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Your idea isn’t good enough to keep secret

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One of the most rookie mistakes young entrepreneurs make is keeping their ideas secret. It goes something like this:

You: “So what are you working on?”
Rookie: “Oh, sorry. I can’t really talk about it.”

Really! Your idea is so grand that you can’t share it with even your close friend? Wow, I want to invest in you right now!!!

The thinking behind this is as simple as it is moronic: “My idea is so compelling that I can’t afford to let anyone hear it. They might steal it/tell others/make me not first-to-market/other dire predictions.”

For big companies, secrecy is expected. Google doesn’t want Microsoft to know their plans because, if MS found out, it could present a very real threat to the success of a new product. Personal entrepreneurship is different. You’re small and scrappy and you need to relentlessly market yourself. Don’t worry about your idea being stolen–worry about it succeeding.

Let me break down a few things here. First of all, without execution, your idea is meaningless. Check this out: I want to cure the world of poverty. Wow!! What a great idea! But without the right team and the right execution, that idea is nothing more than a wish.

Second, it’s almost always better to bounce your ideas off of people, get their feedback, and iterate on your initial idea. Remember The Wisdom of Crowds? Enlist the wisdom of your friends. In my own experience, I’ve gotten absolutely awesome feedback from people around me.

A few months ago, I told them a few ideas I had for new designs on my t-shirt site. I could have been afraid that they were going to take the ideas and sell them themselves, but that would have been stupid. Instead, 8 people got into it and we hatched even more funny t-shirt designs.

Third, most people are lazy. So when you keep your idea secret from someone, you’re actually betting that they would…

  • Listen to your idea
  • Think it was actually interesting
  • Remember it
  • Go home and implement it
  • Launch it successfully
  • Take all the success

As you can see, every single step is more unlikely than my winning a heavyweight boxing championship. Most people don’t give a damn about your idea, and even if they did, they are lazy and won’t do anything.

Have you ever been to a conference where everyone is exchanging business cards? I have–in some cases, I was the speaker–and people will come up to the speaker, express great interest, and ask for a card. Great–that’s part of the conference experience. But out of 100 cards handed out, experienced speakers know to expect very few follow-up emails. Like, less than 10. This is from people who actively sought you out, had a conversation, and took the initiative to ask for a card. PEOPLE RARELY FOLLOW UP!!!

Back to worrying about people stealing your idea. Even if they DID, most people lack the resources and experiences to launch it. And even if they did THAT, you’ve been thinking about it longer and harder! So stop being insecure about little Betty over there. Ask her for her input and learn how to improve your own idea. And then, if she is really hot, ask her awkwardly if she is looking for further business collaborations and, when she has no idea what you’re talking about, walk away, muttering bitterly. All in all, a great day!

Seriously, though, the truth is that the initial idea isn’t really that important. What is important is honing it, user-testing it, and executing it properly. And the people around you are invaluable to helping you do that.

I would be ecstatic if I got even 10 emails today from all the people reading this with ideas and requests for feedback. Let’s see what happens.

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  1. I’m absolutely convinced that this is just an evil plan to steal our ideas. I’m not emailing you anything!

  2. I second that. heh

  3. Great post. I agree that there are a lot of benefits in being open with ideas. Yet, on introspection, I find myself exercising a bit of moderation.

    • I prefer to develop my idea in isolation first, before going out and talking about it. If anything, I have the confidence that I won’t be caught saying a foolish thing. More importantly, my idea will not be tainted by feedback from well-meaning but less-knowing persons.
    • I also do the exercise of understanding why I am the best person to implement that idea. Once I understand this, I have the confidence to speak about it with mere acquaintances.
    • Before talking with a person, I try to figure out if that person is an enabler, or a competitor. I won’t discuss the idea with a competitor.
    • I also tend to be careful about who I speak with at an early stage. Some people have a tendency to associate “early stage thoughts” with a person forever. Going back to such people with final thoughts will be an uphill struggle.

    What do you think of this moderation?

  4. Great advice. And if you actually ask a few people about your idea, you might find that it’s not as great as you first thought. That’s the Wisdom of Crowds for ya!

  5. It seems to me that if you or your small company are going to launch the idea, then you’re right — don’t be too precious about discussing it. But if your strategy is simply to sell the idea ‘raw’ to a large business and let them take it where they want, then it might be that your potential buyers will prefer that the idea they’re buying is secret. What do you think about that distinction?

  6. One of the biggest rookie mistakes entrepreneurs make is to start a company with the sole hope of selling to a bigger company, so I don’t really think that’s a good idea. Regardless, in almost any case, a larger company will want to see a proven track record of your idea working with actual customers. And in my mind, the best way to get those is to put your idea out there, get people to try it, and learn from what they like/don’t like.

  7. Terry Tateossian Link to this comment

    Yes, I agree with Mayank Bawa!
    There are people whom you talk to who think that EVERYTHING is a great idea. Then, there are those who think that NOTHING is a good idea. I prefer to hatch the idea, research it, begin gathering requirement get a clue myself and THEN talk to people. THe reasons for this is as mentioned above, I dont want to sound foolish, I dont want to be discouraged, I dont want to be given stupid encouragement and I dont want to be deterred. Once I have made up my own mind, I feel that I can talk about it. And talking about it absolutely amazing because people can ask you questions, and you will have the answers (since you’ve dont your homework!). Or people will point out the holes in your plan you didnt notice!

  8. This is a great site, but parts of it can’t be seen while using Firefox.

  9. Wholeheartedly agree with this post. Meeting someone who is excited about their idea is energizing, and keeping your idea secret can sap the energy that you’d otherwise exude. Even when it is obvious that a young entrepreneur is inexperienced and has a lot to learn, the expression of their energy and drive can go a long way toward gaining the trust and backing of people (mentors, future colleagues/customers) who can help them get where they want to go.

    Clear vision and strong motivation are rare enough commodities that showing them off by telling others about your idea are more likely to align people behind you than inspire competitors to stop you. The world is big. Business ‘ideas’ are everywhere. Never underestimate the value of a person who can take an idea and make it happen — by opening their mouth they are far more likely to get hired or approached by a possible client than they are to spark a competitive conspiracy against them.

    Of course there are exceptions — I’m assuming that we’ve all got some judgment and will learn-as-we-go what is appropriate in specific circumstances. I just hate to see young people (like myself) pass up opportunities that are out there because we are too eager to believe that ideas are so scarce that we must remain quiet about our own.

    When your passion shows through the way you present your idea, and you exude a sense of openness and willingness to accept feedback in order to take your idea and make it happen, I think that people would be more inclined to ask how they can get behind you than how they can take this away from you.

  10. Remi thanks a lot for this great article.

    Matthew, I want to thank you too, because the last paragraph made me realise a lot. I was always struggling with problem of hiring employees but I was afraid of them stealing my knowhow. I am doing websites of many kinds and I would need full time employees, because I have many ideas. But I don’t want to do some final processing of their jobs. I want them to know how the whole process is done and be independant and work for me. The problem is, that with my kind of work, it’s not hard to do it for yourself. I would teach them all the earning process and I am afraid they would go on their own. But maybe I am still overrating people and I should view them more from the lazy point of view. I am now risking with some employees and will see how it comes. It seems like the only way how to learn something. Dip my hands to the reality of knowledge sharing.