On Student Startups

When I enrolled in UT Austin’s “student startup semenar” one of the guest speaker comments which stood out to me and has stuck most firmly in my mind is that “there are no new ideas, only good execution”. This particular lecturer described how he kept a notebook full of random ideas he had for possible businesses, and talked at length about the importance of validating business models through surveys of potential customers as well as discussions with industry peers. The takeaway he left us with was that consequently rather than attempting to operate in “stealth” mode as seems to be fashionable for so many startups developing a product, he argued that ideas are so cheap and the first mover advantage so great due to simple startup execution costs that attempting to cloak a startup’s model and/or product generated no measurable advantage and had a concrete cost in terms of potential comment from consumers and peers which is lost as a consequence of secrecy.

Of the dozen or so startups I’ve interacted with so far, both in and outside the context of the abovementioned startup seminar, I’ve seen this overvaluing of secrecy over and over again, especially when requesting feedback on an idea. On Freenode’s #Clojure channel we have standing joke: the “ask to ask” protocol. Under the ask to ask protocol, some first timer will join the channel and ask if anyone knows about some tool X whereupon some longtime denizen will invoke the ask to ask protocol and tell the newcomer to just ask his real question.

When I see a request from a nontechnical founder for technical feedback over a coffee date or in a private context after an NDA, all I can think of is the ask to ask protocol and the litany against startup secrecy. A coffee date is a commitment of at least an hour of what would otherwise been paid consulting time, and an NDA is a legally binding commitment. For the privilage of signing a contract and giving advice I get what… coffee? A mention in the credits when you finally “break stealth”? What if I was nursing an equivalent idea? I can’t know that until after I sign your silly NDA, which is kinda a problem because now you’ve robbed me of the ability to capitalize on my own prior art.

An email or a forum comment is free. By asking that an engineer go on a coffee date to hear a pitch let alone sign an NDA and then comment, the petitioner (see nontechnical founder) is entirely guilty of at best asking to ask and limiting themselves to one or two responses when several could have been had were the real question posed rather than an ask to ask instance. Start talking about NDAs and I expect you’ll get what you pay for.