You’ve heard it before. Ideas are worthless, ideas can’t be copyrighted/patented, someone will steal your idea, no one will steal your idea, and on and on. I can say with complete certainty that we can put that debate to rest because I have the final, definitive answer: someone will steal your idea. But it isn’t going to happen the way you think. In the past month I’ve seen it happen to me on multiple occassions and I never even had to tell anyone my idea but once someone told me theirs.
The value of an idea
The value of an idea is in its execution. Now, this barrs any sort of philosophy or ideology. Of course the ideas of the enlightenment were important and valuable but they couldn’t be stolen, only shared. The ideas I’m talking about require execution and most ideas require some sort of execution before they are valuable. The idea of a social network is worthless but Facebook is worth billions. Now social networks existed long before Facebook so how come Facebook is worth (an unjustified) $100 billion at IPO and no one else is? Execution. Forum software has been around forever and that’s one form of social network. Instant messaging too. It’s not difficult to build a CRUD application that stores personal data and gives users permissions to share or not share content with each other. Anyone could have done it but Facebook won. You can’t steal the idea for a social network but you can steal the idea for Facebook. Ideas are valuable and worth stealing and someone will in some way.
How idea theft happens
Suppose you’re an independant web developer and you’re going about your day, surfing around, doing your thing and suddenly you have a problem. You’ve encountered this problem a million times before and it dawns on you that others might have the same problem. You set out to solve it. You build and build secretly, locked away in your coding dungeon for months. Then, about a week from your launch date some asshole posts a Show HN on Hacker News showing off your idea! What an asshole! How did he steal your idea? You were careful, you never told a soul. Unless… nah, your dog didn’t tell anyone. He’s loyal.
So what happened? While you were perfecting every little detail and prematurely optimizing your new app someone else had the same problem. Instead of rolling their own framework they typed
rails new awesome_app. Instead of setting up the perfect AWS infrastructure they typed
git push heroku master.
You were trying to launch a billion dollar company on a fry cook budget while someone else just hacked something together and put it online. And it sucks. But hell, it works well enough and while you’re focusing on perfection the other guys is focusing on iteration.
I’ve seen several ideas that I’ve been working on in private debut recently and it hurt me. And each time I see it I tell myself that its time to launch. No more waiting. And I mean it. I’ve been sitting on Write.app for months now and I’m almost ready to launch it. I’ve been putting it off waiting for perfection but I honestly only have two things left to do with it: get it to save copies of posts to S3 (along with other user data) and get the public facing user notebooks up. And then I think of a million other tiny details I need to fix and those two things turn into a million.
The danger in this kind of thinking is that it will prevent you from launching indefinitely. People are going to have problems so you try to head them all off before that happens. People are going to hate your idea so you try to polish it so everyone loves it. Some stuff isn’t finished and other stuff is broken so you keep fixing and adding features all the while you’re the only one using the thing you set out to build for the world.
In the end someone else will succeed where you failed. They’ll launch a shitty MVP. You’ll scoff and polish your masterpiece. They’ll iterate and grow their userbase. You’ll delude yourself into thinking you can compete with a more polished product. They do something. You plan something. They launch. They win. You lose. Then you give up.
Launch your half-baked barely working, overpromising and underdelivering app right now before someone else does.
On a side note:
I’m proud to announce that Write.app is open! There are things that don’t work. There are bugs. There are huge inconsistencies between a few pages due to a redesign I did about 90% of the way into it. But it works. And I’ll iterate. And a bunch of people who sign up will never come back. And I’ll keep iterating. And then one day I’ll have a very well working app and it’ll be awesome. For now I’ll have to deal with some harsh criticism and probably lots of complains (but assumptions are often wrong and we are often harsher on ourselves than anyone else can be). Go try it out already! I described it a bit in my last post from yesterday.