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Advice needed: "friend" stole my idea...what to do?
21 points by pissedoff on Apr 26, 2007 | hide | past | web | favorite | 78 comments

Back in Jan I went to a person well respected in the startup community (PG knows her) in BOS. She was a friend of a friend, I've known her for years..she previously had a high profile startup that crashed in the dotcom era. I wanted to bounce the idea off her and get her feedback. So I sent a presentation (marked confidential) and followed up with an hour long chat, which was helpful. She moved to the west coast the day after we talked and 2 weeks later I find that she taken my 90% of my idea, mixed it up with social network and gotten seed funding from a small west coast VC. I've been developing this idea on a shoestring and on the side for 6 months. I've got a lot invested in this. She's hired a indian development firm and been spamming blogs with her site name to get registrations. I've applied for a patent, but not sure it can be of any help right now. What action should I be taking? (besides wanting to run her over)

Doesn't help much, but one thing you can do is feel good that you have good ideas. The second thing you can do is launch a competitor immediately. If she's using an outsourcing firm and isn't actually doing the development herself you've got a huge advantage. Use it.

I'd be willing to bet that since it was your idea, you have a much better understanding of the problem and how you're solving it than she does. Use that too. See where she falls down in her offering and exploit it.

Just my two cents.

I agree: launch a competitor immediately.

i agree too:do it as fast as you can. wish you all the best.

Once it's launched, contact the same blogs that she has and say look we've already started, you don't need to wait.

Force her to launch earlier than she wants to. The other thing I'd say is some 37Signals advice. Hold back some completed functionality at the time of launch. Release it in a week or twos time. Thus demonstrating that not only did you launch but you are constantly going to be ahead of her.

Finally, please use the anger judiciously. Instead of running her over, crush her spirit.

Ideas ARE worthless.

"Here's another way to look at it. If merely telling someone your idea means that it can be ripped off, then you hardly have a defensible product. If secrecy is your main weapon, then it will be hard to find investors. By the way, what happens when you ship? Are you going to ask every customer to sign a nondisclosure too?" And what about your first employees?

(quote from an Old Guy Kawasaki Column) http://www.forbes.com/columnists/2005/06/16/entrepreneur-venture-capital-kawasaki-cx_gk_0616artofthestart.html

And if you think the fact that her seed-funded team of 5 developers gives her an indomitable advantage, think again.

It's not what you do, it's HOW YOU DO IT.

So what action should you be taking? I'd say to look real hard at what she's doing. If she nailed it and has built something great, find another idea. They're everywhere. If she hasn't nailed it and you can make a better product, make it.

And, if you're feeling vindictive (I wouldn't bother with this), you could plant a few seeds within your shared network-- tell your mutual friends/contacts what she did.

Most webapps are trivial to implement, and the real value is in the idea. Given the idea, a competent programmer-designer could probably whip out most of the popular webapps out there easily.


ideas are cheap, implementation is hard.

I am very competent web app developer, with several major applications under my belt. While on the surface you might think you will be able to whip out a clone of one of the popular web apps easily (let alone a brand new idea) but you will find the devil is in the details. What makes or breaks those sites are the thousands of minute implementation level decisions which build up to make a quality application.

I don't dispute that, but the point is that at that point it's just a matter of doing it. You start writing code, encounter problems, find solutions. If implementation is really so hard and ideas are so cheap, you should be trying to implement dozens of ideas and giving up because of the technical challenges for each site you're actually able to launch. For me it's the converse, I have a harder time finding a good idea worth doing than doing the implementation and refinement. Yes, refining the idea and doing it right are non-trivial, but that's got more to do with how competent you are in general. I personally don't have a glut of good ideas and a shortage of implementation skill. Yes, I can come up with ideas if we just want to measure by volume -- but these have to survive through the "Is this a good idea?" filter before I count it as an actual idea. Generating crap is easy.

Bullshit. Web "development" is a high school skill. Which is why web frameworks are trivial to implement, learn and use. Which is why building web sites takes months, not years. Tenths of thousands of dollars, not millions.

