In this June 7, 2010, file photo, Apple CEO Steve Jobs smiles with a new iPhone at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. (Paul Sakuma/AP, File)

Stealth mode in startups and secrecy in business are usually positioned as strategies of necessary isolation, but these actions are more often entrepreneurs’ responses to fear.

Entrepreneurs enter stealth mode because they have an idea or technology that is, in their opinion, too young for public exposure. It’s a business strategy of secrecy and seclusion meant to avoid alerting competitors to pending products or ideas. These stealth entrepreneurs have one major fear: that their idea is so incredibly brilliant that anyone who catches wind of their game-changing innovations will surely try to run away with them.

Exposure will not kill an idea. Fear, however, is the little death that shuts down innovation and smothers creativity.

Many entrepreneurs quell this fear by quietly retreating into their shells, but they are making a big mistake. Strategic isolation might work when a startup has all the resources it needs to succeed, but this is almost never the case for early-stage entrepreneurs, and it is never the case for first time entrepreneurs.

Exposure will not kill an idea. Fear, however, is the little death that shuts down innovation and smothers creativity.

Of course, some fledgling companies will succeed primarily because of the integrity of their intellectual property. These startups, often science-heavy endeavors built around a core technology or discovery, will need to patent and protect parts of their business. In those cases, it can be detrimental to share too much, too early.

But the majority of startups protecting “secrets” don’t fall into this category and are retarding their growth and limiting their ability to succeed. Idea theft is far less common than most imagine because it’s only stealing if the copycat finds a way to execute.

It takes about 1000 percent of a person’s energy to launch a startup, and even then most won’t succeed. So it is foolish worry that someone else will steal your idea and drive away in it. If it’s that easy to steal and execute, you can be confident that someone is already working on it.

Entrepreneurs must put fear aside and gather outside perspectives. The ability to seek advice early, collaborate, and adapt are the keys to startup success. Innovators might first turn to experts and friends in their industries for feedback, but those first resources don’t always provide a complete picture. Sometimes the most instructive feedback comes from unfamiliar sources — entrepreneurs and experts from seemingly unrelated industries.

Take for example Dave Perry and Candice Cabe, two entrepreneurs working in two completely different industries. Dave built a device that screws into plastic soda bottles and purifies dirty water in disaster scenarios, while Candice had an idea to create a shoe that could convert from a high heel to a flat.

New entrepreneurs should be transparent about their challenges, seek advice and work together to provide the world better solutions.

Dave is a top engineer who had little marketing experience at the time, and Candice is a savvy businesswoman who was without the technical means to build a prototype. They met, discussed their challenges, and agreed to support each other for free. Dave helped Candice build her first prototype, while Candice connected Dave with leads to help grow his business.

While this kind of collaboration doesn’t always provide perfect solutions, both ended up better off after sharing information and expertise. Had either Dave or Candice been lurking in the shadows of stealth mode, neither would have made much progress in their respective startups.

According to the Kauffman Foundation, startups are driving job growth, but entrepreneurial activity has dropped off recently.

Instead of silently waiting to launch a new product, new entrepreneurs should be transparent about their challenges, seek advice and work together to provide the world better solutions. That’s how we’ll create more successful startups and create more jobs.

Collaboration is the winning strategy — fear is the innovation-killer.


Tags: Innovation

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Nick Sophinos

    As a software developer, I always think less of the the stealth mode types. It usually means they don’t have anything special worth protecting. Everyone has ideas. Hey, I have the idea to be a better Quarterback than Tom Brady! Yeah that’s a great idea for becoming rich, but I lack the talent to execute that idea.

  • Will J.

    The article may be generally correct, but there are plenty of examples in the history of technology that indicate the exact opposite. For example, the way Philo T. Farnsworth (the inventor of television) tried to “collaborate” with RCA (at their suggestion) and got totally ripped off by them — they stole his invention, handed credit for it to some shill in their labs, and basically destroyed his career. So it works both ways.

    • John Harthorne

      Thank you, Will. It is true that ideas and technologies do get ripped off sometimes, and founders should always be thoughtful and strategically savvy before sharing their secret sauce.

      Grand Theft Startup does exist but, in my experience, it is less common than people tend to believe. New Startups need a lot of resources and support to become successful. For almost all of them, they will need to share and “sell” their idea in order to gain access to those resources. Choosing to remain silent about your idea can be hugely detrimental because it may rob you of the very resources and support you need to make the idea a reality.

      Essentially, while sharing can be risky, not sharing is also risky and many startups underestimate the risk associated with their silence …..

      • Martyr2

        I agree about the detriment of keeping business ideas locked away in secret, but like Will J pointed out, it happens all the time. And just because it is simple doesn’t always mean someone else is working on it. Some of the best ideas that have come to market have been the simple ones.

        I think that if you are a startup and need help, share your idea in trade for resources. Just be smart about it and get the appropriate NDAs in place before discussing the details. When you think you are far enough along in development, share a bit more.

        But in counterpoint, I think stealing of ideas actually happens more than you realize. I have had it happen to me a few times on a few different projects. Luckily it was never ideas that I had spent years of my life building into a startup.

        Oh and btw, great blog. :)

  • tannerc

    There’s a distinctive problem that trying to protect “big ideas” has to overcome before there’s even a possibility of them being ripped off. Two, actually.

    The first is the notion that multiples exist in discovery. If the culture is right and technology is ready and all necessary resources exist, an idea will make itself known, often to more than one person. It was true for the discovery of oxygen, the creation of the telephone, calculus, and countless other “big ideas.”

