The Fear of Idea Theft

Often, new entrepreneurs are afraid of sharing their new company idea because they’re afraid someone will steal their idea.  This is their first, great inspiration, and don’t want to risk it being stolen and copied by someone else.  This is a belief which is counterproductive and sometimes dangerous to the health of a new venture, for a couple of reasons.

1.  You have to tell people about your idea to get feedback.  Feedback is critical to the success of a startup, and if you don’t get feedback and development advice from your customers, industry professionals, and trusted advisors, your startup will surely tank.  You don’t know everything you need to know on your own to make your startup succeed.

Furthermore, you need feedback to validate your startup idea.  If you don’t get this feedback and directional advice, you might launch into a new startup that just isn’t solid enough, and then lose large amounts of money because you aren’t able to get customers.  Get feedback from potential customers early on, so you know your startup idea will succeed.

2. This attitude is not respected.  Because experienced entrepreneurs know how critical it is that you get feedback and support for your startup idea to succeed, they will internally greet new entrepreneurs afraid of idea theft with exasperation or frustration.  Far from being intrigued by your “secret startup idea,” they will just lose interest and move on to something else – not so great for your startup.

3.  You have to make your idea public in order to execute on it.  You’ll have to make a website for your product, you’ll have to share your idea to get into startup accelerators, you’ll have to share your idea to apply for or compete for funds, so on and so forth… the launching of a startup involves actually sharing your startup idea.  If you don’t tell people about your idea, they can’t tell other people about your idea, who can’t tell other people about your idea, and soon you’re missing out on hundreds of people exposed to your new startup.

4. Ideas are worthless.  Startups are all about the execution, not the magic in an idea.  The idea for Facebook, one of the unicorn companies of our time, is no more magical than any other social media website idea.  Had you or I had the idea for Facebook, chances are it wouldn’t have grown into an especially significant social media website, just one among many of the time.  What made Facebook so amazing was the perfect execution of the website, the way Zuckerberg was perfectly positioned for its success.

In fact, your idea is so meaningless that having it doesn’t mean anything at all.  Some people worry their idea will be stolen – well, people will have the same idea, whether or not they’ve heard of yours.  Since there are so many people, with so many ideas, someone is going to have the same one as you.  What makes your startup better than theirs is your execution on the very same idea.

A Quick Note About Idea Theft

Idea Theft is something a lot of people assume is a crime, but isn’t actually a crime in and of itself.  The act of adopting someone else’s idea to be your own is not of consequence in either civil or criminal courts, and you can’t sue over it.  Things commonly treated as ‘idea theft’ crimes, like the theft of Zuckerberg from the Winklevoss twins, rested on the fact that Zuckerberg signed a contract with the Winklevosses for production of ConnectU.  What was illegal was Zuckerberg breaching the contract, not his execution of the same idea.  This means that had they offered him the job and he declined, then went on to make Facebook, the Winklevi would have won much less in their settlement.

Another common example of Idea Theft is Snapchat’s ‘Fourth Founder.’  While Brown did come up with the name and part of the idea for Snapchat, his settlement rested on the fact that he did work for the Snapchat project (creating the logo, graphics, and contributing to construction).  Again, had his suit rested entirely on the idea, his case would have been dismissed for lack of ground.

5. People don’t want to take on obligations.  If you refuse to share your idea except in confidence, with a non-disclosure agreement or some other promise binding them to not share your idea, you’re creating a one-sided obligation where they’re never allowed to tell anyone, for the rest of their days.  Even if this is just an agreement based in honor and not in law, it’s still creating an obligation that the listener has to you.


Megan Holstein is a junior in the fisher school of business at The Ohio State University, the CEO of Pufferfish Software, and the Global High School Entrepreneur of 2013.

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