Complex software takes good knowledge of complex algorithms and man-years of development. Well.. since everybody wants to get rich quickly these days, innovation scaled down to web "applications", where the only valuable thing is percisely the idea. And your only advantage is the time to market.

It took years for other big firms to develop search engines as good as google's is. THAT is what I call "implementation is hard". Implementing something as trivial as myspace is less complex than compiler class project in college. (I've done both).

If web development is so easy, why is the poster posting here instead of simply "whipping up" a competing application?

Why do hundreds of kids bother applying to YCombinator?

Can't they just whip up a webapp in a few months?

Yes - web dev is easier than desktop app or complex client/server applications, but Hitting the High Notes (as Joel says) will never be "easy". Simple, yes. Easy, no.

Ok, let it be simple. My point is that Kawasaki is 100% right. If your idea can be so easily stolen, it probalby wasn't a great idea to begin with. Maybe it's that social networking aspect she is adding is actually what will make it successfull.

Hate to sound negative though, having that happen to you surely hurts...

And yes, kids apply to YCombinator exactly because they can whip up a web app in a few months. YCombinator puts them in front of VCs after that.

Right, but how good is their app after 3 months? Not very.

There are always exceptions to every rule though, re: the original point.

i.e. MySpace. Talk about crappy technology (or so it would seem; they've managed to scale well), and a has-run idea.

Maybe, but they have to come up with the idea first. And then they have to avoid being discouraged from going through with the implementation. And then they need money to put the implementation somewhere on the net. And then they need to market it or hire a PR company to do that. And they need to maintain and support it. And then...you get the point. There's more than just the implementation to web apps.

Yes, and the idea is the only hard part of all that. Especially if you're already a webapp-guy, not a random joe-schmoe who doesn't know source code from a security code.

These are webapps, not operating systems, not mainframes, not databases. The barrier to entry, cost of operation, and development time are all pretty low. You can hire the PR people when you actually need them (probably sometime after you actually have cash flow). There's plenty of ways to market a webapp for free, and I sure would not hire a marketing firm to promote my new site.

Still, there are good ideas that can be easily stolen. Apple's transparent case for Macs was a brilliant idea - in fact one of the factors that brought them back to the market. That was too good and too easy to steal. It happens.

Thinking "it's implementation, stupid" is too narrow-minded and Web2.0-ish.

She crashed once - why not help her crash again: Launch.

Trust in karma. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay," saith the Lord. :)

He's better off making his own karma. Launch! For Sparta!

That article falls a bit short, though. While probably there is no metaphysic power enforcing a karma balance, I like to think of the karma concept as simply another formulation of common wisdom. Some murderers get away with murder, but most probably don't, or if they do, they suffer from it etc. Likewise stealing ideas as a habit might eventually ruin your reputation and your career (although you might be filthy rich by the time).

Look what happens when you quote anything from the Bible?

they have downvoted you.

you now have -1 points. As I learned myself.

Everything that's said about ideas being worthless is true most of the time, but not always unfortunately. So... next time don't reveal everything to a potential partner/VC. Keep some important bit of your idea secret. Something that isn't obvious, isn't on the surface, yet important for the implementation.

'... You may advance and be absolutely irresistible, if you make for the enemy's weak points; you may retire and be safe from pursuit if your movements are more rapid than those of the enemy ...' ~ http://classics.mit.edu/Tzu/artwar.html

Do you have a working prototype? If not got one out there ASAP, otherwise your startup might die before it starts.

http://www.paulgraham.com/startupmistakes.html 8. Slowness in Launching

Did she take your presentation too?

Yes, it's still sitting in her gmail account. :-(

Well then there's no reason Google can't take it.

I'm curious now....How do I get Google to delete my presentation from her email?

why dont you tell us what the idea is?

what is her website url?

I read all the comments and can't believe no one gave you some concrete advice. Sure, ideas are worthless until they are implemented but that does not JUSTIFY someone STEALING your idea and breaching the confidentiality! Just because you haven't implemented your idea fully, does NOT mean someone's JUSTIFIED to STEAL it!

