What if people steal my idea?


“It’s not really a good idea to tell everybody everything that you know. So who do you tell? Whoever you need to; and no more. There’s always a golden mean between telling nobody and telling everybody-and that’s a company.”

~ Zero To One by Peter Thiel

This is like a thin line – no one fully understands how to manage, when working on a new idea.

You are trying to validate a business idea before releasing an MVP. It seems with start-ups, first movers can get screwed unless they are able to run like hell and iterate at an alarming rate. So, in this situation, how do you go about doing market research without giving too much away? When you bring your idea up with someone new, they give you their own thoughts, which in turn help you grow your concept. By never discussing your business with others, you miss that chance.

Here is a curated list of how others have said as to how they have managed when in a similar situation:

  1. One of the best ways to secure your idea is to only reveal what is absolutely necessary. If you’re pitching an idea to a potential client, give only the details necessary to convey the idea. It’s not necessary to share every detail of how your product works, for instance, when you can get the same information across by revealing the need your product or service fulfills.
  2. A non-disclosure agreement can help protect your idea before revealing it to workers or other associates. However, it’s important to note that many investors will not sign an NDA. Since the balance of power is in their favor, this may be something you’ll have to give up if you want investors. The same holds true for potential clients. Instead of requiring a signature, consider simply printing a confidentiality statement on your business plan.
  3. A patent can incur far more expensive than a startup is able to pay.  And this might not be a practical solution at an idea stage.
  4. Whether you’re revealing an idea to a potential investor, a possible client, or a contractor, do your part in researching that person or company prior to your appointment.  You can determine someone’s reputation before deciding to do business with that person. Look for any disputes with previous business partners and make sure the person has established a positive reputation in his or her chosen field
  5. Coupled with the research you can conduct are your own natural instincts. Often alarm bells go off when you’re in a situation that could present some danger. If someone has taken a particular interest in hearing every possible facet of your creation, ask yourself what that person’s motive could be. Is it to invest? Is it mere curiosity? Or is it possible that the person has money burning a hole in his pocket and all he needs is a good idea to get moving? This is where experience comes in. If you’re interacting with someone who has logged years of experience in the business world and has a portfolio of great companies of his or her own, that person likely has no need to steal anyone else’s idea. If you’re speaking to a newcomer, though, you may want to reveal as little about your business as possible until you can determine that person’s motive.
  6. An invention is something like the lightbulb or Polaroid camera that’s easy and profitable to copy.  Applications aren’t easy to copy because the value isn’t just in the application, it’s in the user base that uses the application.

Final words

Ideas, mind you, are different from “trade secrets,” which are specific things or methods which propel your success because of the way you deploy or exploit them. Where do you hide those?

In plain words, you may have some secret sauce in your business that gives you a distinct advantage in the market where you compete.  The ingredients are all plainly in view. But the recipe, the way you put things together, is not. Unless you choose to tell.