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How To Vet Clever Ideas Without Giving Them Away? 539

Posted by timothy
from the don't-clever-ideas-want-to-be-free? dept.
Rival writes "As an inquisitive and creative geek, I am constantly coming up with 'clever' ideas. Most often I discover fundamental or practical flaws lurking in the details, which I'm fine with. As Edison said, 'I haven't failed; I've found 10,000 ways that don't work.' Other times, I discover that someone else has beaten me to the idea. I'm fine with that, too. At least I know that I've come up with a great idea, even if I'm not the first. There are times, however, when I can find no flaws with an idea and nobody else seems to have thought of it. I'm not conceited enough to think my idea is genius; I just assume that I'm not knowledgeable enough to see what I'm missing. In these times, I often want to ask a subject matter expert for their thoughts. On the admittedly long chance that an idea is genius, however, what is the best way to ask for another's insights while mitigating the risk of them stealing or sharing the idea? Asking a stranger to sign a contract before discussing an idea seems like a good way to get a door closed on my face. What are your experiences and suggestions?"
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How To Vet Clever Ideas Without Giving Them Away?

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  • NDA (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheSpoom (715771) * <> on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:04PM (#28800917) Homepage Journal

    You're looking for a non-disclosure agreement []. No method other than a contract has force of law behind it. That is, if you're using an untrusted stranger in the first place. There's something to be said for asking friends, even if they may not be giving you a completely unbiased opinion.

    In other news, you do come across as kinda arrogant here ("as an inquitive and creative geek..."). Everyone has ideas. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

  • Act On It (Score:4, Insightful)

    by hondo77 (324058) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:04PM (#28800919) Homepage
    Got an idea for a better mousetrap? Build it and see if it really is better. Talk is cheap and action speaks louder than words.
  • by lordsid (629982) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:09PM (#28800985)

    Talk to people you trust. It's just that simple. Use your friends and family as a "soundboard" for your idea. They will see the holes you did not.

    I wouldn't expect anyone to ever sign an NDA without knowing what they are getting into. I don't recall the article, but it basically said any company who signs an NDA like that is opening themselves to liability. That's why most will not even discuss ideas so that you cannot later take them to court for stealing your idea. If you want to discuss an idea and they already have 2 years of research into the exact same thing they are opening themselves to the liability of a lawsuit from you. The same apparently goes for music companies.

    Once you are sure you have a good idea run with it and don't stop until its too late. Anything else and you are setting yourself up for failure.

  • It's easy! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wahmuk (163299) <> on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:10PM (#28801003)
    Most of your geekiest friends are intelligent people who can tear your idea apart and find the flaws, true enough. Just identify the geeks whose ideas you'll trust, but are far too unmotivated to take your idea and run with it. With a little research (you've been playing videogames with these guys at LAN parties for years, so you know who their friends are), you can make sure that you only show your idea to the most brilliant intellectually, but hopelessly inept socially. They'll never get it off the ground! And all for the price of a cup of coffee or a pizza! Win/win!
  • by Shakrai (717556) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:13PM (#28801039) Journal

    What's wrong with being bought out? If your idea is good and your business plan is decent then odds are that you can set it up in such a way that you can retire with the proceeds from being bought out.

    Friends of mine got into the ISP business back in the day before it was even on the radar of $Monolith_Company. $Monolith_Company eventually bought them out. They've since spent their days traveling the world and working because they want to, not because they need to. What's wrong with this outcome?

  • by basementman (1475159) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:15PM (#28801065) Homepage

    Ideas are worth absolutely zilch. Any of the 6 billion people on earth can come up with your idea, and probably have. What is valuable is the execution of ideas.

    So my advice is to pick one idea that you like and execute on it. You'll probably find out your idea wasn't that good after all and fail. Do this another 10 times or so and you'll finally get one idea that works. Stick with that one. Good luck.

  • by gad_zuki! (70830) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:16PM (#28801075)

    Exactly. One of the worst traps you can fall into in professional life is to believe ideas have worth. Sorry, but they are almost worthless. Even a good implementation is borderline worthless without the proper business processes including marketing and advertising.