Here's what you should do: expose her! That's right, start a blog, start the website for your idea and tell everyone how this person got the idea from you and breached the confidentiality. Post email exchange, provide a timeline of your conversaton with her, provide what you provided her with. Get it out in the sunlight. Investors and VCs will shun away from her since who wants to invest into a person that's a THIEF and invest into a company that might get sued by somoene (you)?! Startups have a low probability of success and these legal issues could just sink it. It's easier to invest into a "clean" startup.

Get the word out about her! Learn about SEO and work on getting your page to show up on the first page results when someone searches for her name. Talk to journalists (TC, GigaOM, etc) and get them to write about what happened to you. Expose her and get some publicity about your site in the process! Destroy her reputation! NEVER forget: in business, reputation is everything! Worst thing you can do is keep quiet about it.

Why waste the energy on revenge? Even if you succeed at destroying her startup, you'll be left with nothing. She won't have anything either, but that's pretty cold comfort.

Implement the idea yourself and do it better than she does.

not a good idea

I think you should launch your idea ASAP to compete with hers. Since she's using an off-shore dev team you might be more nimble in execution than she is. It's harder to explain to a bunch of guys over the phone exactly what you need done. I wouldn't advice partnering with her. You wouldn't want such a close business relationship with someone you can't trust.

Don't feel bad. Just think of the original guy who came up with the idea for facebook. Zuckerberg was PAID to work on his friend's version of facebook, and he simply went off and created his own.

I vaguely remember reading about it, that guy got royally screwed. I dont want my case to end up like that.

Launch immediately. It's your idea so you have a better understanding and the ability to innovate much faster than she ever could.

Who cares if she was 'first' to do it...just make one that is better.

Someone mentioned partnering up with her - don't do it. "Fool me once, shame on you, Fool me twice, shame on me"

What a shame, a friend messing up another friend. This industry is definitely more cutt-throat than I thought.

If its any consolation, Google announced plans to emulate a lot of the functionality planned for our new email client, Litepost, days after we started announcing and exploring our ideas with the public and users:


I'm not saying they ripped us of course (who could possibly prove that?) but I will say that the timing is awfully coincidental, given that the overall ideas behind our program have been in development for almost a year (and we just started publicizing our ideas recently)!

Personally I take it as a compliment, and am grateful/flattered to have such a large competitor emulating plans we've had in development for a while. (The main thing we heard while pursuing this idea was "How can you possibly improve upon Gmail?" Well now Gmail itself recommends recommendations upon its service.)

All this, however, corresponds directly to what PG says and some of you echo below:

http://www.paulgraham.com/startupmistakes.html 8. Slowness in Launching

(I'm new to this whole arena, so it's taken us a while to a) find the right developers and b) get up to speed before launch.)

If anyone's interested in weighing in, I wonder if open sourcing our project might help it or be of general interest/utility... is anyone interested in "an Open Source Alternative to Gmail that You Can Install and Run on Your Own Servers"? If so, I could use some help.

I am actually interested in ultimately duplicating _and open sourcing_ a lot of the functionality of Google generally, in order to decentralize it (the operation and its power, which after all is only algorithms + horsepower) and nullify the negative privacy implications of Google. What do you think? Any takers?

I think the only possible contender to Google is an open source alternative. Let's Open Source Google!

PS From another news.YC article: "In Silicon Valley, Google-as-the-giant talk is deafening. As others have noted, startups used to get the question "What are you going to do when Microsoft does this?" and today, it's "What are you going to do about Google?" Source: http://andrewchen.typepad.com/andrew_chens_blog/2007/04/google_a_tale_o.html

(warning: sorry, off-topic a bit here...)

hey nathan - glad to find you on here. (it's Shanti)

I've been meaning to tell you... is your model a hosted one?

One space that Google (nor Sprout) will ever dominate is a software model where you allow clients to install your app on their own servers or VPSes. (i.e. a JumpBox)

Clients then get the best of both worlds: 1) Your killer UI 2) Privacy/Security/Control of their companies email data on their own server

Sure you've thought of this, just thought I'd give it a plug.

Hey Shanti- glad to find you here as well! :)

Yes this is along the same lines of what I am thinking recently too. It has become impossible to compete with Google 'on their own terms' (so to speak). So why not just tilt the gameboard a little bit, change the turf, even the playing field back out a little bit? :) (Pardon the worn cliches.)

