that seemed more confusing that they were helpful. We had the regular chit-chat, I told him that I wasn’t entirely sure that anyone would want to pay him for those features, and I pointed out a few failed social networks that did very similar things for free and still could not get any users. Of course Mark didn’t bulge, he made it clear to me that he was the visionary in this conversation and that it would be best if I just played the role of a silent code monkey.

Eventually I told him that I would think through his idea a little more, but I was probably not interested. At this point, Mark whips out a pen and an NDA and tells me that I have to sign his NDA. This NDA was general enough that it basically said that because I had listened to Mark’s idea I was not allowed to pursue any ideas that had anything to do with social networks.

I remember Mark getting really aggressive when I said that I was not going to sign his NDA. I told him that I had met with him purely out of courtesy and that if he had offered me the NDA from the get go I would have cancelled the meeting and gone back home to watch TV. He started getting somewhat physical and agitated. I was probably twice Mark’s size at the time, and I knew for sure that he could not harm me physically (without a weapon), but the more I thought about the whole thing, the more I realized that it wasn’t worth it getting into a scuffle because of this idea that probably would never see fruition. The NDA was amateurish at best, and seemed to have been copied and pasted from the internet. It was general enough that I knew that it could never hold any weight in court, so I eventually agreed to sign it and headed away.

By the time I arrived my dorm room, there was a super long email from Mark awaiting me in my inbox. See the email thread below:


mxxxxxx@columbia.edu

9/12/11

to txxxxxx, axxxxxx, oxxxxxx

Tikue,

Was great to meet yesterday. Am glad you have decided to crack the door for this idea.

Reflecting on our discussion regarding the agreement itself, I reiterate my respect for your hesitation in signing, and appreciate the fact that you did. As you continue to be a creative thinker and participate in entrepreneurial discussions and actions I hope you are able to keep a clear distinction between sources of ideas.

There is absolutely proprietary content involved in the connections made, and stated by me, between certain concepts; goals; use of existing technology; and the potential innovation of new technologies; as well as strategical business tactics that will prove integral to this venture’s success; in our discussion that are innovative and unique. And as in the particular configuration and interactive structure of action described these aspects become even more unique.

You were approached with this opportunity “in good faith” and you signed “in good faith” that all aspects of our discussion “will remain private.” Additionally you pledged that you will not utilize any insight gained from our conversation “directly toward a similar yet separate and unrelated venture.”

These are statements that do in fact hold water and will with proper representation.

I write this to be clear about the serious nature of my intentions for this venture. It is imperative that ideas you heard from me do not become part of any general discussion with anyone else.

Feel free to do your thing otherwise man. I can believe that people pitch stuff to you all the time, but do not believe they pitch something as comprehensive and plausible as this all the time. Like I said about the VC route: dilution can ruin a company; and depending on the stakes VCs install their own board members.

Your relationship to the VC community, and faith in the new model of fund raising, do cause me great concern. Especially now that I have divulged really the essence and core of my vision for this company.

You and I formed our own relationship last year at work, and you were recommended by Alex and Oladapo to become a part of this team. Which by the time of filing with the State Department will be nine people total. You seem passionate and talented, and it sounds like you gained some great experience during your “summer internship” at Microsoft. By returning to school here at 26 and graduating at 29 I have been able to meld my real world experience and success in academia to form a cutting edge insight and drive for the challenges of the future.

You have been invited to be a part of it. As I work on the Mission Statement, you need to think clearly about our conversation and the document you signed. When brainstorming happens, as thankfully it does often on a college campus, proprietary content of mine should not be brought up. I have the passion and the belief for this company. And I have the resources to build a strong team and move forward as a corporate entity that has specific core values and acts “in good faith.”

Please do take this communication to be written “in good faith” as well. It’s a call to action: Be a part of it. At the same time it is a reminder that you have signed a binding document, the purpose of which has been stated numerous times. Don’t feel suffocated by this because you’re not, you can still hear all you want and provide your own ideas to any conversation you like.

I am looking to offer ownership stakes in a corporation to a technology development team. I will provide additional material to review this week, and ask that you make a decision on participation next week.

