The foundation of the Lean Launchpad approach that Steve Blank evangelizes is that you need to get input from customers (defined in the broadest terms – more like stakeholders) in order to hone a business concept. Yet, I see tremendous aversion – especially by scientists and health professionals – to sharing even the outlines of their ideas, much less minimum viable products. In the medical innovation world, everyone seems to know someone who knows someone who knows someone else whose idea was “stolen.” As a result, early customer discovery interviews go badly because the innovator seems either evasive or ditsy.
Yes, early customer discovery should focus more on understanding customer pains/gains than sharing what you have to offer. But you do need a credible, concise description of why you are meeting with people in the first place. During later phases of customer discovery, you will also need to get specific feedback on your idea as it evolves. The power of iterative minimum viable products is that customers and stakeholders can wrap their imaginations around your idea and give you (often surprising) suggestions for improvement. Stealth mode is vastly over-rated because you’re in an echo chamber. Going beyond your inner circle is what enables a customer-centric product or service.
What puts someone into a position to “steal” your idea? In A General Theory of Entrepreneurship and other publications, scholar Scott Shane talks about the “individual-opportunity nexus.” The entrepreneur must not only see value in an opportunity that others may not yet see, but also be in a position to exploit that opportunity. That means being able to and wanting to mobilize the required skills, connections, resources, etc. etc. – i.e., the whole business model canvas. This is a tall order, and vanishingly rare.
Now, there is a very good reason to get your Intellectual Property ducks in a row – to understand what does/does not constitute public disclosure if you plan to patent, or whatever other IP protection you might seek. It’s important to work with an attorney or university tech transfer office to understand the parameters. You’ll discover that there’s plenty you can say about features and benefits, without getting into the inner workings of your innovation.
I encourage the innovators I work with to start by composing a concise, yet compelling product/service description that they can share with someone they trust, but who has no technical knowledge of their discipline. You can always scale back specifics if there are IP issues, but start with the full picture. Verbalizing the first few slides of Guy Kawasaki’s standard pitch deck is as good a format as any. Then I have them repeat this exercise multiple times during the customer discovery process.
This is hard work, and I have a feeling that much of the aversion to sharing is less about someone stealing an idea, and more about the challenge of connecting with customers and communicating the concept effectively. Get out of the building!