Worried someone’s going to steal your idea? Here are 4 things you should worry about instead

Oh shut up.

“If you’ll just sign this NDA, and then we can get the project started…”

“Before I tell you my business idea, please do keep it to yourself…”

“Before I ask for your help with my business idea, please promise me you won’t try to steal it or anything…”

Wow… are we notorious for being the kleptomaniacs of the business world or something? Or are people generally really secretive when they have a business idea?

What many fail to appreciate is that a business idea – the vast majority of the time – won’t get stolen. It just won’t. And when they keep the idea so close to their chest, they actually do their fledgling business a disservice:

  • They can’t get constructive feedback on it
  • They can’t do market research into whether people will actually want to buy their product or service
  • They can’t test the product/service with potential customers to detect problems before bringing it to a wider market
  • They refuse to publicise it until it’s absolutely ready, which means no one’s waiting anxiously to buy it when it launches… so their up-and-running business starts losing money before it can dredge up some customers

Rather than worry that someone’s going to steal your business idea, here are four things you should be worrying about instead:

Are you solving a problem people will pay for?

If people will pay you for a product, piece of software or course before you’ve even created it, you KNOW you’re onto a good thing.

Esther de Boer made thousands in pre-launch sales with Shootzilla – management software for wedding photographers. She put up a landing page and asked for sign-ups and payment before she’d even hired a developer to build it. She’d decided that if no one seemed interested in paying now, they probably wouldn’t pay once she’d spent many hours and many dollars creating it.

If you’re in a different industry and you just know that people won’t pay upfront for something that hasn’t been created yet (or if your business is client-facing and trades time for money), you still need to validate your idea before you start spending many hours and many dollars setting it up.

So ASK people. Don’t just ask them “Do you think this is a good idea?”; ask them “Would you use it?” and – most importantly – “What would you pay for it?”

If your business is aimed at other businesses, call them up and ask them for a quick chat (you’ll be surprised how many are willing to talk to you and tell you their business problems). If you’re creating a mass-market product, create a prototype and stand on street corners asking questions.

Ask people in the industry (and don’t start to panic that they’ll steal your idea!): they’ll give you constructive feedback and useful insights.

Don’t work in a vacuum. You might think you’ve got a good idea, but a) other people might disagree, and b) even if they like your idea, they might not think it’s something worth paying for.

[Honesty time: we’re huge fans of Dan Norris, and he has some wise words about when business validation of this kind isn’t so useful.]

How are you going to establish yourself as the market leader in your industry?

Once your product is out there, there’s a chance it will be copied if it’s successful. (Although BIG note: this only usually happens once the idea has been validated and you’re making good money from it. People don’t copy until it’s out there and they’ve seen it works.)

So you need to establish yourself as THE company in the industry (or at least one of the big players). And how do you do that? You need an awesome brand.

Case in point: Zappos

How many online shoe stores are there? Lots. Like, really lots. But everyone who buys shoes online thinks of Zappos when they need a new pair. The site is cluttered, and easier-to-use online shoe stores exist, but Zappos leads the pack.

Why? Because of its ridiculously strong brand. The Zappos brand is all about two things:

  1. Staff happiness, which directly impacts…
  2. Customer satisfaction

Even if customers are unaware of Zappos’ commitment to paying $1,000 to each employee who wants to quit immediately after training, or haven’t heard any of the famous PR-happy stories about staff members chatting to customers for ten hours about living Vegassending a free pair of shoes overnight to a best man who’d arrived shoeless at the weddingsending flowers to a woman who’d ordered six pairs because her feet were damaged by harsh medical treatments, or taking all calls without using scripts, they’ll just know – through experience or general awareness – that Zappos is famous for great treatment of its staff, and great customer service.

The brand doesn’t have to be about customer service though. It’s just about giving a strong “feeling” and sense of who they are and what they stand for when people think of that brand.

Think of:

The brand identity needs to be built in from the very start. “Brand identity” covers a HEAP of important principles that we cover in our book, No More Boring Businesses.

Does your business idea/model already exist (even if it’s in a different industry or has a different target customer)? 

Knowing that someone else has created a business similar to yours is a GOOD thing: it indicates that others think it’s worth giving a go too. Being the only one in your market is scary: customers are unaware of its benefits/needs, and it’ll be hard to explain it to people.

Some new and successful businesses have, for example, started referring to themselves in comparison to other businesses. Such as:

  • Swell – Pandora for podcasts
  • ZigAir – Airbnb for charter planes
  • Gidsy – Airbnb for travel experiences
  • StowThat – Airbnb for storage
  • Consumr – Yelp for packaged goods

How are people going to find out about your business? 

You can’t just rely on people Googling their particular need and your company popping up in the search results. For two reasons:

  1. People may not know they have that precise need (or they won’t know how to explain it)
  2. You WON’T get to the top of Google – at least not straight away

So marketing is your only option. And marketing should be built into your business plans and decisions right from the start: if you can’t figure out an effective way to market your business to your target customers before you create the business, you probably won’t have much luck once the business is ready to launch.

So start thinking about this right at the beginning.

How do you find your target customers? (This is where it comes in useful to niche down your target market – it’s far easier to find them if you’re aiming towards a specific type of customer rather than “every person in the whole entire world who might be interested in what I’m selling”.) Are they on certain forums and message boards? Do they read certain magazines? Do they “like” certain things on Facebook – which you can target with FB ads? Do they read certain blogs – which you can guest post for?

You can get a lot of marketing done without spending a penny, but you NEED to know that the marketing opportunities exist before you even get started. If you can’t find your target customer, there’s very little chance they’ll find you either.

And there you have it – reasons why you ought to stop worrying about people stealing your idea, and start worrying about other, more important, factors that could stymie your business.

Got any thoughts on all this? Am I being too blase about the whole “stealing” thing? Let me know in the comments!