This artice is a guest post from Joel Gascoigne. Joel is is the founder of Buffer, a smarter way to share great articles with friends and followers. He Tweets at @joelgascoigne and writes regularly on his blog about startups, life, learning and happiness.
I was speaking at an event last week about the lessons I’ve learned along my startup journey, mostly focused on my recent experience of founding and growing Buffer. The first lesson I talked about was how being open with your ideas, and vocal about sharing progress can put you in a much greater position over time because you gradually grow a following and audience to use as a launchpad for future ideas.
After I finished my talk, someone in the audience asked a fantastic question, a concern they had which I think many aspiring startup founders have too: when being open and vocal about your idea in the early stages, isn’t there a danger someone will take the idea and run with it, and kill your startup in the process?
I want to share my personal experience of competition and talk about three specific reasons I now believe keeping your idea quiet could actually be hindering progress to success in a large way.
My “genius” idea turned out to be unoriginal
Before Buffer, I had a previous startup which I worked on for one and a half years. It wasn’t as successful as I would have liked, but it is where I learned a massive amount which enabled me to get traction for Buffer much more quickly.
The idea of my previous startup was that it would be your business card in the cloud. The benefits are that you would never run out of business cards (because you’d give them out digitally) and that your contact information would always be accurate and up to date (you can change your phone number after you’ve already given someone your card). My co-founder at the time, Oo Nwoye, and I thought this was a pretty damn good idea. We were hesitant to talk too much about it before we could launch the first version.
Once we had the idea, we needed a name. After countless discussions and lots of bad names, we decided on the name “OnePage”, which we were very happy with: it captured the concept (one page for all your contact information and social networks) and it was short and “speakable over the phone”.
After we decided on the name OnePage, we snapped up 1page.me as the domain name for the startup. After we grabbed 1page.me, we figured that some would try to access us through onepage.me, and we realised someone had taken that domain. We reached out to the person and tried to buy the domain, but they told us they had plans for it.
So we continued on with our idea, deciding we didn’t need onepage.me, and choosing to use myonepage.com as the domain instead of the more obscure “.me” domain. We started to prepare to launch a couple of months later, and we still hadn’t told many about our idea. Then, we found a Twitter profile with the username “onepageme”. We checked it out, and we were very shocked. The tag-line was “All of you, at OnePage.me” and the idea was almost exactly the same as ours. The guy we’d reached out to was behind the account, and he was based in Australia.
What had happened was that someone on the other side of the world to us had the exact same idea as us, without ever knowing we were working on the idea. Not only that, but he’d thought of the exact same name.
This really affected us, we thought it was a massive problem, but it was completely misguided: in the end, onepage.me never even launched. The landing page is still live, and you can see their last Tweet was almost two years ago.
This experience taught me one of the most important lessons of my startup journey: that ideas are cheap, and that execution is all that matters. Most of the time, someone else has the same idea as you and is working on it right now. If no one has the same idea as you, then you’ll want to think hard about why that is.
Startups: unknown solutions to unknown problems
Startups can usually be differentiated from other businesses because by the fact they have little validation. Whereas a more traditional service business might create websites for someone, a startup wants to innovate and hit upon something which solves a problem for people and can scale incredibly fast. With this element of innovation, it means that startup ideas are usually full of assumptions. The problem being solved is not validated, and the solution is not validated either. You’re not building websites for people like countless other small businesses now.
Therefore, as a startup, you need to be laser focused on validating these assumptions as soon as possible. You need to reach out to people and figure out if the problem you believe exists is a problem people actually have. Then you need to figure out if the solution solves that problem for people.
If you keep your idea secret, you’re delaying this validation, and as time goes on without the idea being out there, there’s an increasing danger you are spending time on a problem which doesn’t really exist or a solution which doesn’t solve a problem.
The idea thief has no passion
The best startups come from a personal need, and are driven by passion. Dennis Crowley founded a startup called Dodgeball before Foursquare which was also a location based social network. He has clearly been very interested about the location space for a long time, and has thought a lot about the problems in the space. He’s passionate.
Even if you don’t spend as long as Dennis Crowley thinking about a problem and space, I’ve seen a general trend that really successful startup founders are super passionate about the space they’re in. It goes beyond wanting to make money. Therefore, if someone was to simply steal an idea, they would lack this passion, and I believe they would make little progress before they give up.
Educating users about your new idea
A component of many startups is that they are new ideas and require some kind of change of habit, or push an idea beyond its current form or scope. People were used to posting on social networks, but not limited to 140 characters and with higher frequency, sharing more openly than they would before. This required a change of habit. In a similar way, Dropbox is something where generally users don’t realise they need the product until they try it. Word of mouth is vital for Dropbox.
With these kinds of startup ideas, if we keep them secret, we’re delaying educating our users about this habit change. The most interesting thing here is that any new competition out there is probably more beneficial to us than if it didn’t exist, because they can help to educate users and make them aware of this new way to do something. Apple’s Reading List is great for Instapaper and Pocket because it educates the masses about the problem, and these startups can simply build a great solution to the problem.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable about sharing your startup idea? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Photo credit: Kent Yoshimura