Having a brilliant idea stolen is a nightmare of many startuppers. Idea-guys often fear their technical partner would embezzle the innovation and start a business on their own. This fear is groundless — if only startupper can see their idea with developer’s eyes.
We are engineers, so we know how technical people perceive business ideas. Let’s see how can an idea-guy protect his/her startup’s venture.
In the Beginning: The Big Idea
Without a great idea, a startup is worth nothing. In the digital age, almost any idea finds its place online, sometimes in the form of a web or mobile app.
However, to implement an idea as a software, one needs technical skills — something that startuppers often lack. Developing a product is not a one-man work, and idea-guys are forced to hire developers (sometimes, freelancers) or pair with a technical co-founder to translate innovative solutions into programming code and application logic. Here comes a founder’s “hot button”: the tech-savvy person will abort the idea-guy, steal the solution, develop the app, and earn billions on his own.
What can an idea-guy do to prevent this situation? Let’s figure this out.
Quick Legal Note on Patenting
In most countries, there exists a legal framework to patent a new process, a machine, or an article of manufacture. But not an abstract idea, unfortunately. Even if you far-fetch your idea to fall under “process” and/or “machine,” there is still time, efforts, money, and red tape associated with the patenting process — no matter your startup’s country of origin. Legal notions are confusing; poor man’s copyright is risky; advisory of a professional patent attorney costs money (so much needed for dozens of startup’s expense lines). In a word, patenting is complicated and time-consuming.
But here’s good news: programming code based on your idea is subject to copyright, not patenting. Once you express the idea (or its part) in software, you are free to choose a license type and terms for it. This way, you legally protect your intellectual property.
Ok, to develop the software, startup idea-guy needs a technical partner. Are there still chances a malicious developer steals the idea? Well, barely. Let’s look at the startup idea the way software developers see it.
How a Developer Sees Your Business Idea
No offence intended for startuppers, but — from technical standpoint — most ideas
- are not that groundbreaking as idea-guys think. There is nothing new under the sun, especially from a source code perspective.
- could be implemented with the same tech stack and programming architecture, even though with (slightly) different functionality. Experienced developers have, most likely, worked on a project similar to yours in the past.
- are worth little without business context (potential market fit, challenges the solution addresses, target buyer persona).
99% of ideas are worth nothing without good execution.
The main reason why developers are unlikely to steal your idea is that a successful startup is not only about a brilliant idea. It is about finding a nice niche and market fit, inventing a solution to an actual challenge of the audience, its successful technological implementation plus a bunch of marketing activities to help potential users notice the solution (pitching, fundraising, outreach, marketing campaigns, and the list goes on and on). By any stretch, the most talented developers would hardly cover all of these areas on their own.
While a tech-savvy person takes care about expressing the idea in software architecture and code, the idea-guy is still at the helm. He is about strategy, vision, marketing outreach — the entire business context. This is what matters. This is what eventually succeeds. This is what developers would not be able to thieve.
Legal Framework for Cooperation with Remote Vendors
Synergy between business- and tech-minded people in a startup is what makes it powerful. To find a technical partner, startuppers resort to different means. Some hire developers via referrals, find them on freelance platforms, like Upwork.com, or dedicated B2B directories, like Clutch.co. No matter the source, choose your technical vendor carefully and work only with established agencies that cooperate under a consistent legal framework. Protect your intellectual property before the first line of code is written.
Before you share any project-related information (including ideas, inventions, and know-how) with the developers, sign a mutual non-disclosure agreement, a legal document that prohibits them to share your details with a third party. As the project starts, it would be helpful to sign a service agreement or contract, in which you and your vendor agree to the terms of further cooperation.
For instance, at Logicify, we sign a Master Service Agreement with every client, and, according to it, everything done during the course of the project is considered a work made for hire ( WFH) and/or work of client’s copyrightable authorship, and thus belongs to them.
Do not forget that, once the project is completed, all deliverables, including any documentation, should be transferred to you. Even a third-party agency develops the actual software, you remain its legal author.
Recommendations for First-Time Startuppers
In general, do not be afraid of telling your dev guys and everybody else about your idea. Pitch it to as many people as possible even before your solution is fully up and running — without mentioning technical details and know-how, of course. This brings interest of potential audience, contacts of industry influencers, maybe first clients and their feedback with valuable insights. If you do not speak to people, you are likely to end up building a great application that no one would use.
Do not fear having an idea stolen by a developer. Fear hiring a developer who does not care about the project, writes buggy code and does not document it properly. This is the worst of two evils.
Though patenting an idea on the initial startup stage is complex and time-consuming, it definitely should not fall off your radar. A patent as well as trademark registration of your brand identity (application name, logo, design) add to your company’s credibility and value in future, for instance, in the case of its acquisition.
Feel free to contact us if you liked this article or in case you have a project idea.