It is the fear that haunts every founder: You spend months or years developing a new product, only to have a competitor steal your idea and beat you to market. Requiring everyone associated with your enterprise to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) seems like a necessary precaution to protect your substantial investment of time and resources.
But here is the cold, hard truth.
YOU ARE NOT THAT ORIGINAL. You just aren’t. Odds are that at least 20 other individuals or organizations are working on your “one-of-a-kind” concept. In a world with over 7 billion people, with information zipping around the planet at light speed, there are way too many minds at work and ideas in the air for you to be the only one putting two and two together. It would be delusional to think otherwise.
In the highly, highly unlikely event that nobody else is doing what you’re doing, then you are either decades ahead of your time (in which case, you have nothing to fear), or you have failed to grasp the complexities of the undertaking.
A Lesson from Invention History
In early 1876, the world population was about a quarter of what it is today, and the only semblance of high-speed communication was the cumbersome telegraph. Information moved at the speed of … mail. Against that backdrop, Alexander Graham Bell’s lawyers filed a patent application for a revolutionary device, the telephone.
… And so did lawyers for inventor Elisha Gray …
… On the same day!!
Not only that, a third inventor, Antonio Meucci, had made a preliminary patent filing for a “talking telegraph” five years earlier, in 1871.
So … did I mention that you’re not that original?
If all someone else needs to steal your business and sink your enterprise is knowledge of a single strategy, or even multiple strategies, then start looking for a new job. Don’t even go after it.
Quality and Execution Trump Originality
Building a company is hard. It should be hard. You want it to be hard. You don’t want every Joe Schmo with desk and a file cabinet to become your competitor.
You’re not that original. But that doesn’t mean you can’t stand out from the crowd. The great New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera never made any secret of what pitch he would throw with the game on the line. He didn’t invent the pitch, and many other pitchers used it. But when he threw it, no one could hit it. He wasn’t original, but his mastery made him unique.
Your idea should be complex. The team should be hard to assemble. The execution should require diverse expertise and certain elegance. And that’s only part of the story. You want the marketing to be clever, the branding unforgettable, and the design flawless. Get all of that right, and you’ll have no need to obsess over secrecy.
A Simple Conclusion
Give up the delusion of complete originality. Asking advisors or investors to sign your NDA alienates them and erodes trust, while serving no useful purpose. Just don’t do it.
Illustration: Jade Xuan Wu (2017, www.jadexwu.com)
Special thanks to Kara Bernert (tw: @_beavz)