No One Wants to Steal Your Crappy Idea*

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The other week I delivered a short presentation to a major software company – it was a meeting where I would share some ideas and insight around innovation. Someone met me outside and handed me a non-disclosure agreement to sign before I entered the building. I happily put my scribble on it because it confirmed one thing to me. There would be nothing of any interest or significance that would be disclosed to me.

Whilst I can understand the point of an NDA for commercialy sensitive information, such as financial or sales figures, asking for confidentiality for an idea is pointless. They cannot be copyrighted, and enforcing non-disclosure is very difficult. I would go to the other extreme and argue, instead, in favour of disclosure. Good ideas should be shared. That is part of the innovation process.

NDAs are popular with start-ups. They are convinced that their ideas are so amazing that anyone who hears them will ‘steal’ them and try to make money off it.

This is totally nuts for a couple of reasons:
Firstly, an idea is exactly that. It’s an idea. It’s not a product or a service. Right now in major cities such as London, New York or San Francisco there are thousands of start-ups desperately trying to raise money to commercialise their ideas. I know. I’ve just been through a start-up incubation programme and met a lot of these guys. Raising investment is hard. Really hard. In particular, investors don’t invest in ideas. They invest in businesses. Start-ups need to create a viable product or service, boot-strap the initial stages (that usually means living off baked beans for a while), find some clients or build a massive audience, and then jump through endless hoops before there is the slightest sniff of investment money. To think that someone will run off with ‘your’ idea and make millions from it is therefore far fetched.

Secondly, as a general rule, the longer the NDA, the crappier the idea. I recently heard about someone who claimed to have the most fantastic concept for an app. Before telling even their closest friends they made them sign a detailed NDA. And the app? It was for making gift wish-lists (now why didn’t Amazon think of that?).

The fact is that ideas are best when they are shared. The crappy ones are quickly thrown out, and the good ones are refined and developed. There’s a great TED talk from Steven Johnston about innovation (http://youtu.be/0af00UcTO-c) where he explains how coffee houses were a place of discourse and the development of ideas in Victorian Britain. That’s exactly what start-ups should be doing right now.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that there were a growing number of smartphones that were always on and always connected. Yet they weren’t used for at least 8 hours per day. My idea? Why not use those spare hours to process some useful data? Say, genetic data that might be used to find cures for degenerative diseases or cancer? As with all ideas, this is not entirely original. SETI@home does that with PCs to identify galaxies. And looking at some of the open source software to manage the data (such as BOINC), apps had been built before. However, I felt my concept had sufficient benefit to be worth exploring. I spoke to many people and shared it as much as possible, as I wanted the idea to develop and become a reality. I got some people in the health sector interested, and found some others willing to develop the app. A copywriter friend even came up with a name, WeCure. Getting the scientists involved proved trickier though. In the meantime, Samsung released a similar app for Android (http://www.theverge.com/2014/2/13/5409716/samsung-backed-alarm-clock-targets-cancer-other-diseases-using). In a world of sharing ideas, Samsung’s app is a good thing. Apart form anything else, it helps me understand how to build ours better. One feature of my app concept was that users can share how much data they donated through social media – ‘I just gave 1gig to help cure cancer’. Apart from helping to spread the idea, it also rewards users by publicly showing that they have done something good. I’m still plugging away, refining my idea and trying to get it off the ground.

So why do so many start-ups insist on trying to protect their ideas? I think that for these people, NDAs act as a form of validation (and probably spurred on by the kind of secrecy that Apple loves). Getting others to sign them is a way of saying ‘our idea is really worth something’, even though it’s probably crap. And maybe those people who sign the NDAs help to maintain the delusion. Eventually, I hope that people will realise that ideas are better shared. Look at what Google does. They put all of their products out in Beta and take plenty of feedback. Look at the amazing scientific ideas that came out of sharing ideas in the coffee shops in 19th Century England. Oh, and if you know any helpful genetic scientists, then please send them my way.

*I think I borrowed the title for this blog from something I read a while back. I can’t find it, but here’s something on a very similar theme: http://ruidelgado.com/2013/11/12/steal-your-startup-idea/

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