Every company starts with an idea, and one of the early struggles founders face is whether to share their idea with others. As founders, we often feel as though we have stumbled across something great and we are skeptical about who we can share it with. Many of us harbour a fear that someone will steal the idea or even laugh at it (or at you, depending on how supportive your friends and family are). To combat this fear, some founders even go so far as to make anyone they talk to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Looking back on the two years since the idea for Terrene began, I've gained a little bit of perspective on the fear of sharing your idea.
The Common Advice
I've heard some variation of the following statements many times: "Ideas are a dime a dozen, it's all about execution," "No one cares about your idea as much as you do," "It doesn’t matter if someone tries to steal your idea because they don't have your skill set." These are all true, but they don't do much to ease the minds of first-time founders because we all know that our idea is different; it's going to be worth a billion dollars. What helped me get over the fear and accept what everyone else was telling me was to think of my idea like a school speech. I can remember the presentation I gave in Grade 9 English class on The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, including the brown snuggie my mom and I turned into a monk’s robe. But, if I try to remember anyone else's presentation, I can't. I can't even remember who was in that class. Our ideas are great because they're ours. Thinking about that presentation helped me put the advice I was given into perspective; hopefully, it can help you too.
Another common dilemma I still face is how much to share. I think that is a much more difficult and interesting question.
Types of Ideas
How much information you share will depend on what type of idea you have. In my experience, there tend to be two types: a product and a world-changing idea.
A Product Idea
Being positioned in contrast to a ‘world-changing’ idea might make a product idea seem less attractive, but one is not better than the other; they're just different. A product idea is one in which the product you build today is the vision. For example, our goal at Terrene was to build an analytics platform for business analysts. If you are building a product, you should be willing to share your idea with potential hires, mentors, and investors--after all, it is what you're selling. You need a plan to differentiate yourself because, regardless of what you're building, you will have competition. Don't be afraid of someone stealing your idea; be pre-emptive and have a plan to beat the competition. That is what will make your idea succeed.
I refer to the second type as ‘world-changing ideas’ because they tend to involve a very large future vision that the company is working towards, such as Google's mission "to provide access to the world's information in one click." The problem with an idea of this scale is that it usually requires a lot of build-up. The first product you build will not be the manifestation of the vision and, at least in my experience, it is difficult to share the full vision because it is extremely ambitious. In this situation, I find that the best strategy is to determine your starting point--the first product--and approach it in the same way as I mentioned before with a product idea. To be honest, most people don't need to know your big vision early on. The only exception would be your co-founders and employees, since the team needs to be on the same page to work towards the same end goal. I don't feel it is necessary to share your vision with the average person you talk to about your idea or even with your mentors (until you develop a certain level of comfort with them). At Terrene, we have an idea for the future, but it is still very far away. We only share the parts that we have a rough plan for because that's what is relevant to our mentors and what we need help achieving. However, as we grow, we continue to share more and more of our vision because that vision becomes more attainable and more clear.
Share what you are building today with everyone; share your long-term vision with your team.