Makers are naturally concerned about their ideas and while there are legitimate reasons for keeping some information close to your vest, I find most makers err on the side of being overly cautious. When first getting into the business of taking a new product to market, it is easy to underestimate the number and enormity of hurdles that need to be overcome. Experienced inventors, as makers used to be called back in the glory days of 2011 and earlier, will tell you that 95% of the value is in the execution and only 5% in the idea itself, much aligned with the old proverb that success is 10% inspiration 90% perspiration.
The problem with not sharing your information is that you limit your ability to get the feedback from friends, family, professionals, and potential clients that is critical to changing course and designing a product that is manufacturable, cost-effective, and meets your customers’ demands in an optimal way. You have a trade-off to consider. When should you share your information, with whom, and how? To answer this question you need to weigh the risks and the benefits and also look at the tools you have available to protect your information.
NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement)
When you are first developing your idea, you will likely have a basic concept that will be changing (should be changing) in the details of its function, aesthetics, brand identity…. At this point it is too early to get a patent or a provisional patent. Your next best protection then comes from a Non-Disclosure Agreement. An NDA is an agreement, a signed contract, between two parties where one party states that they are sharing information and the receiving party agrees to keep that information safe and not share it with others. This is a standard contract in product development circles and is usually quite effective.
There are a couple important things to know about NDA’s. One is that any information that has already been made public is already considered in the public domain and will not be covered by an NDA. So, if you have anything on a website or have shown your concept at a trade show, whatever information you have shared is not covered by the NDA. Likewise, any information that you have shared with the other party before you sign the NDA is not covered by the NDA. So, you must be sure to get the NDA signed before you share any information. Having a signed NDA, while not being bulletproof, should give you the confidence to have the discussions necessary to keep your idea moving forward.
While NDA’s are pretty quick and effective and should usually be used when you are dealing with people professionally, they are often a little awkward and ill-suited for many of the situations where you need to bring up your idea to get feedback. When talking to a friend at a dinner party for instance, you would probably feel a little strange pulling out an NDA and asking them to sign it not to mention they would feel a bit disappointed and not be too happy to help you out after that. At the same time, your friend might not feel the same value in keeping your idea safe and could easily tell his or her friends. If it’s an exciting idea that is a very likely possibility as it will make interesting conversation.
This is where you have to make the value judgment between risk and benefit. Here are the things you need to keep in mind when you are trying to decide what to say. First, what do you really need to share to get the feedback you are looking for? Often the most valuable piece of information is confirming the need for the value proposition. This usually does not require any discussion of the actual product.
For example, I am working on a product now that will solve the problem of headphone cords getting tangled when not in use in an easy and convenient way. Would you rather have an integrated solution or a solution that could be used with your current headphones? I ask YOU, would that be valuable to you (I would really love to get your feedback in our comments section below)?! So, there, I’ve just shared my idea, I could get very valuable feedback, and I feel very safe that there isn’t any information here that would lead to anybody stealing my idea (there are many products that do what I’m proposing already, it’s how I’m going to do it exactly, along with ease of production, branding and marketing that are going to make it work, or not).
Of course, you still have to decide exactly how much information to share. The more you share, the better feedback you can get and if you can share the complete idea your sounding board might even be able to come up with some subtle improvements to the design that could make the difference between success and failure. For this individual you should also consider their personal inclination and ability to steal your idea and their ability and willingness to keep the secret safe. You probably have some idea of the integrity of the person you are speaking to (and there aren’t really any tips that I can give you here that would be more valuable than your lifetime’s worth of learning how to read people).