    I've never heard of a uber-secretive guy making it big in the business world. The "I have a genius idea, but dont trust anyone" is the sign of an amateur and/or someone too lazy to learn to code. There's no shortage of people out there who just know their iphone idea will make them a millionare. Its a delusional and self-serving belief.

    The guy who does make it is the one who learns how to implement it or at least is trusting enough to hire a real pro without a draconian NDA to do it. This person also understands the business processes needed to promote and support the product.

  • Friends? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Monkeedude1212 (1560403) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:17PM (#28801079) Journal

    You know those people you know you can trust...

    When you say "Don't tell anyone about my great idea..." and they DON'T?

    Yeah those are great people to talk to.

  • by SIR_Taco (467460) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:21PM (#28801123) Homepage

    For instance:

    I have this awesome idea that does this thing with this do-hickey which lets everyone do stuff in original and clever ways. Like when you're doing that thing and it wont do this thing, you know? That's where this thing really shines!

  • Don't worry (Score:5, Insightful)

    by flaming error (1041742) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:22PM (#28801135) Journal

    "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." -- Howard Aiken

    Irony Can Be So Ironic (Massachusetts Edition)

  • Re:It's easy! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Darkness404 (1287218) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:30PM (#28801199)
    The downside is, us geeks are more impressed with specs than actual usefulness. Most of us wouldn't hesitate to buy a huge beige box for $500 with 6 gigs of DDR3 RAM and a Core i7 CPU with a great graphics card. On the other hand, if you were trying to sell that to an ordinary person they would complain about the aesthetics.
  • by Rix (54095) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:39PM (#28801301)

    If you want people to sign contracts, pay them.

    If their advice isn't worth paying for, it's not really worth having anyway.

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @05:42PM (#28801337)
    Lots of "uber-secretive" people and companies have made it in the business world. Microsoft, Apple, Edison... not even the tip of the iceberg.

    As for ideas being nearly worthless, you are just plain wrong. Ask the guy who invented the burp-tank for radiators in automobiles. He knew it was a good idea. He applied for a patent. And he took it to EVERY major automobile supplier in the world, trying to sell it. Every one of them turned him down.

    And, the very next model year, every one of those manufacturers were putting burp tanks on their radiators.

    And by the year after that, the inventor had sued 7 companies, won 7 times (for an average of $1,000,000 in each case), and had 12 more suits pending...

    All over one idea. Oh, ideas can be very powerful indeed. His problem was in being in a hurry, going to all those companies, and thereby giving his idea away. Sure, he won many millions in lawsuits, but lots of that went to his attorney(s). He could have made even more in the long run simply by being patient and -- eventually -- making sales.
  • by mdwh2 (535323) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @06:10PM (#28801603) Journal

    Most inventions are not simply "ideas". I do not know what a burp-tank is (and Googling doesn't seem to help) - was it a case of someone saying one day, "I know, let's put a burp-tank into cars"?

    Consider, it's a bit like me saying "I know, I'll invent a time-machine". And then not having a clue how to do it. Ideas are cheap, it's actualling managing to do it - to solve the problems in the way and so on - that counts.

    Now yes, to be pedantic the process of solving problems involves lots of little "ideas" along the way, but I'm not sure that this is what is being discussed here - a single "idea" on its own is still pretty much worthless.

    Having said that, yes I do concede that ideas can be worth something, but that's only a result of our patent system. Just because we have a broken patent system that awards people millions just for thinking something first, and then allows them to prevent others from doing so, doesn't mean that those ideas are inherently worth something. Indeed, the fact that they have to be propped up by an artificial legal system of patents suggests that ideas are alone aren't worth much at all.

  • by B'Trey (111263) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @06:11PM (#28801611)

    What brilliant ideas did Microsoft or Apple have? Microsoft was more lucky than anything else, and used mostly someone else's code to succeed. Apple didn't do anything there weren't dozens of other people trying to do. They just did it better. It was execution and implementation, not brilliant ideas. Edison might have had a few brilliant ideas but most of what he's known for weren't his ideas. He didn't invent the light bulb. In fact, he bought the patents from others who'd been there before him but weren't able to make it practical. See here. [] He created the first commercially practical lightbulb, and he did it based upon thousands of hours of trial and effort. Many of his other inventions have similar histories. It isn't some brilliant idea that leads to success. It's implementation.

