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Starting Up (Is Hard To Do): Don’t Give A “Shhhhh” – Why Not To Be Secretive With Your Idea

I think that there is one trap that all aspiring entrepreneurs fall into – wanting to keep their idea a secret so someone doesn’t steal it. I know I have fallen victim to this numerous times (and probably will succumb to keeping future ideas on the down-low as well), but keeping your idea a secret only prevents you from realizing the full potential of it.

Dangers Of Being Secretive

I recall one idea in particular that a partner and I were particularly secretive about; let’s call it Secret Idea X. We thought that we had invented the best thing since sliced bread and we would never see any riches if word got out. I was incredibly tight lipped. I was not only secretive with casual friends and acquaintances, but also with my closest friends and family members.

A general rule of thumb: you are probably delusional about the grandiosity of your idea if you won’t even tell your mom because you are afraid that she will mention it in conversation while scrapbooking and that somehow someone will steal it. Yes, I was actually that crazy.

We were at a considerable disadvantage when it came time to sell the idea to businesses. Yes, we got an audience with major players in the airline, supermarket and political arenas, but we were never able to close a sale. I feel that this was a function of the fact that we couldn’t connect with our audience. By not exposing our application to a variety of people, I wasn’t able to understand what pieces people found the most valuable or how much they would pay for it.

To this day I think that Secret Idea X had some legs on it (I actually quit my job here at Rackspace to pursue it), but I firmly believe that our tight lips were our undoing.

Wisdom Of The Crowds

Everything about your idea makes intuitive sense to you; after all, you are the person who created it. Being in the weeds, it might be difficult to understand why someone else wouldn’t see the value proposition or even the utility of your idea.

However, you are just one person with a particular background and bias. Not only do you understand how your idea, app or software solves a problem, the very nature of the particular problem that you are solving is familiar to you. This may not be the case with your users.

You can gather a lot of information as you start to visit with friends, family, peers and the random guy on the street about your idea. Talking with people will give you an understanding of how they interpret the problem and a quick gut-feel if your idea solves it. Taking in a variety of opinions will help you expose some of the rough edges of your idea as well as smoothing it out to be more usable.

Ask people who express a genuine interest in you or your idea if they would be willing to continue to give feedback. Give them access to your software or app so that they can give you direct information on what they like or don’t like. Look for trends or groupings of things that your group dislikes – if multiple people give the same negative feedback there is probably a problem.

Please note that it is important that you have people who will give you candid feedback and not simply tell you what you want to hear. Be careful about taking feedback only from your friends and family members because they might tell you what you want to hear and not what you need to hear. I call this the American Idol syndrome in honor of all the people who genuinely think that they can sing because of their friends’ and family’s praise, but who can’t carry a tune to save their lives.

The more people that you visit will only serve to enhance your idea. This is why studios do market testing on an audience, products do blind taste tests and big time software companies do beta testing. The more feedback you can get, the better.

Your Passion Can’t Be Stolen

You may be nodding your head in agreement with some of the points I’ve made, but you still have at the back of your mind, “That’s great and all, but this idea, THIS one is my golden ticket. I can’t tell anyone about it or they’ll steal it!” In that case, I think you are underestimating how difficult it is to startup something and overestimating how brilliant people think you are.

There is an old post by Chris Dixon that I discovered towards the end of Secret Idea X that I wish I had found earlier. This passage in particular jumped out at me:

“First of all, most people will probably think your idea is stupid.  This does not mean your idea is stupid.  In fact, if everyone loves your idea, I might be worried that it’s not forward thinking enough.”

His argument seems to land on the fact that no one will be as passionate about your idea as you are. At some point in time you encountered a problem and looked at it through a different lens. This was the spark that made you approach solving it in a new, different way. Your idea is your baby and no one will love it more in the early stages than you will.

Don’t underestimate the importance of passion; it is the difference in seeing an idea through as opposed to giving up on it at the first sign of adversity.

And no I won’t tell you what Secret Idea X is… I guess I don’t take my own advice sometimes.

Starting Up (Is Hard to Do) is a weekly series published every Friday on the Rackspace Blog from a guy who is in the trenches of starting up a business while working a day job. Check out Garrett’s previous post that talked about what to do if you don’t develop software.

About the Author

This is a post written and contributed by Garrett Heath.

Garrett Heath is a Racker who works in Rackspace Marketing and has had experience as a technical project manager in the Cloud. He enjoys writing about how the cloud is spurring innovation for startups, small businesses and enterprises. You can read his personal blog for where he likes to eat in San Antonio.


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