Tell Everyone Your Startup Idea


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 as the domain name for the startup. After we grabbed, we figured that some would try to access us through, 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, and choosing to use 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” 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, 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

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#1 Nick Davis on 07.31.12 at 4:03 pm

Joel, Rob,

Great piece, I had a very similar worry when I first started thinking about startup stuff but I quickly realised (also with the help of Derek Siver’s great piece about idea vs execution ) that it was a load of crap and it didn’t really matter.

Plus, the perfectly valid point, that validating an idea in the first place is no bad thing (ref: this very blog + Noah Kagan )

I know from being a new user of Buffer and the several emails I’ve got from Joel and his team how much validating and listening to users they really do as well.

Cheers, Nick

#2 Barry Welch on 08.01.12 at 12:31 pm

Great advice. You should certainly always be talking to customers or driven entrepreneurs. But, if you’re in the earliest phases of idea-generation, scoping, and prototyping, you might want to keep the idea secret from people who you know will tend to be unduly harsh to those ideas. If you work at a big company, for example, your peers might tend to be extra-negative toward entrepreneurial ideas. Heck, my own mother is a killjoy for great ideas!

It is important, I think, to keep those early, vulnerable ideas out of harms way for a bit before you unleash it on harsh critics, especially if you tend to be easily influenced by those folks. Build something simple first, solidify the idea, talk to customers… then talk to the killjoys and see if they have anything useful to contribute.

matt Reply:

“It is important, I think, to keep those early, vulnerable ideas out of harms way for a bit before you unleash it on harsh critics”

lol what for your delaying the inevitable…..

Barry Welch Reply:

🙂 Yes, absolutely. Delay the exposure to useless criticism, and maximize the exposure to insightful criticism. Starting a startup is hard enough without having to listen to naysayers.

You’re making a good point though. At some point you have to face those folks. But hopefully once you reveal your product idea, you’re far enough along to have proven if the idea is solid or not, and that might give you the fortitude to keep going in the face of unwarranted negativity.

#3 Fadi El-Eter on 08.02.12 at 3:58 am

I’m sure that there are many out there that don’t want to share their startup idea, simply because they don’t want someone else to steal it. You’re right about the idea thief, but (unlike the idea owner) the idea thief might have access to many angel investors.

#4 Drew Meyers on 08.03.12 at 7:52 am

But the idea thief won’t have passion, vision, or execution…

Lilia Tovbin Reply:

Deep pockets are hard to compete with, be they established companies improving their product with your idea or idea thiefs just looking to copy and beat you to market (which they could if you are a team of 1 and bootstrapping). If someone has 3-6 months head start on SEO and PR, they could make your launch and entering the market more expensive for you.

#5 Rick Fleischer on 08.04.12 at 10:37 am

Or a long history of getting five to thirty percent done before giving up might predispose you to keeping your failures secret, until you become a burnt-out shell and habitually repress new ideas before they even have a chance to coalesce. I’m speaking theoretically, of course.

_ rick _

#6 Aseem Sd on 08.04.12 at 2:32 pm

I have a website or a web app building idea which can be really awesome if executed well but cannot find the right person to build it and partner with them. Anybody there can get bak to me on my mail. 🙂

#7 Lilia Tovbin on 08.06.12 at 5:49 pm

While I agree with “ideas are cheap, execution matters” in a context of not being paranoid about talking about your idea, I think things aren’t so black and white. I think when publicly advising the masses, the answer should be “it depends”, because it probably depends on what kind of an idea it is. If the idea is “do it better/cheaper than company X (or companies X, Y, and Z)” then you probably want to launch quietly to not allow competitors to adopt. It probably also depends on the market size – in a large market there is room for competitors to co-exist (think SEO tools!), but if you are going after some niche market, being there first is an advantage.

#8 Yoosuf on 08.07.12 at 2:06 pm

Sharing the startup idea with everyone, I am not agree with that

#9 Mike Abasov on 08.07.12 at 7:44 pm

It took me a long time to internalize this point of view. Sharing your idea with people isn’t easy. It feels like you’re giving away a winning lottery ticket. You’ve figured out the numbers yet somebody else may be able to cash in on it.

And then, there are startups which went stealth and succeeded, such as Kiip. If they didn’t have to tell everyone, why should you?

But the truth is that the risk of your idea getting stolen is close to zero, for the reasons Joel have laid out. Here’s what I wanted to add though:

1. You don’t have to give away every detail. Just like “business card in the cloud” can be or, or a range of other things, your idea can be executed in a variety of ways. If you’re really afraid of someone stealing the idea, tell just enough for people to undertand what it is but no more than that.

2. More importantly, ask yourself: “what am I *really* afraid of?” Often it’s not the risk of losing the idea that scares us, but the risk of getting criticized, getting rejected, getting misunderstood. And if you feel like this is what you feer, this feer has no use. So go on and tell everyone your startup idea.

#10 ProActive Technology on 08.11.12 at 3:50 am

Its nice to read this post. I agree in a group many people may have the same idea but one who’ll success is the one who have courage to implement the idea, execute it and launch it.