    Steven Johnson touches on this in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From.”

    The second problem is that, if your idea is big enough people aren’t going to rip it off, they’re not even going to consider it as a feasible idea. That’s a good sign for a lot of reasons.

    Look at Steve Jobs and the work he did in the late 80s for personal computers. Nobody cared, nobody wanted-in, and yet here we are today with the fruit of his labor (pun intended).

    • John Harthorne

      Excellent insights, tannerc. I will have to check out Steven’s book. Well said. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jonathan Mergy

    Yes, clearly Steve Jobs, the picture in the article was really the posterboy for discovery. Theft happens. If your idea sucks, you have nothing to be worried about.

  • Pedro

    Samwer Brothers :P

  • JobKaster

    I used to be afraid of people stealing my ideas as well. Then I realized how many doors start to open up once you start sharing with the community!

  • Pete Griffiths

    Dangerously one sided.

    Funnily enough I just got back from lunch during which my colleague had explained how a huge bank had ripped off one of his previous employers. They sued and won millions.

    ‘No-one will steal your big idea’ may be good link bait but it is poor advice.

  • Patrick Schäffer

    You could get ripped off everywhere, even from the coder you hire -> mark zuckerberg. that’s why i have decided to build my company open to the public. make sure to follow me on twitter. :)

  • Corey Richardson

    Very appropriate dune reference

  • jmsdnns

    I find it amusing that there is a picture of Steve Jobs for an article about not being worried about idea theft. Xerox would definitely call him a thief.

    • Nick Prudent

      Xerox made a fortune with Apple stock they got in exchange for letting Steve Jobs & his team poke around the Xerox Star/Alto. Jobs & Gates never hid the source of their big ideas.

      • jmsdnns

        Not really. Apple was sued by Xerox exactly for hiding the work they ripped off from Xerox. Xerox was allowed to buy some shares, but they sued and sued because it was never as sweet a deal as what Apple got by yoinking the ideas.

    • Pointpanic

      It’s all about iconin=zing pompous corporate fat cats, not critical reporting

  • EShy

    No one would still you’re idea and if you gave the same idea to several teams you’ll end up with very different products.

    It makes me laugh when people tell me they can’t share their idea with me. All it means to me is that you’re not sure it’s good and don’t want to get laughed at or that you don’t believe in the team (otherwise you wouldn’t worry about someone trying to do the same thing) and that means you’ll never get it done

    On the other hand, if you share your idea you might get some good tips that will help you along the way. Every time I talk to people about my projects they have some input, it’s so worth the “risk”

  • Peter

    Unless of course Apple decides to patent your big idea then sue you into oblivion. And it’s going to be ever easier for corporations with vast resources like Apple to steal patents away from original inventors with the new changes to US patent law switching the system around to a “first-to-file” patent system. So maybe some new perspective can be found by some journalists removing their “Jobs blinkers” to view the world.

  • Nick Prudent

    Ideas are easy — execution is hard. Plus, you always end up with a different product than what you first envision anyway. Facebook, Instagram & Twitter were not the first, but their particular implementation became popular — mostly through iteration.

    • Patrick Schäffer

      second that!

  • Dino Romano

    Is John Harthorne the successful entrepreneur here? If so, he is the luckiest successful entrepreneur in business history. Duh. Sure. Give all your ideas away. No one will steal them from you. Such a stupid article I can’t believe it made print.

  • POintpanic

    I’m so sick of “public” radio pushing high tech “entrepeneurship” When will “public” radio feature a socialist voice?

  • Matt.Colan

    I agree…Here is our “Game Changer” INTELLACASE Merges
    Smartphone and Car Key — Yet Keeps Them Separate

    Car owners can now carry a detachable smartkey on their smartphone with INTELLACASE, a patent-pending innovation that seamlessly merges mobile worlds.

    As automakers seek to integrate car keys and smartphones, basic problems arise. What if your phone battery dies? What if you want to leave the key with someone, your spouse or mechanic — but not your phone?

    “INTELLACASE solves those problems,” support Startups –

  • Imran Nasrullah

    I believe you need to use your best judgement in deciding how much information you want to expose to the world. While I can’t speak to technology companies, certainly in life-sciences, secrecy is key while you are experimenting, generating data, and filing patents. So much of a biotech company’s value is locked up in patents, especially in the early years; and it allows them the ability to raise capital, publish, create buzz around their technology, and talk to pharma for licensing deals. Without secrecy and ultimately patent filings, the company loses value.

    I recall many years ago Cytologix suing Ventana for misappropriation of their business plan around IHC. My recollection is a bit fuzzy, but I seem to recall Cytologix showing their plan to an investor, who subsequently, showed it to Ventana for expert opinion. Ventana allegedly took the plan, and launched their IHC business around the details of the business plan. Predictably, Cytologix sued.

    In the tech space, I would direct you to the link below where Techforward sued BestBuy for misappropriation. “Best Buy was asking us to provide them with access to our proprietary analytical model. This model was our crown jewels — we had invested years and millions of dollars building it. But we had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Best Buy – and they had assured us the information would remain confidential and was critical to moving forward”

    I do believe Jonathan is right in that most tech start-ups are so inchoate and under-capitalized that the ideas die on the vine or if lucky manage to make it to the next stage, and technology has “open” collaboration models in their DNA. I still think prudence and caution are always a good thing, especially if you are pouring your heart and money into it.

  • hi

    make sense

  • Charlie Solano

    Thats really true fear can kill innovation. so be big and be fearless to become an entrepreneur.

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