Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Your Big Idea - To share or not to share, that is the question

One common question I get asked is: should I share my software ideas with others? There's no one-size-fits-all answer this question, but I do have an opinion I regularly share with customers.

NOTE: Curious about how discussing your idea with others impacts patents and other legal matters? Make sure to discuss this with a qualified attorney, don't just take the advice below.

To see if it's smart to share your idea let's consider what the different outcomes from doing so are. Broadly, they are:

  1. You'll get feedback
  2. The person you tell may steal your idea and become a competitor
  3. The person you tell may consider stealing your idea, but won't.

From my experience option #1 is most likely, option #2 is most feared and option #3 is most often overlooked.

Let's look a little closer at these options.

Option #3 - A person you tell attempts your idea, but fails. That's actually a pretty reasonable outcome. Why? Because ideas are easy, it's doing that's hard. Your idea is just the start: you need to raise money to fund it, hire a team to build it, tweak it when flaws in it are discovered, and do about a million other things with it before it turns into a business. It takes real passion and hard work to execute an idea, this is something you'll have and that a casual listener won't.

Option #2 - A person rips your idea off. Knowing that you contributed to the competition is a painful thought. But here's the thing, no business can expect to survive if it can't live with competition. If that's your plan - to be the only the only choice in the marketplace - you've got a serious issue. And don't think being first to market is the solution either. Remember, the iPod wasn't the first mp3 player to market, but that didn't stop it from crushing the competition. Love it or hate it, competition is a fact of life.

Option #1 - Getting feedback. OK, feedback isn't always the gold mine it may appear to be. Chances are, if you tell your mom your idea she'll say it's great, even if it's not. So, yes, you need to calibrate the feedback you get. Still, feedback, both positive and negative, can be wonderfully helpful. And you may get especially appreciated feedback like: "hey, I love the idea, where can I send the check to support the idea?"

So, should you share your ideas with others? When I compare the chances of getting useful feedback with the unlikelihood of earning a competitor, the feedback side nearly always wins out. So I say, share a way.

One final word of caution though: before you share anything, you should identify any parts of your business that should remain secret, and keep them that way. Have an especially cheap source of labor? Or a software app that can do the same job someone else does in an a tenth of the time? Good, that doesn't need to be shared. Keep it that way.

Update: One of my friends on facebook (thanks Smitty!) mentioned an important legal document: the NDA or non-disclosure agreement. These are one of the easiest ways to protect your idea, and I recommend using them (though I'm not a lawyer). I still think the above advice is relevant because: (a) how easy are you going to be able to enforce an NDA? And (b) there may be times when an NDA may not be easy to get signed (think: talking to you buddies at a bar, or your mom). But still, if you can get one signed, by all means, do so.


  1. Hey Ben,

    Just wanted to say thanks for linking to me man, much appreciated!


  2. My pleasure - Thank you for the insightful content!