Recently, a colleague and young entrepreneur asked a question about secrecy and shared ideas. Specifically, how much he should worry about someone stealing his idea. The answer is more philosophy than a right or wrong way – each person must find their own comfort zone between super-secret and collaborate and execute.

My friend, Zach, is in the MBA program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of management. He is working on a new entrepreneurial project requiring a business ecosystem of partners. His question, “should I be worried about someone stealing my idea, when I explore partnerships?

The answer to that question is “yes,” of course. But, the real question to ask is: “how much time and energy should I spend thinking/worrying about it?

Philosophical Continuum of Shared Ideas

On one end, an entrepreneur can lock the doors, encrypt computer files, and maintain complete secrecy until the idea is fully defined, patented, producible and ready to launch. On the other end of the continuum, an entrepreneur publishes the research, shares the idea, tells many collaborators about the idea, spending every available minute and ounce of energy in sharing the idea, but no time working on completing it.

Consequences and Benefits

Clearly, if the idea remains secret, it will take longer to complete, and will not benefit from natural iteration and critical exchange of other ideas. The idea may not result in achieving its true potential.

If an idea is shared, it will not only benefit collaborative improvement from creators, it also shortens time-to-market. Collaborative feedback from customers improves usability aspects to greater satisfaction. Greater satisfaction in turn shortens adoption cycles, and creates demand. The faster the potential issues of commercialization, business modeling, and other factors are exposed and overcome, the sooner an idea can get to market.

In the idea to innovation game, collaboration accelerates commercialization and creates better outcomes.

Philosophical Balance

How much information to share and when is going to be a subjective decision. There will be times when you want to guard information, share limited amounts and open up completely. This is not legal advice, just observations to help you make your own decision. Some things to consider:

Non-disclosure agreements (NDA) are one way to clarify that you take your idea and its value seriously. Beware NDAs create a climate of suspicion between parties. In some cases, this may be OK.  In other cases an NDA can create a barrier that prevents collaboration. Many entrepreneurs will find that investors, mentors and collaborators will not even sign NDAs, as they restrict their ability to do what they do best, iterate and help your idea without worrying about what constraints exist from NDAs, the liability that could result, or whether some aspect of one idea encroaches subjectively on another idea. A good rule of thumb is to ask for a mutual NDA protecting both parties and be sensitive to the response. Use your best judgment if it will change the collaboration climate. If it does, there’s no value in sharing anyway.

Patents are good, but probably overrated. Apply for them and build an intellectual property (I.P.) asset portfolio for creative and unique ingenuity. Balance pursuit of patents with commercialization effort of the original idea. The commercialization effort may uncover more uniqueness to increase the depth, breadth and value of a patent.  Don’t spend so much time with patents that a competitive inventor finds another unique way to achieve the same solution and deliver it to market before you.

Mediocre people steal ideas. If an idea is brilliant and is on the commercialization fast-track, it should successfully beat the competition. Anyone that steals and tries to win with someone else’s idea can’t catch the originator – they have moved on to next steps. Energy spent extending the gap between the initial idea along the path to commercialization ensures success of the original idea.

Energy Is Finite

One good approach is to put the largest amount of energy and time into transforming the idea into a commercial product. Focus near zero energy on mediocre people that might steal an idea. Theft of your idea, and all the thinking you have around getting it from where it is, to a successful outcome is often less likely to happen than our fears drive us to think. Energy is best spent finishing the original idea. Be diligent, and take caution in handling information of course, but focus on the prize, the outcome, commercialization and completion of the project.

Share and Execute With Urgency

No single person has all the ideas and all the answers, connections and energy to get every idea to market. It’s proven time and time again, that healthy exchange creates better innovation. Accelerators and incubators for entrepreneurs exist because they have staffs that can iterate methodically to improve ideas, shorten time to market and help ensure success for the idea. Accelerators and incubators could not be effective if ideas were not shared.

One could even ponder what Thomas Edison could have done in an open environment with a team of collaborators at his level to critically iterate on ideas. Would his history of invention be radically different? Would it have been even more productive? Could Tesla and Edison have done even greater things together, than individually? Fun to ponder, but we’ll never really know.

Zach’s Take

My friend Zach, concluded: “ …that ‘people who steal are mediocre’ – which implies that if I believe that I can make a higher quality product than the people that I’m sharing my ideas with, then I shouldn’t be worried about them stealing it, because what they make will only be a shadow of what I’m developing.”

I’m not a lawyer, of course – I just want you to think of the continuum of sharing that exists between secrecy and open collaboration. Find your spot on that continuum go.

What will you do, collaborate and execute? Or will you build a wall around your idea? Share a comment below.

[Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain]

3 Responses to Secrecy vs. Shared Ideas – Iterate with Others for Better Innovation

  1. Emanuel says:

    Mr. Stein,

    How would you approach a product enhancement innovation? I see an enhancement that can be made to a consumer product and fear that when I share with friends they may run with it much quicker to market than I can do, due to their contacts in that industry.

    Thank you in advance for your time!


  2. @jtpedersen says:

    Secrecy vs. Shared Ideas – Iterate with Others for Better Innovation – SteinVox

  3. Secrecy vs. Shared Ideas – Iterate with Others for Better Innovation –

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