Find Someone to Steal Your Idea - I Dare You!

A week ago I met with an aspiring entrepreneur who had some interesting ideas regarding a recruitement startup. But during the conversation I got the feeling that he was holding his cards close and I was having a little trouble getting the whole picture. Towards the end of the conversation he confided that he was really vested in his ideas for the startup and that it actually hurt to hear those ideas criticized.

This got me thinking. I was also once this way - I held my “good ideas” close so they wouldn’t be stolen away. And when people poked at the faults in my ideas… well, it hurt. But over the years I came to realize that this way of thinking is flawed.

Hearing Criticism About Your Ideas

Somehow you need to be stoically detached from your own ideas. If your arm got cut off it would hurt, but if an idea gets cut off it should not be a painful thing at all. It’s not an appendage. It’s not a physical part of you at all. (And I’ll make a point soon that your ideas aren’t really “owned” by you or anyone anyway!) The point here is that if you came up with one good idea, then there are probably plenty of other interesting ones waiting in the back of your mind.

Being strongly attached to ideas, (and telling others that you are), makes it difficult for people to openly tell you if the idea sucks. The typical stranger you meet on the street - without even knowing you - does not want to hurt your feelings. Similarly, being strongly attached to ideas makes it really hard to listen. If someone expresses alternatives to some of your ideas, then they might be interpreted as attacks rather than improvements.

But the problem still remains that no one wants to hurt your feelings. You would be lucky indeed to run into someone willing to bluntly ridicule your idea. So in a world full of friendly people how do you get good feedback about an idea? I think the answer here to not to listen to what people say, so much as you should watch how people act. If you’re really selling someone on an idea, then they are going to engage with you. They will be asking question, they will be taking your ideas and tweaking them and making up new ideas (ahem… who really owns ideas?). If, however, you’re idea isn’t selling then you’ll find people less engaged. They won’t be asking the right questions, or any questions at all. Maybe they’ll just say “it’s nice”. When they interject, it won’t make much sense because they probably don’t get it! When you are looking to see if people are engaged, watch which parts of the idea people engage with and which parts they ignore. Perhaps your idea is almost good but you’re focused on the wrong part.

Divulging Your Secret Ideas to Others

The best way to not worry about divulging secret information is to not have any secret information - let your ideas be open and free for the stealing. What you’ll most often find though is that people aren’t really inclined to steal your idea. When I was in college I held my cards close; I didn’t share my secret business ideas. But I noticed that it was hard to start a business that simultaneously no one could be allowed to know about! So after watching several of my “secret ideas” be taken up by others - people I had never actually talked to - I started to be more open about ideas. And I realized something surprising - it was actually quite hard to find anyone that was interested enough in my ideas to make a move towards stealing them. These days I’m almost completely open with my ideas and I actually have the opposite fear from my college days - will I ever have an idea that is good enough to be worth stealing?! :-/ (Still TBD - but if I do have an idea worth stealing it will be about velcro clothing for babies. Trust me, it would be awesome.)

But really, the whole premise of people stealing your ideas is usually quite unrealistic. Consider what it would take for someone to steal your idea:

The set of people that remain at then end of this list is miniscule. It doesn’t mean that they don’t exist - if everyone shared all of their ideas, then there would certainly be ideas stolen occasionally. But it’s a much more likely scenario that if you hold your ideas in secrecy, then your ideas simply will never be realized.

A business can’t succeed if nobody can know that it exists!

Enlist the Help Others

So there’s a fear that others will not like your idea and a fear that others will steal your idea. I think both of these concerns should be inverted! Rather than being fearful that others will take your ideas, you should use your ideas as bait and the intended prey should be more people that can help you make your idea real. And rather than being worried about the bad feelings of criticism, you should encourage others to actively break off parts of your idea, add new parts, and improve the existing ones. Get people to actively offer you new ideas. (And you’re not stealing if you take them, people are giving them to you freely. Ideas are basically valueless. It’s all in the execution.) And occasionally, you might be so lucky as to enlist someone that sees your vision and offers to help make it real. If they’re serious, then always (well, within reason) say “yes, help me out!” and figure out the details later. And the more people that get behind you, the more likely that the idea will actually become reality. There’s just one kicker here: the idea, is no longer your idea or anyone’s idea… in it’s ideal state the idea is malleable and changing and is owned by anyone willing to think about it. However the business (the execution of the idea) is now real and it’s yours.

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