I guess the short answer is that you can protect your ideas online only in the same way as you can offline: trademarks, patenting, maybe there are other ways.
In general, there are two schools of thought what comes to ‘protecting ideas'
- Don’t tell anything to anyone.
- Share as much as possible all the time.
It seems especially first time entrepreneurs are sometimes worried about someone 'stealing' their idea. That someone will implement their idea then and get rich quick. IMHO, that is unlikely for many reasons. For example:
- If your idea is really that great and a sure shot to success, you should drop all you’re doing and do it yourself. Take a loan, hire someone, get rich, pay back your loan. I hope you see I’m being ironic here. Rarely anything is a sure shot to success.
- Many people have their own ideas. And to think they’ll immediately drop everything, just to work on yours, without you, sounds unlikely to me.
- Ideas themselves are usually not worth much. Great ideas have potential, but even those are all dependent on execution. Without execution, an idea is nothing.
- Especially in startups, oftentimes, it’s not the original idea that ends up being successful, but it changes during execution, when co-founders challenge each other and their thinking and adapt the idea as they go along. Someone running of with your idea would be missing out on you as a co-founder.
The second way of thinking about it seems to be shared by more seasoned entrepreneurs, or people who have tried once before. They usually know that ‘just because you built it doesn’t mean people know it exists’. Or put another way: having a product alone is not enough, marketing is the key. So, why not start with that first? Btw, while building Founder2be surely wasn’t easy, making sure the whole world knows about it is even more challenging :)
IMHO, there are many reasons why talking about your idea as much as possible is a good idea:
- Assume you have fully implemented your idea. Launch day comes. Then you want the whole world to know about it, right? So, start telling the whole world about it already earlier. You could set-up a great-looking site quickly with e.g. Strikingly or LaunchRock. Start collecting people’s email addresses. That way you have an audience you can email when you will launch.
- Also, someone might say ‘hey, this sounds a lot like service XYZ dot com’ which you never heard about. So now you can go and check it out. Learn from it.
- Or someone will say ‘hey, my friend who is a designer/developer/marketing genius’ always talks about the same thing. You should really connect with him.’ and you will find a co-founder or ally that way, which brings you a whole step closer to making it come real.
- People will provide you with invaluable feedback. They might be your future customers. They will challenge you and will come up with all sorts of ideas why ‘this can’t work’. Don’t take it personal. IMHO, whenever someone says something like ‘this will never work’, what it really means is ‘I don’t know how to make it work’. So, listen closely to all the feedback you get, and think about it. Probably some of them might have a point, and it might make sense to adapt your idea a little bit here and there. So, you could save yourself a lot of time and money to perfect your idea and execution plan before even starting implementing it. The worst thing would be to spend time & money tinkering away at something and come out with the ‘perfect product’ after 6 months or even longer and then realise while it’s perfect in your mind, people don’t actually want it. Do the customer acquisition first. There is something called Lean Startup Methodology. If you haven’t heard about it yet, I’d recommend you to look it up.
As far as I know, there aren’t any additional mechanisms on how to protect an idea online as opposed to the real world. One way could be to describe the area your idea is in, the need it solves, but not reveal the secret sauce so-to-say.
These are just some general thoughts. Whichever way you decide to go, it needs to be your own decision. That’s something nobody can take away from us, or rather do for us, as entrepreneurs: making own decisions.
Good luck and happy co-founding!