Stealth is for Bombers, not Startups

Shhh...Top Secret startup stuff inside

My buddy’s little brother is starting a company.  He’s planning on doing a pitch competition but his co-founder doesn’t want to do it because he’s afraid people will steal their idea if they speak about it publicly.

He emailed me to ask for advice. Here was my response:

Your co-founder is wrong. Don’t worry about your idea getting stolen. Ideas are a dime a dozen.  It’s the execution that matters. If your idea is good, then there are at least ten other people simultaneously building the same company right now.  So start building fast and beat them to the market!  Do the competition. You have nothing to lose.

If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re not telling people about your idea because you think they’ll steal it, you’re in big trouble.

In fact, you should do the exact opposite.  You should be telling EVERYONE you know about your idea.  Don’t whisper it to people for fear that they are going to steal it.  Shout it passionately from the rooftops.  Sharing your idea with others and letting them know why you are excited about it is the only way you are going to attract  awesome co-founders, mentors, and early customers.

The reality is that no one is going to steal it and here’s why -

(1) Other entrepreneurs are too busy working on their own idea to steal yours.

Most early stage entrepreneurs are already working 60-80 hours a week just to stay above water.  Unless you tell your  idea to super-freak, Jack Dorsey, no one else in their right mind has enough time to do two startups at the same time, no matter how cool your idea sounds.

(2) More importantly, I know you think your idea sounds cool.  But really, your idea is poop.

I can guarantee with certainty that the idea you initially come up with isn’t going to be the idea that makes you money.  Every business pivots and changes directions as they learn more about what their customers actually need and realize that their initial assumptions were all wrong.  And the funny thing is, you only learn this information after you launch your business.

Don’t feel bad if you’re just realizing for the first time that your idea is a pile of poo.  You’re not alone.  Everyone’s initial idea is a pile of poo.  The sooner you accept this, the better off you are. Pride and ego often keep entrepreneurs from switching gears.  It’s hard for people to admit that their ideas suck, but the longer you cling to a flawed vision, the greater the chances are that your startup is going to fail and you are going to waste everyone’s time and money.  So by all means, let people still your crappy idea.  It’s not going to help them anyway.

Moral of the story:  Tell people about your idea and be passionate about.  People are attracted to passion not ideas.  Ideas come and go but passion is permanent.  Everyone’s got ideas.  Not everyone has the passion and perseverance to make ideas come to life.  

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12 thoughts on “Stealth is for Bombers, not Startups

  1. kristin says:

    Love this statement “In fact, you should do the exact opposite. You should be telling EVERYONE you know about your idea. Don’t whisper it to people for fear that they are going to steal it. Shout it passionately from the rooftops. Sharing your idea with others and letting them know why you are excited about it is the only way you are going to attract awesome co-founders, mentors, and early customers.”

    It is so true… you need to share your ideas to fine tune and pivot to what is the NEED of your audience! Have fun with it!

  2. I strongly agree that you need to tell everyone about your idea and from experience have found that showing your passion is the best way to get co-founders and mentors on board. I would argue that it is all execution though. Technically isn’t execution almost as indispensable has the idea? If only execution matter for success wouldn’t every serial entrepreneur continue to succeed no matter what the idea? With that I believe it takes a balance of idea and execution. Something like 75% execution to 25% idea but not the 99% execution to 1% idea that everyone always writes.

    • Ethan Austin says:

      I would agree that ideas are worth something. But the initial idea usually isn’t worth a whole lot. Maybe it’s the second or third idea where you find product-market fit. In general, I’d argue that the ability to adapt and recognize when to pivot is more valuable than the initial idea.

  3. Vince says:

    Great write-up. Do you think your idea is unique? Most likely it’s not. Ever heard of Friendster before you started using Myspace or Facebook? The idea is only part of it…it’s the execution that really matters. This is true for any product or service. Motorola invented the cell phone…so why does everyone want an iPhone over any other? Ford didn’t invent the car but managed to become the largest automaker at a point in time. Sometimes being first isn’t always the best. If you let someone get to market first you can improve on their idea. But if your buddy’s little brother’s co-founder (did I get this right??) is still concerned about telling people his idea then maybe the solution is to not pitch it at a large event but just tell every regular person who is not an entrepreneur to get feedback. Most likely these Average Joe’s won’t execute on the idea even if they love it.

    • ethanaustin1 says:

      Thanks. That is reasonable advice. I still say they should share it with everyone though. If they’re not confident that they can do it better than everyone else, then they have the wrong attitude and should probably get out of the game.

  4. Another solid post, thanks – this will be in my bookmarks for the 1 – 2 times a week this comes up with people I’m talking to. Thanks Ethan, I’d also extend it to past the idea.
    We’ve taken to telling people how we are going with our execution (after the fact). I’m about to do a post on this approximate topic, so will link back when done! rockon

    • ethanaustin1 says:

      Thanks dude. I actually debated whether to write this post because I’m certainly not writing anything novel here that others haven’t written in the past. But at the end of the day, I figured that this question comes up so frequently that it couldn’t hurt to remind those people just starting out of this concept. Looking forward to your post.

  5. Reid says:

    With 10 other companies out there doing the same thing, maybe you don’t want them to know that you are going after the same space and with what intensity. Maybe you don’t want them to get energy from knowing that you are working to get your stuff out there. Because that can give them an advantage in how they time what they do and decisions they make.

    If you don’t think knowing what your competition is doing would be an asset to you, I find that curious. And to not think that the opposite is true I think is a mistake.

    I think this article is too 100%. 100% sure that the first idea is poop in all cases. 100% sure that you should always tell everyone you know.

    If I were your competition on posting an article on this topic and I knew a week ago that you were going to write it and publish it, I would write and publish it before you and if I knew you took the 100% approach, I would emphasize a more balanced exploration of the topic. Then people who read your article after mine would think your product wsa of lower quality and your brand would suffer.

    However you do have a brand in this area and I don’t. And, darn it, you don’t let me know what you are going to write about before you write it.

    • ethanaustin1 says:

      Fair argument on the 100% stuff. I think most blog posts (mine included) tend to be a bit hyperbolic. I’m sure there are many exceptions to this rule, but I don’t know of any companies off the top of my head that absolutely nailed it with their first idea. Do you?

  6. I think you’re spot-on that the work is the thing and that spreading the idea shouldn’t be avoided.

    There was one sour chord struck with me though. The thought of telling “everyone.” Now, this is mostly a comment on myself, but I find that when I’ve got a good idea the best thing to do is tell no one, not right away, anyhow. Instead, I like to work on it. Really, really work, get it shovel-ready or at least really far into the process to where the momentum is already going.

    My fear (again, this is really a reflection of myself) is that it’s too easy for an idea to blow away in all the talk. Too many times I’ve had a great idea, told a hundred people, felt all elated about it, only to then let the idea die, or become too daunted by the work needed. I end up just feeling crap about myself for having wasted a dream or something.

    What you should spread then, is not merely the idea. Every bum on the street has an idea, and every failure had a dream. What you should tell everyone is how you are making an idea happen. The idea should be a commentary on work being done, not a vision of what’s possible.

  7. […] Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. It won’t happen. Read more about this in a blog post by @EthanAustin: Stealth is for Bombers, not Startups. […]

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