This is part of an ongoing startup advice series where I answer (anonymized!) questions from readers, like a written version of Smart Bear Live. To get your question answered, email me at
asmartbear -at- shortmail -dot- com.
Clever Idea Hoarder writes:
I’d like to take everyone’s advice and talk to potential customers and investors about my ideas, but what if someone else steals my idea?
If a competitor got ahold of this — especially a well-funded one — I could die before I ever got started! Don’t VCs do that?
Almost all founders I encounter are leery about discussing their product plans. Now with the Social Network movie promulgating this fear, I expect it will worsen.
It’s silly, for two reasons.
1. Either you have a defensible competitive advantage, or you don’t.
The moment you soft-launch your competitors (and soon-to-be-competitors) will see what you’re doing. Other people can copy almost anything, and they have every advantage — more money, more manpower, more experience in the market, and existing customers to commiserate with. Those companies still incubating their offering can pivot before they launch, incorporating your best ideas and adding their own, releasing just months after you do.
“But no,” you declare, and then launch into all these reasons why your competitors can’t just copy you. I hear all the time that “existing competitors already have these business models / investors / existing customers that prevents them from pivoting or allowing innovation like I’ve done, so it would be either impossible or take them years to catch up, and by then we’re on to the next amazing thing.”
Yeah, I know. That’s the same reason it doesn’t matter whether they find out now or three months from now!
A few months fore or aft doesn’t make the difference. If it does, you’re sunk anyway. No one’s that good at timing the market.
2. The roadmap is not as useful as you think.
Let’s turn the tables: What if, right now, you were privy to every one-year road map from all your competitors? What would you do?
Would you try to copy their features and release before they got there? Would that really put you “ahead,” even if you released those features three months earlier? Is the reason they win customers only because they have a certain feature first? Do you think most of their customers and potential customers are keeping track of feature-release timelines?
Or would you do the opposite: Go in a different direction to minimize overlap? Would that really create a “niche,” even though you’re running away from something instead of towards something? Is “Not them” a valid positioning statement? How do you know there are customers waiting for you in this negative space?
What if you discovered that a competitor is changing niches? Is it a good idea to fill the new void and pick up their disappointed customers or do you think that they’re vacating the niche because it’s an unprofitable one?
These questions are impossible to answer with confidence. The answers come through exploration and gut feel, which you do with or without knowing your competitor’s roadmap.
That’s all just to say: Knowing what your competitors are up to is less valuable than it sounds. It makes for complex feature-comparison matrices but it’s not a strategy.
So no, don’t publish your secrets without reason, don’t give your competitors information for free.
But stop being an idea-miser with people who might be helpful. When you’re pitching customers and mentors and investors and potential hires and co-founders, just talk. Forget the NDAs, just talk about everything except the one or two things that really are secret sauce.
Don’t let your mostly-irrational fears stop you from having high-value, meaningful interactions with people who are, in fact, not out to get you.
Add your advice to the discussion section!