By Hillel Fuld
Global Speaker, Tech Journalist, Startup Advisor
We really need to talk.
This is somewhat of a debatable topic and I’m sure all my friends who are lawyers will disagree with what I’m about to write.
The concern that “Someone will steal my idea” is not a legitimate one. The demand that a person from whom you are seeking advice must first sign an NDA or any other secrecy document is not a legitimate one.
Let me explain.
I have a friend who went to meet a massive tech company to show them his tech. People warned him. They said that this company is known for stealing tech from startups. So he came prepared. He came with a pile of NDAs. Guess what happened next. They stole his tech.
Now what? He’s going to litigate against this multi billion dollar company and spend millions he doesn’t have plus years in court? Well, then he can kiss his startup goodbye.
The bottom line is that those NDAs were worthless.
Now, small disclaimer. I’m not saying NDAs are always worthless. But I’d say in about 95% of cases, it’s a waste of money and resources. The exception is the enterprise world.
But hold on, I’m about to get even more controversial. Not only do I think secrecy when building a startup is straight out dumb, I think your technology that you think is so brilliant, is just that, tech.
Technology today is about 1% of what makes a company successful. Most successful tech companies didn’t have proprietary tech when they launched. What was FB’s unique tech? Google? Twitter? Furthermore, do you know many companies I know that claim that someone is infringing on their patent?! Many! You know what they all have in common? They are doing absolutely nothing about it.
Yes, Intel and IBM are deep tech companies but today, technology is really not a significant component of most startups.
And therefore, wasting time and money on patenting your tech has one advantage, it increases the value of the company. So if you’re going to sell, having patents is a good idea. Other than that, a big waste of time and energy. Sure, if your product is perfect and it’s selling itself, go file a patent, but if you need to prioritize between building a product, going to market, figuring how to make money, or filing patents, sorry but patents need to take the back burner.
Now to the reason I am writing this.
A few days ago, I got a super cryptic message via the form on my site. The sender wouldn’t tell me anything other than that they have something huge they want to tell me about. I replied like I often reply “Tell me more”.
I don’t know the person’s name because they use a different name for their email. I don’t know what they’re doing because they wouldn’t tell me. They wanted my advice but I’d have to approve a WhatsApp message first that I won’t steal their idea.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the end of the world. So I confirm that I won’t steal the idea. Who cares? Well, first of all, just like IP is mostly irrelevant today, so are ideas. Ideas are just ideas. If you don’t execute on your idea, it is worthless. But more importantly, this individual reached out to me to ask for help. I gladly offered to help. Asking me to confirm a message that I won’t steal his idea? That’s offensive to me. You don’t trust me? No problem. Don’t ask me for advice.
And again, let’s say I confirm the message and then steal the idea. What exactly will you do? How can you prove I didn’t have the idea before? You’re going to spend massive amounts of money suing me? Cmon. Stop it. You’re being silly.
So whoever this person was, I replied “Sorry. This is very uncomfortable for me and it just feels off. I don’t think I can help.”
There goes that.
Anyway, my point is, “I can’t talk about my product because someone will steal it” is a ridiculous thing. Let someone steal it. If you think you’ll win because of your idea, you’re in for a very big surprise. Let them steal it and you do it better.
Also? There is so much to gain from talking to smart people about what you’re building. Way more pros than cons.
And again, an idea is worthless, IP is not everything, and making someone, whether it’s a VC, a journalist, or just a person from whom you seek advice, sign an NDA or any agreement that they won’t steal your idea, is foolish and will only backfire on you.
Don’t do it.
Here’s what you should do. You have an idea. Great. Speak to as many smart people about the idea as you can. Gather feedback. Then build the thing. And continue gathering feedback both from colleagues and users.
You want advice from someone? Send them an email asking to set up a call. Tell them what you’re building and ask them if they have advice. Implement their advice. Rinse and repeat.
Don’t focus too much on your unique idea because it’s not that unique. Either someone else had it before you and you didn’t do sufficient research or you’re right, no one else tried to solve this problem that you’re solving. In nine of ten cases, that means there is no market for your product, no demand.
Don’t focus on your IP too much either. Technology is just a vehicle, it’s a means to an end. It is not the end. Want to patent it? Go ahead but just know, you’re wasting valuable time and money and chances are, if you ever need that patent to protect you, it won’t.
Finally, stop making people sign NDAs. It communicates lack of trust and again, it has zero value to you since it’s basically not enforceable.