    As for the inventor of the burp-tank, several minutes of Googling turned up absolutely nothing. Unless you can provide some evidence, I'll assume that it's apocryphal.

  • by mdwh2 (535323) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @06:18PM (#28801675) Journal

    Facebook is a good example - if someone travelled back in time and gave me the idea of Facebook 10 years ago, would I now be a billionaire? Unlikely. Firstly I've got to write the damn thing - even if it's within my skills, I may simply not be bothered to, and for many people, it would be beyond them. But on top of that, there's all sorts of factors, such as the details of the implementation, as well as marketing, as you say.

    The most obvious point is that the idea of social networking wasn't new when Facebook appeared - it'd been around for years. There've been loads of less successful sites before Facebook, so the idea alone is pretty much worthless.

    On a related note, this is what irks me about the "million dollar website" story - the story is spread as if the idea alone is what made him a million, and it's a tale that people love to tell, as it props up the myth that an ordinary person can make a million, just so long as he has the right idea one day. But you never hear the real story of how that website became a success - how it was advertised, how it was picked up by the media who gave him free advertising, whether it was skillful marketing or just luck. We've all had these "get rich quick" ideas - whether they succeed or fail is often little to do with the idea itself. There are many other factors.

  • Re:NDA (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mdwh2 (535323) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @06:25PM (#28801747) Journal

    I agree that an NDA is the right tool here.

    But the problem is, who would be willing to sign one, unless there's something in it for them? They're the ones offering their advice, yet they get nothing in return - they can't use the idea, after all. Worse, even if they honestly had the idea, or a similar one, if they ever use it, they're now at risk of being sued.

    I've (anecdotally) heard this with companies, when people send in demos/etc - the story goes that a lot of the time, they chuck them in bin. The last thing they want is being sued, because some random guy claims that their new product is similar to some idea that he sent in...

    The OP said "Asking a stranger to sign a contract before discussing an idea seems like a good way to get a door closed on my face." and I think basically he's right. People are only going to sign an NDA if they're actually going to be working with you to deliver a product.

  • by Fulcrum of Evil (560260) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @06:27PM (#28801771)
    In point of fact, at least 2 of those 3 people were first among many: newton invented calculus, but so did liebniz. Einstein came up with special relativity, but it was hardly isolated. Basically, my point is that the myth of the lone inventor is exactly a myth. Your ideas are frequently the 'next step' after what's already happened. Execute and try to be 6 months to a year ahead of things and you'll do well.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 23, 2009 @06:35PM (#28801859)

    It's posts like this that make me read slashdot less and less...

    Can we get some new memes? Please?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 23, 2009 @07:05PM (#28802103)
    Do you keep friends who you do this to?
  • by sbeckstead (555647) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @07:14PM (#28802167) Homepage Journal
    Apple actually bought Xerox's work (dirt cheap) cause they had this Idea see.
  • by gnupun (752725) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @07:56PM (#28802493)

    It's a general rule. Ideas are commonplace.

    Rubbish, trite ideas are common. If valuable ideas were commonplace, we would all be supermen, insanely wealthy and be able to travel anywhere in the universe. In fact, the entire human civilization has progressed so far only because of the rare geniuses who discovered/invented new forms of math, science and technology.

    It's good execution that makes for success.

    Good execution is only one component of success. You still need good ideas, marketing, managing etc.

  • by ghostdoc (1235612) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @08:02PM (#28802547)

    Since the automobile companies loved his product, and are entirely happy with other people making their parts for them, then I'll bet huge stacks of money that he couldn't meet their supplier management requirements.

    Auto companies have really really strict inventory management rules for suppliers. They'll order an exact number of parts for delivery within an exact timeframe. If you can't meet that, they can't do business with you, no matter how good your idea is. Startup and small manufacturers have huge problems with these rules, as they do require a complex and mature distribution system.

