For those of you who love basketball, I believe May and June are the two months where your collegues or love ones witness the most emotional ups-and-downs in you. I have been a San Antonio Spurs fan for 17 years, following Timmy all the way from Wake Forest. My former collegues in Qualcomm used to joke that it took just one look at me in the morning to tell whether the Spurs had lost a game the previous night.
Like most professional sports in North America, NBA is also highly commercialized. The background music, the commentators, the carefully engineered broadcasting rhythm — all contributed to the soap operaness of this most popular American pro sport in the world. One of the gimmicks that TV broadcasters like ESPN or TNT employ routinely is to have an overhanging camera taking the coach scrabbling on the play board shouting to players during a time-out.
This gets especially dramatic when the game is but a one-shot or two-shot differences in the 48th minute. The offensive team will then try to inbound the ball, all players moving, setting picks for each others "supposedly" based on the plan the coach just drew 10 seconds ago. Then you generally have 3 results. First and surprisingly common, the team fails to get the ball inbound in the 5-second time limit and is either forced to call a time-out or simply lose the right to the opposing team. In the case where the ball successfully inbounds, the team either makes the play or doesn't. Then the horn sounds and it's all over.
Much fuss is made by the replay of the sports channel or "extremely smart" journalists post-mortemly about why the play worked or not. But honestly speaking, as Coach Pop said many years ago during a post-game press conference: "Sometimes the ball went it. Sometimes it didn't."
And it's just as simple as that. As a coach you could have a great play drawn out. The play could be one that has been kept secret and been rehearsed more than 1,000 times in the gym. The play could be designed specifically for a particular opponent. Multiple scenarios could have been figured out, both before the game and on the spot, how the opponent players are going to react and what to do if they do XXX or YYY. But once the ball is in the field, very often players find themselves out of position and they're on their own.
In other words, there are simply too many variables that stand between your play design and the 2 or 3 point to be registered on the scoreboard. Especially in the playoff games, where pressure is humongous, it's widely agreed that experiences reign over raw talents.
Now, if we blow up this NBA drama of 10 second to 5 years of a startup, the lesson we can draw from this is pretty clear — your idea is far from the determinant of the ultimate success. Before you worry about someone stealing your idea, you should worry about a hundred other things that could be in your way.
To better explain this, let me commit the cardinal sin of a modern investor — using the what-if narratives. And to make it more memorable, imagine that you're Jan Koum at the end of 2009. You just founded Whatsapp with some ex-Yahoo! collegues and you have a clear vision — you want to build a messenging app that could replace the clumsy and expensive SMSs on the mobile phone, that is robust and efficient and that is to authenticate and use. You have a good mix of veterans and young coders. You draw on all the experiences you have had — and you've had a lot! — and successfully avoid the common startup pitfalls. You decline the offers from multiple VCs, running the company in a super efficient cost structure. You set up a wall of blinking LCD screens letting all engineers know the latest service down time and network issues. You successfully grow your user base to 400M+ and your engineers brag about how a mere 60-people company can handle such a heavy traffic, how it's more than the population of country A, B, C, D .. Z all together.
Now at the beginning of 2014, at the urge of your largest investor VC, you reluctantly agree to meet Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg at a Peet's Coffee. Afterward you discuss with your co-founder partners and review your cash position. You decide to say NO to them one last time and aim for a sales point when the user count reaches 500M — a benchmark that you later admit to be randomly decided. On the eve of Februray 19th, while on your way to the office, you received 20 Whatsapp messages at the same time — "Facebook announced the acquisition of LINE for $24B !!", a simple message that comes in 6 different languages. You're then forced to switch to No-Bother mode since the within 10 minutes you have more than 100 Whatsapp messages flooding in — thank God you have built a robust network for Whatsapp that can handle this amount of individual traffic!
Notice that in this parallel universe, I only change one decision, the decision to say NO one more time. But everything changes. You still have a wonderful and popular app, everything went as you envisioned. But you will never see that $19B deal that happened in OUR universe on February 19th. You will have something else, but definitey not $19B.
This is hardly rocket science. It's a simple fact that most of the human beings choose to ignore — life is random, either that of a living being or a startup. Looking back you could come up with a lot of what-ifs, but they won't help you look forward. Now, if you can recognize that the uncertainty lying ahead of your startup is giagantic, it should be easy for you to swallow the idea that your idea might not matter.
Now I'm not saying that you don't need good ideas to succeed. Quite the contrary, without good ideas no startups could survive. But it's simply an important step to recognize the fact that keeping your good idea a secret won't increase its chance to be successful. If anything, it makes it more volunerable because it suffers from the bias of one — you.
Before you start hurling names like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs at me, it's indisputable that other than these two freaks — respectable ones, that is — 99.999% of successful entrepreneurs benefit from the coaching and suggestions of the many stakeholders they met along the way: investors, directors, consultants, industry experts and ultimately the customers. Unless your startup idea is to create a bomb that wipes out all human beings on earth at once, i.e. you don't need customers, you will almost always benefit from sharing your ideas with the VCs and other entrepreneurs.
Now I held the controversial title of this article somewhere up there hanging. Let me finish the sentence here:
A good idea is just that, an idea. It's worthless if it remains just an idea. To convert it into something that could make an impact on our lives, you cannot keep it secret. In fact, if you show that you're a wonderful generator of good ideas by constantly sharing your ideas with VCs, you most certainly will get their support somewhere down the road. Because for us, there's nothing more rewarding than investing in a strings of good ideas.
Now I started this article with the NBA. It's only natural to end it with the most ingeneous idea that Coach Pop and Spurs GM R.C. Buford have ever had — trading the budding George Hill in 2011 to Indiana Pacers for the pick that selected Kawhi Leonard:
Now that's a great idea! But I've watched the game long enough to know it's no time to celebrate. Let's see if any randomness not-named Ray Allen would come into play this year to screw up the whole plan again!