You don’t have to have watched Jaws to know that sharks are intimidating, deadly creatures. A chance encounter is a constant fear anytime we enter oceanic waters. But the numbers tell a different story. Your chances of being attacked by a shark are just 1 in 11.5 million, according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File. To put it into perspective your chances of dying from the flu are 1 in 63. Why does this matter? Because it’s the kind of situation that is governed by irrational fear, just like the fear of your company idea “being stolen.” The reality is that this kind of situation is pretty darn rare. Like a shark attack—we hear about them anecdotally, they’re big news and you feel awful for the victim. But the odds that it’ll happen to you – extremely low.
Yet, it’s a fear that manifests with entrepreneurs young and old. One of the more common questions we get asked by early stage entrepreneurs is “How do I know my idea won’t be stolen?” While there’s no neatly quotable statistic for entrepreneurs being screwed over by idea-stealers (if you have one please let me know), it’s really not a common occurrence and, it shouldn’t be something you let govern your decision-making, here’s why:
Your idea is not all that important.
Ask any entrepreneur or early-stage investor: an idea and $3.25 will get you a Starbucks latte. I’m not saying ideas are not a starting point, but if you truly have the seed of a great startup in your hands it requires execution and tireless hard work. Start testing, executing, learning and getting feedback. Without all those, your idea isn’t worth a whole lot.
So someone getting ahold of just your idea isn’t really stealing the most important parts of your business out from under you. The truth is few ideas are wholly unique: Google wasn’t the first search engine, WhatsApp wasn’t the first messaging app nor Salesforce the first CRM tool. They just out-executed their competitors.
Most people are just too busy.
Honestly, even the people who love your idea most likely won’t bother to put in the effort to execute on it.
“The process of execution includes real customer development, changing your product into what people actually want and tons of other hard work and learning moments that an idea-stealer wouldn’t have in his or her arsenal,” points out entrepreneur Brent Goldstein.
There also seems to be a very acute fear of investors stealing ideas. So common, in fact, that AngelList had to include “How Do I Prevent Investors From Stealing My Idea?” in their FAQ section. Their response: “Keep in mind that it is rare for someone to care enough about your idea to 'steal' it.”
Does it ever happen? Sure. There are exceptions to every rule. But most investors play in an ecosystem where reputation is everything and screwing over an entrepreneur in that way is something it would be difficult to recover from.
So, why are people so scared of idea stealing?
Maybe for the same reason they’re afraid of being attacked by a shark: personal stories are more memorable than statistics. Everyone and their neighbor has seen The Social Network or knows of a horror story about a startup idea being co-opted by a venture capitalist or a big somebody with deeper pockets. And all you need is one to instill that fear. Just like all you need is one Instagram to forget that the odds of startups succeeding are incredibly low.
Hold on to what you’ve got.
At the earliest stage you feel like the idea is all you have. This is especially true if you’re on your own or haven’t (or can’t) built anything yet. Then the idea feels like the one piece you have to hang out to and you hold on so tight no one else can get at it. But in the process, you miss out on constructive feedback, people that might want to help and general progress.
So should you worry about being a victim of a “shark attack?” Not as much as you should worry about getting the “I’m-afraid-to-share-my-ideas” flu. Because what ends up happening is the same thing that happens when you focus too much on protecting yourself from anything -- you miss out on the good stuff, the most important stuff. So be judicious but get feedback, be open and go execute. If you protect your idea so much that you do nothing with it, you’ve got just that.