    And $1mill is small change to an auto company compared to the costs of messing with the supply chain...they bought him off cheap

    Again, it comes down to implementation > idea. Ideas are worth nothing without the business model and processes.

  • by xouumalperxe (815707) on Friday July 24, 2009 @04:25AM (#28804881)

    Two problems with that: The smaller point is that you just told him a creative way to slaughter a whole family (could be yours next). The bigger one is that we started this with saying that you were unsure whether your idea was good and you just asked an expert on the matter what he thought.

  • by hey! (33014) on Friday July 24, 2009 @11:21AM (#28808417) Homepage Journal

    If you are the kind of person who has lots of good ideas, there's plenty more where they came from. I'd only worry about this if you'd sunk investment into making the idea real, e.g. if you have a company that's about to release a product.

    I've given away ideas, really *good* ideas, and never lost a wink of sleep over it.

    Once I was chatting with a software entrepreneur I knew about a software product he wanted to develop for the military. He'd had some success demonstrating the product deployed on a small scale, but the system concept wasn't practically scalable to large deployments. After hashing over the various approaches he'd tried, I drove home and as I did I had an epiphany. I realized how to make the product dramatically simpler to use on a large scale. I sent him an e-mail, and he went out and hired a math PhD and a couple of developers to make my idea work.

    I never received a cent; I never asked for one. He did all the hard stuff. He made the business contacts, he wrote the proposals, hired the staff, everything. He put up his own money too. I just had a nice half hour chat and spent about ten minutes writing an email.

    If I thought I only had a limited number of ideas like that in me, I'd worry about getting paid for a valuable idea like that. But I don't. The more ideas you discuss, the more you create. If you hole yourself up in your garage, you'll end up spending your time on useless ideas. This is heresy, but ideas really aren't worth much on their own. I've been in the tech business, and I've seen this is true. People who have lots of "clever ideas" have more than they can use. They get in the way. When they get a pot of money for idea A, you have to be careful they don't spend it on B. What you really need is money, time, discipline, contacts, technical skill -- a host of other things that are nearly impossibly hard to put together. Once you're able to do that, *ideas* looking for implementors aren't hard to find.

    When you consider this, you'll see the idea that sensible people might want to steal ideas is naive. If the idea is easy to steal, it's not worth much in itself. If it's worth much in itself, it probably takes a lot of other stuff before you'll see any money out of it.

    This gets to the nature of creativity. Ideas are like darts thrown into the wall. You can say, "Gee that's an interesting place for a dart to land," but that's not the same as being able to throw a dart into a bullseye not of your choosing. Really good ideas come from superior insights into the problem domain. When you pitch an idea to somebody, it should be clear that this idea comes from an unique understanding of the problem. That naturally makes you the best person imaginable to lead the conversion of the idea into reality.

    Of course, if you think somebody is talking to you under false pretenses, you should cut off right there, but it is a rare, rare idea about which somebody could reasonably say, "Gee, I could make a lot of money at this by doing it myself, and I'd be better off doing that than working with the guy who had it." If you do have one of those one in a million lifetime ideas, then you ought to be talking to a patent attorney. But I can almost guarantee that none of your ideas are as valuable without you as they are with you. Very few ideas can be turned into money without solving many related problems which you have unique insight into. In that unlikely event, you should just *do it*, you should just create this amazing, money making, easy to implement thing. And of course get an attorney.

    Mainly, I think you should concentrate on making your ideas a reality. If you do that, you'll probably make a living. Make enough money for other people, and you'll be in a position to make more money for yourself. If you want to get rich off your ideas, then be prepared to do a lot of the boring work it takes to make that happen. If you don't want to do that work, then prepared for other people to make money "off your ideas".

  • Open Source... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by sitarlo (792966) on Friday July 24, 2009 @12:32PM (#28809469)
    One great way to vet an idea is to implement it as an open source project or as a free service. If the idea is truly revolutionary you'll end up making money, friends, and tons of professional opportunities. Here's a short list of "ideas" developed this way: Linux, MySpace, JBoss, Craigslist, Hibernate, MySQL, Apache... I would rather be counted among these organizations than lumped into the purely for profit realm of Microsoft, Oracle, Apple, etc.

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