But seriously, on a related note, here's a very recent article partially addressing this topic: Read/Write Web interviewing Google's open source chieftain (Chris DiBona): http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/interview_with_4.php

Nathan - yes, exactly.

I think there's a huge market for something like this.

Not to mention partnering up with other big boys in the space to leverage their networks / customers.

Pissedoff, stop worrying and do your work and get your thing launched. if people are copying your idea, it means its a great one. Second thing is, world is full of copycats and even if she had not steal u r idea, some one would have become your competitor pretty fast. so think her as your competitor and kick start to get her out of business.

Are you pissed because you know that this woman has the contacts and industry experience to execute on the idea better then you?

A presentation and an hour talk surely hasn't given her much of an advantage. Go off and build your idea into a successful company. The day after it hits Techcrunch you'll have 50 competitors anyway.


1. Partner with her if possible.

2. Get a lawyer's opinion. There may be legal actions you can take, but I can't provide any advice on this.

3. Build faster and launch faster than her.

I'd go straight to #3. #1 won't work because he trusts her much less than before. #2 isn't bad, but lawyers = $$$ right? and that $$$ and time could be spent doing #3 no?

And #4: ideas are worthless.

So she's outsourced the development and is spamming blogs to get registrations. Doesn't sound like too formidable a competitor to me. If you can code, you can develop your app and launch in less than than the time she's wasting trying to communicate with Indian developers in the middle of the night. Her industry connections won't matter so much if you launch a better product first.

Ideas are easy. Execution matters.

You can either do the idea better than she does, or you can start working on another idea. Given that she's outsourcing the development, either one should be feasible.

Suing over ideas is just a waste of effort; the only people who come out ahead in the end are the lawyers.

Under US law, it is first to invent, not first to file. Read David Pressman's book on Patent It Yourself.

The fact that you emailed her the presentation, IF any ideas are patentable, is proof enough.

This also proves those wrong who say that "Ideas are worthless".

Leverage the 53,651 meme to your advantage: contact all the Web 2.0 startup sites (Techcrunch, GigaOm, Webware, etc.) and tell them that her service is a rip-off of your idea.

That might give her more attention than she'll probably ever get.

Maybe, but it won't be the kind she'd want.

Also, there's a possibility those site editors simply avoid mentioning her site at all, which would be just as good for the O.P.

If the original poster has his service out when he does this, it could end up being both very bad PR for her and very good PR for him.

In fact, her ripping off his idea could end up being better publicity than he would've gotten anywhere else.

Future investors hate the idea of IP conflict like this.

If the accusation is public knowledge, she'll have a difficult time raising a second round.

What are your options ... you can launch something better? Unless you have a patent, there is no point trying to talk to her .... What is your background and what is this idea? I would like to evaluate it better ...

In order to stealyour idea you first must have owned it. Thing is, ideas cannot be owned, patnents (processes) can. In conclusion, no one stole a thing from you.

Process patents won't help if someone who is in a sane country where such daft ideas aren't countenanced wants to copy the idea.

But pissedoff you stole your idea from Reddit/Myspace

2 options

1. launch now 2. start a blog about the event

nice-side-effect: get the rest of the world tuned into the idea and create a ton of competition in the space.

If your idea was so simple that a friend could steal AND execute as YOU envisioned, your friend isn't he problem--your idea is.

Lots of people say that, but I don't think it's true. Just because an idea is simple doesn't mean it's a bad or unprofitable idea.

MySpace was a really simple idea, most of which had been done before, just not all on the same site. The reason they were successful wasn't because of the strength of the idea, it was because they got their site out there when the only real competition was Friendster, and since their site relies on network effects for much of its usefulness, it has been difficult for others with the same idea to be successful.

She screwed you over, but I doubt there's much you can do about it except try to beat her. Also, people who do things like that should have to pay with their reputation, but if your idea is too obvious, people will just think you're lame when you tell the story.

Good comment. I'm kind of tired of this "ideas are worthless" "meme" myself. They may not have much value compared to well executed products, but the reason there is no market is because they aren't excludable goods:


MySpace succeeded because of great execution. Simple ideas once executed well become great ideas.OP should forget this and continue concentrating on releasing a great product.

