Yesterday we had a Startup Pitch presentation at Founders Institute in Athens (click) and one of the questions that came up was: “I have an idea for a startup. I am afraid that if I tell it to others, someone may steal it. Should I tell my idea and how can I protect it?”.
The short answer is “Yes – you should definitely share your idea as much as possible”. Let me explain the reasons:
A. Get early feedback from users and experts.
Before you launch your MVP you should do a market survey to the targeted audience. Meaning, at least 100 to 200 interviews/surveys from potential users of your mobile app or software as a service project. In order to do that you have to share mockups or at least the concept with them, otherwise you will never get feedback. Moreover, you may want to talk with experts who have extensive knowledge in the market area you are targeting or with other startups who have been into the process before. No sharing, no feedback. No feedback, no improve.
B. Gain traction with contests
It is common for many, to submit their ideas into contests, so that they get early recognition, feedback and access to support and possibly some award funds.
C. Get into incubators/accelerators
Many startups choose to participate in incubators or accelerators. You will be needing to discussing your idea with the stakeholders of those, or pitching it in the Pitch events they are organizing.
D. Build an advisory board
You may want to build an advisory board to help you with your startup. You will need to share your idea and progress with them, to get their commitment and support.
E. Is it so easy for your idea to get copied?
If your idea is so easy to be implemented and copied, be sure that the next day you launch after your long stealth-mode, you will have copycats around you. You can only buy a couple months’ time. E.g., think of the Groupon example – it launched in Greece and after 6 months there were at least another 10 sites offering the same service. In order to succeed you need to have an “unfair advantage”. That might be your market connections, your technical expertise, the funds you have to endure competition, or even your commitment as a team to deliver this project long-term.
Other faqs regarding this issue are:
– Should I ask for an NDA before I talk to people/investors/mentors?
No, don’t do that. People get scared that they may have to do with a strange situation where legal action is taken against them, so they will probably prefer not to talk to you, so as to avoid potential issues.
– Should I file for a patent?
Yes, if it is an engineering/mechanical or hardware project. Even though I am not so sure how much you could backup the legal costs in case you want to pursue a legal action against someone. Moreover, patenting your project in many countries will cost a considerable amount of money (usually more than 20k). In the case of software projects, mobile apps, SAAS, I suggest that you do try to find a way to protect your IP only if you see that potential investors are asking for it. Otherwise, it might cost you a lot of time and effort and distract you from delivering your MVP/project. It is often very easy for someone to alter something in the mechanisms of the solution, so that they work around a patent issue. This is of course my personal view, so in case you feel that this is absolutely important to your success and you have the time and funds, you may want to do differently.
– Should I reveal all aspects of my idea to everyone?
You may want to share different details of your idea, business model, first results etc, regarding the stakeholder you talk with. I personally prefer teams that are open and confident enough to share a lot of information on all aspects of their project. Having said that, there is always a way to tell a lot, without revealing everything, if you think that this might turn against you.
– What if my big competitor hears about my idea and does it first?
Your big competitor, or a big company, is usually slower to respond to market needs, compared to small and flexible teams who are committed on one project. If you open a new market, they will most probably be a late follower. Or they may try to buy their way into the market by acquiring you.
Again, this is completely my own view and has nothing to do around the discussion about software patents, which I consider to be a game for big players. It has more to do about going out and validating your idea as soon as possible, removing fear and getting to traction without posing obstacles to your team – unless you truly believe that it is a make-or-break issue.