Monday, May 2, 2011

The Founder Paradox - should you share your idea?

I had a conversation with one of my younger cousins last week, and the talk eventually led to the topic of building an iPhone app. He did not share the idea at first, but he wondered what it would it take to get an app built and published onto the Apple App Store.

My cousin is not technical, so it would take an act from above in order for him to build a minimum viable product (MVP) and test it in front of customers. He eventually steered our conversation into the possibility of me coding the app for him and in turn he would market/sell/hustle it.

Of course, out of curiosity, I asked him what was his idea was. He hesitated and asked if I was on board before he divulged his secret. I laid out all of the facts and said that my plate was full at the moment, but given the idea I could steer him towards building his MVP.

He eventually shared the idea with me (the idea doesn't really matter in the context of this post), but I was somebody that he could trust. The idea was simple and solved an immediate need. It probably won't be earth shattering, but it's a good start for my younger cousin to enter the world of entrepreneurship.

My suggestion to him was to network at founder events in San Francisco (that's where he lives), and see if he could find a technical co-founder. Then I wondered if he goes to such an event, would he be willing to share his secret idea? The obvious thought in his head is that if he shares it, then somebody could easily copy the idea and execute on it and then reap all of the rewards of App Store fame. So now he goes down this entrepreneurship paradox - damn if he shares it and damn if he doesn't share it.

My philosophy is to share your ideas. I truly believe that execution is 9/10 of the law. If he doesn't find a solid technical co-founder and keeps his idea inside of head then the idea could easily wither and die - serving nobody. If he shares the idea at networking events, he could find his soul mate of a co-founder and two heads could easily build and sell such a product. My cousin will also have the flexibility to pivot when necessary as soon as his MVP hits the ground.

I don't want to isolate the paradox to the non-technical founders out there. Technical co-founders easily have the same problem. They can build Rome in a day, but they need somebody to help sell it.

I'd like to know your thoughts especially from those that are still in the idea stage. Are you openly sharing your world-changing idea? Are you selectively dropping hints as to what you're doing? Or are you keeping everything a secret hoping that your wit and charm will attract the right co-founder to conquer the world?


  1. This post addresses head on a problem non-technical cofounders almost always feel at first. For the past year I have been in the same camp as your cousin, but a few months ago made the realization that I really have nothing to lose. Sure brilliant ideas are rare, but there are countless ideas that solve a problem and could probably be compensated for doing so. The first thought I had after opening up my idea to a technical acquaintance is that the feedback is 100x better. Instead of asking the friends who say 'that sounds great' to anything you say because they want to be supportive, I began sharing with individuals who could implement and are far more intelligent and aware. So far I have not felt at risk of losing my idea nor have I found the cofounder I am after. I have received interest working on the project after current contracts/projects were done - which is validating, but I am still searching (make sure to let me know if you are the one!). All in all the point is there really is nothing to lose by sharing with others and if you are going to share you might as well do it with the best and brightest. Most people would be disgusted by an individual ripping an idea, especially within the startup community.

  2. Let me play devil's advocate here. Let's say I'm this technical ninja and you meet me at a networking event. You tell me about your idea "ACME Sprockets" - it saves companies money and increases yearly revenue by shortening their sales cycle. So now we've had a couple of beers and you've divulged your idea and the basic flaw in the traditional sales cycle. What's going to keep me as the technical ninja from coding everything myself and keeping 100% of the profits?

  3. Allan, valid point. However, the defense I am suggesting for sharing the idea is not that it cannot be taken, it absolutely can and there is always some level of risk for that. Instead, it is that there is nothing to lose by sharing the idea. By nothing to lose I mean a technical cofounder is necessary yet impossible to get on board without painting a good part of the concept. In fact, how else would one possibly get a cofounder on board? They certainly would not commit to joining before knowing, not only the concept, but what work has been put into it already. The risk of having an idea stolen may go down from the initial meeting toward when the cofounding documents are about to be signed, but it is always present. Thus there is no way to outright avoid it. Furthermore, if a technical cofounder is not brought on board then the idea dies before it ever sees the light of day - regardless of how much market and customer research was compiled. Thus what exactly is there to lose? It's likely the non-technical cofounder has some sort of other career/income/opportunity they are pursuing until making the leap to the startup world. Most in that situation would not leave their current position without the beginnings of a team in place... Long story short, share the idea. *IP is a bit of a different story, I am operating under the assumption ACME Sprockets would not have anything serious.

  4. @Austin - do you think there will be time at these networking events where you'll see aggressive founders withe NDA's in hand? It would be a sad day if that happens, but I can easily see myself at an event with somebody requiring an NDA before they even say "hello".

  5. Allan, with NDA in hand there would be no point to attend a networking the event if a cofounder is the goal.

    I would say hello to you, even without a signature.

  6. Having been to a several founder/co-founder meetups, networking events and conferences, I tend to believe that there is hardly any idea that has occurred exclusively to only one person. If your idea is viable as a business, you can be sure that someone else has thought about it or will think about it very soon. Execution is 9/10 of the success, and the details of the implementation, the everyday decisions that are part of your execution of your idea are what makes you leave the competition in the dust.

  7. Hey Allen

    This might help :-)

  8. @xmindsblog - thanks. Great link!