It’s a longstanding cliche in the world of tech start-ups. “I’d love to chat about my company, but we’re in stealth mode.” The concern is that sharing the idea is more dangerous than not sharing it. In my experience I have found the exact opposite to be true. Stealth mode is stupid for at least three reasons: 1) ideas are overrated, 2) execution is infinitely more important, and 3) freely sharing ideas can aid in their execution. This is an essential lesson for tech start-ups, but its implications reach far beyond Silicon Valley.
Ideas are Overrated
To start with, ideas are painfully overvalued, both anecdotally — by aspiring entrepreneurs, and formally — by our legal system. Right now thousands of people are contemplating the same, next big idea. But what separates these faceless masses from the one that will emerge as the next Google? In a word, execution. Ideas are everywhere, but great implementation is rare. New entrepreneurs, who have not yet gone through the most critical stage of a young company — its execution — are prone to undervaluing its importance.
The US patent system, meanwhile, similarly overvalues ideas. It protects the expression of ideas that are both “novel” and “non-obvious,” but realistically, in the digital age, for how long do new ideas remain “non-obvious”? In the Twitter age ideas spread nearly instantly. And because of our abundant access to information, in general, the process of trends converging to form new ideas is in plain view for almost anyone to see. Furthermore, the ideas that underly the most successful tech companies of the past decade — Google, YouTube, and Facebook — were neither novel nor non-obvious when they made their marks.
The Story of Facebook
Facebook, in particular, provides an excellent case study. The idea of social networking first emerged in the late 90’s. Live Journal started in 1999; Friendster in 2002; and Tribe.net in 2003. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t launch Facebook until the spring of 2004. At that point it would be unthinkable to label social networking as a new idea. But it was. In fact, two separate groups claimed that Zuckerberg had stolen the idea from them. Facebook had to settle one of the cases out of court (due to pressures stemming from contract law and public relations, not any valid IP concerns), but the very occurrence of the lawsuit, that someone could even think that the idea of social networking was somehow novel or non-obvious in 2003, underscores our societal misunderstanding of ideas.
Why did Facebook garner 400 million users, then, even though it wasn’t a new idea? Because of its execution. It was part luck, part skill, but regardless, it was the actualization of Facebook, not the idea of a social network (or even the idea of a college-centric social network), which created so much value. The same goes for every success story. Search was old news by the time Google entered onto the scene in 1997. But they implemented it much, much better than the competition. Hundreds of streaming video sites were sprouting up in 2004. But YouTube executed the idea better than anyone else.
And why were so many people working on these ideas in the first place? Because there were highly visible trends that were converging to create obvious new opportunities: the growth of the internet made search a necessity; increasing broadband penetration made internet video feasible; and in the wake of the success of the blogosphere, social media was emerging as the next major frontier on the web.
“Ideas are Just a Multiplier of Execution”
As the founder of CD Baby, Derek Sivers, put it, “ideas are just a multiplier of execution.” He explains that varying degrees of execution are worth roughly between $1 and $10,000,000, but ideas are only worth between negative 1 and 20. Therefore, a weak idea with flawless execution can be worth $10,000,000, but the best idea in the world with poor execution is worth just $20. These numbers are obviously metaphorical proxies, but the concept is spot-on. And Sivers of all people would know: he took a relatively boring idea (selling independently-produced CD’s on the Internet), and turned it into a $20 million company.
If stealth mode was merely unhelpful it would be one thing, but it is actively harmful to new ventures. The people who appear most threatening in the stealth mode worldview — industry peers, talented coders, angel investors, etc. — are actually the people who could provide the most help. By closing themselves off to these potential resources, stealth mode companies are their own worst enemies.
What about Apple?
One common retort to this critique of stealth mode is, “what about Apple?” This of course refers to the fact that Apple, Inc., the fifth largest company in the US, uses intense secrecy as part of their unquestionably successful product development and marketing efforts. The short answer is: you’re not Apple. They are a thirty-five year-old company with hundreds of retail locations, tens of thousands of employees, and tens of billions of dollars in the bank. Their sophisticated use of secrecy has no bearing whatsoever on a small start-up. [Note: this isn’t to suggest that Apple has a healthy attitude towards intellectual property, because I don’t think they do, but that is for a different blog post.]
Fear of Sharing: Broader Implications
The concept that overprotecting ideas can actively hurt companies is something that applies to all firms, not just start-ups. Media conglomerates, for instance, closely guard their content, because, like rookie entrepreneurs, they think not sharing it is less dangerous than sharing it. But they’re wrong.
This mistake is perhaps best illustrated by the band Ok Go, whose lead singer wrote a scathing op-ed in the NY Times this past weekend, which chronicled his band’s tumultuous experience with a major record label. Ok Go was signed by EMI in 2000. They floundered for years, until in 2005 the band used their own funds to make a low-budget music video — without the aid nor the permission of their label — that went on to become a YouTube sensation. The label, though, viewed the video as illegal, despite the fact that it singlehandedly propelled the band to international stardom, resulted in millions of legally sold records (most of the profits of which went to the label), and even earned the band a Grammy. Recently EMI disabled embedding on this video so that it can no longer be shared across the Internet, even in light of how it being shared in the first place is precisely what proved to be such a boon for the band and the label. Consequently, EMI is preventing the next Ok Go from ever emerging. Consumers lose, bands lose, and EMI loses. Why are they doing it? It’s really unclear.
Whether you’re a lone hacker or a Fortune 500 media company: your ideas don’t really matter. So stop trying to protect them, and start trying to implement them better.