Good luck with classes. I leave you with a Prohibition Era saying: “Keep a lid on it”

Sincerely,
Mark xxx


Tikue Anazodo <txxxxxx@columbia.edu>

9/12/11

to mxxxxxx, axxxxxx, oxxxxxx

Mark,

Great to meet you too. This is beginning to sound more like a company the size Microsoft and not a start-up. The reason I join/talk to startups is because of their reputation for free thinking … Just so you know, no matter how solid you think your initial idea is, it is bound to go through so many changes, that in the end whatever company you start will rarely ever be the same idea you started with (founders find so many flaws in their ideas as they talk to other people, hence the power of free thinking … if you try to stick with that one specific thought through the end without talking other potential members of your target market about it, I assure you that you will be setting yourself up for failure)

About my relationship with the VC community, I don’t even understand the essence and relevance of this idea to begin with, and I am not going to put myself through the stress of trying to understand it so I can ‘steal’ it. Ideas are cheap, execution is key … one thing you’ll find in the VC community is that they’ve heard ideas like yours over and over again, you might consider yourself a first, but your are far from first. Nobody really cares about your idea unless you can prove it works (especially ideas that claim to tackle Facebook head on). Thousands of great ideas come of everyday, over 99% of social startups fail every year — figures even got worse after the ‘Social Network’ movie was released. I will advise you to be wary of treating you idea like a company while still eons away from becoming a company.

On that note I want to say that while I admire your spirit for this startup, I don’t like the energy that exists in this your pre-formation phase and as such I don’t wish to play any part in your startup. I do wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.

-Tikue

NB: Just so you know you are not the first person that has tried to tackle privacy concerns on FB:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaspora_(software)

There are numerous other social platforms that aim to help protect your data in the social space and promise integration of external tools.


mxxxxxx@columbia.edu

9/12/11

to Tikue, axxxxxx, oxxxxxx

Tikue,

I appreciate your candor and wish you the best of luck going forward. Will be keeping an eye out for products stamped with your infamous “Antik.” Good luck.

Mark


mxxxxxx@columbia.edu

9/12/11

to robertmixxxxxx, Tikue, axxxxxx, oxxxxxx

Tikue,

Quick follow up note . . . Based on your email, it is obvious that you did not grasp the essence of the company that I am proposing. Especially the opportunity to operate outside the VC community for early stages. Microsoft was a “startup” at one time as well. And yeah the goal, and the long term prospects, are to be a large company.

Certainly wouldn’t want you to “stress” out over comprehending this. I guess I will be the one stressing out about how many teenagers are starting to think of duplicate file production, online/offline differences in profile, etc; and whether or not they end up as some bs little fling on kickstarter.com.

I remind you about the document you signed for the last time right here.

All the “free thinking” you claim to be engaged in, sounds to me that such freedom exists in only a small box determined by the big power players in the tech industry today. See what I mean, if your entrepreneurial spirit goes into the structure that already exists in the tech world, will just be another developer begging banks and individuals for money to build products that are likely to have a very short life-span. You will be forced to comply with the current created by the big companies, and forced to pass large percentages of ownership stakes to the VC firm.

I am building a team that seeks to institute a new structure into the online world.

You will find out how quickly “eons” can be traveled once the team is in place. Good luck with your pitches. Especially enjoyed the querycritic pitch posted on SEAS website.

Sincerely,
Mark xxx


Tikue Anazodo <axxxxxx@gmail.com>

9/12/11

to mxxxxxx, Tikue, axxxxxx, oxxxxxx, robertmxxxxxx

Wish you best of luck with your idea bro

-Tikue


mxxxxxx@columbia.edu

9/16/11

to axxxxxx, Tikue, oxxxxxx, robertmixxxxxx

http://www.reuters.com/video/2011/08/18/foursquare-finds-opportunities-in-the-pa?videoId=216995045&videoChannel=3400&refresh=true

John Hagel on Startup series off Reuters


It has been three years, and I have seen no sign of this product. I know for a fact that both of my friends whom he claimed to be part of his huge engineering team did not write a line of code for Mark’s idea, and I suspect that the other members of the elite engineering team that he claimed to have built have all moved on to other less restricting projects.

Reiterating what I said at the beginning of this post, this was the first and last NDA that I ever signed for an idea that a wantrepreneur/entrepreneur cooked up the week before. I personally see an NDA as a tool that people should use to protect concrete intellectual property. If a group of individuals with real IP, say a group of PHDs building a proprietary AI algorithm for self-driving cars backed by patents and what not, approached me with an NDA, heck yeah I’ll sign it.

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