MySpace definitely executed well, but no one has a monopoly on good execution. In your original comment, you said that if someone else could execute as well as he could, then there's something wrong with the idea. That's not true. There's a good chance that the poster is already screwed, because the person who stole his idea is probably competent. Just because the idea has been marinating in his head longer doesn't mean that he will be more successful. The suggestion that the advantage gained from being the person to come up with the idea in the first place is substantial enough to offset the head start that the person who stole the idea has isn't firmly based in reality.

With that said, I still think he should try to compete with her if he thinks the idea is worthwhile, but he should definitely reevaluate whether or not it's worth it to leave his job/school to do it full time. At this point, anything less than full time isn't going to accomplish anything.

Simple: has that woman built the product as well as the OP planned; has she achieved/executed the marketing plans as well as he is planning to? I want to bet the answer to both questions is "no" in which case at this point it is a probably a waste of his time to even think of her.

Back in '01 when my uncle was doing his startup, couple months before his site's launch we ran across a site that was VERY similar to what he was building. And here was a site that looked like it had been born out of my uncle's business plan. Few months later that site would fold--and we're still in business today.

Better question is HOW well is she doing what you planned to do.

depends on what he told the friend. Having a long drawn out chat over several weeks could be possible. But i guess its the idea itself which is to be questioned

sorry...read the story below

I'am interrested in this story because I might find my self in the same situation. Here is the strategy I applied so far.

1. Keep key aspects secret. One always has to release some info, at least to get some feedback on the pertinence of the general idea or when we sell it. But keep some trump cards hidden in your pocket. This is often related to the 'how' aspect of the idea where you could make a difference with a "stealer".

2. Proceed in a way allowing you to prove that you shared the idea with X or Y. This is one of the purpose of an NDA (non disclosure agreement). If you can proove that, then you have a leverage on the stealer's investors because you may publish it and it will call back into question their honnesty and fairness. If they ripped you, they could rip clients. This is why public opinion frowns uppon stealing ideas even if it's not illegal.

3. If option 2 is not possible, then another leverage you have is that you can publish the idea and put the investors at risk to face many competitors and eventually freeware versions of it in a very short time. This is even more effective if the product is not out yet.

Be aware that you represent a direct threat to investment when comming up with such kind claim and want to use these leverages. So prepare your negation before using those leverages. This means that directly after presenting the problem to the investors, present the different options you have at hand. First present the options that would require some sort of cooperation from their side, second the only options left to you if they refuse (the one I presented above) and third that you are open to any other options that they may want to suggest and that would respect everybody's interrests.

Be aware that there are things that can't be undone and also that it is better to have half of something than all of nothing. You can remind this rule while argumenting your cause, but keep in mind that it applies to you too. So be ready to accept an arrangement if possible. Keep a very open mind about the options you will consider. For instance you could ask them to invest in another idea you might have, but be very carefull to not blackmail them into that. Just say that this would be an acceptable outcome for you if they agree to it and that you would then drop the case because you don't bite the hand that feeds you. Of course this suppose you have a valid alternate idea to show them when you say that. But be carefull with this because VC can easily get you out of your founded business if they want to. What you have to sell to VC is your capacity to create value by your inspiration or vision. This is what they are looking for.

There is alot more to say, but PG is much better than me at it.

first off, just wanted to say that this sucks, and you have a right to feel pretty pissed right now.

my first suggestion would be to contact this person directly and discuss what has transpired.

Other issues aside, there might be an opportunity to partner, especially if she has funding and you provide the development expertise.

how about partnering with your friend, seeing as you are the originator of the idea. Does he need you to execute upon this idea?

Has he launched yet?

Hm, I have some good advice for you... but I'm not sure about some details, why don't you e-mail me your presentation so I can work those out? :-D

What was the idea?

Yeah, you might as well tell us all now, right?

It was a YouTube for documents. :-)

You mean Scribd?


The thing you should seek now are better friends, and better ideas. ;-)

Romans 12:19

not much of a "friend"

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