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I've been in the situation many times where a client has a "unique" idea for a website and they fear that if they tell myself or any other developer about this that we "evil developers" will go and steal that idea and implement it elsewhere.

As a developer, I can sort of understand this phobia, but is there a way that I can convince the client to actually confide in others and allow work to be done without trickling information in?

  • 3
    Perhaps if you offered to sign a non-disclosure agreement? – Angela Feb 16 '14 at 12:50
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    Wait, you WON'T steal the idea of the next Facebook? /end sarcasm :-P – Canadian Luke Feb 17 '14 at 3:35
  • As well as non-disclosure, depending on where you and your client live, a non-compete agreement. – kenny Jul 11 '14 at 22:48
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This is sort of a familiar one.

A client wants someone to build a website, and doesn't want to give them all the pieces of the puzzle at once (or is very vague about it).

There are three choices here:

  1. Continue being trickled information, eventually going insane.
  2. Leave that client instantly, without hesitation.
  3. Tell your client, plain and simple, that they absolutely have to give you all of the information you need or they will not have their site finished (without huge delays and vastly more money).

There's also a fourth, oft-cited but never usually done by clients that act this way:

Sign a contract, stating that you will not do so (aka a Non-Disclosure Agreement).

It's a really simple process for the client, but too often I see clients with no real business sense trying to protect an idea without a clue what they can do except hog the puzzle pieces and not give you them until you've solved the rest of the puzzle (which is a grossly unacceptable way to create a website, to be frank).

Explain to your client, in relatively simple terms, that keeping ideas and designs to themselves is the absolute wrong way to go about designing a successful website. Explain that many things on the website (skeleton layout, templating, major parts of CSS) cannot start without the entire picture in place. If they did start without the entire design, for example, you would be constantly remaking the site's skeleton layout from scratch.

  • "you would be constantly remaking the site's skeleton layout from scratch." - a client can reasonably say, in effect - "that's what I am paying you for"; so this is not a valid argument. Stick with things that the client can relate to, which are time and money. – Burhan Khalid Apr 24 '14 at 21:29
  • @burhankhalid the point is that you would never agree upon a wireframe at all with a client like this – Amelia Apr 24 '14 at 21:31
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To be honest, I've never found someone who has a truly unique idea. I'm not saying they don't exist, but too often I've heard, "Hey I've got an absolutely fantastic idea! There's nothing like it out there! It's like Facebook, but for your dog!". At which point I ask the nearest waiter/waitress for the bill so I can leave.

Sarcasm aside, people that fear others will steal their great idea are usually falling victim to what I view as a deep emotional attachment to their idea. It has become a child to them, they fear the evils of the world will try to take it and corrupt it. People like this, and I cannot say I am not guilty of acting the same, are hard to reason with. Often times, it may just be better to say, "Sorry but I can't take on clients at the moment".

To help put their mind at ease and avoid an NDA, you can offer to meet them in a private place and have the conversation recorded and you each receive a copy. That should protect them in the case that you do steal their idea, because they have evidence they met with you so you could build the site for them. However, it also protects you because if they later try to say, "Well we discussed this and you stole my idea!" you have evidence (hopefully) to the contrary.

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Ideas are cheap and plentiful and most developers would probably have a few of their own that they'd like time to explore rather than stealing from someone else!

To come to fruition, ideas need good execution and ideas need to be shared before this will happen. If key information is withheld from developers, it's likely costs and time will spiral as tasks have to be redone.

Sharing the idea will also help find the best people for the job.

Non disclosure agreements are often proposed as a way forward in this situation but as a developer, it's usually not a good idea to sign an NDA because:

  • a client who asks you to sign an NDA is basically saying they don't trust you so maybe they are not the right client for you
  • you should probably get legal advice to check an agreement before signing it but why should you be burdened with a legal cost before knowing if you want the job or can even do the job?
  • an NDA places legal obligations on you but none on the client
  • once you have signed an NDA, it can be risky taking on similar work in case you get sued

Essentially, clients need to find someone to work with that they can trust and an NDA is usually not the best tool to "force" this trust.

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    Not sure I agree an NDA means there's no trust. Contracts are designed to prevent problems by having a clearly outlined role of who is responsible for what, and that can include who owns intellectual property. I see contracts as a way to avoid misunderstandings. Other than that, great answer! – jmort253 Feb 17 '14 at 18:38
  • I agree with jmort253. One thing that was stressed very strongly to me in college, was to get a contract. I have signed many NDAs in my career. And I'm never offended. Btw, an NDA doesn't mean you can't do similar work. That's a non-compete. If do sign a non-compete, make sure it's a very narrow focus so it will not prevent you from working in your field in the future. – Tom Collins Apr 21 '14 at 19:02
  • Contracts are great! I have a set of terms and conditions in my proposals that clients agree to if they want to hire me. I am also happy to agree to the client owning intellectual property. I just don't like signing NDAs as there is no way of knowing what I'm signing up for! I understand the difference between an NDA and a non-compete contract but if I sign an NDA and end up working for someone else on a very similar project later, I don't want to risk getting sued. – Neil Robertson Apr 23 '14 at 0:13
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Contracts mean squat where you work with remote workers. How do you know that John Q is actually John Q? Some clients asked me to send them my scanned ID and I refused just to be 110% my identity will not be stolen. So there is no real proof that you actually signed contract with John Q.

So how can you assure the client? Very hardly. I got those question 1 in 20 times and I usually reply that "freelancing is my full-time job and stealing their idea would mean that I'd have to work for free coding this app and then wait for money to come. I cannot afford that since I don't have a boss who will pay me if I don't earn money myself". This answer usually is Ok.

If you work via freelancing sites, you can tell them to check feedback and see if any client complained you stole their idea.

I personally have bad experience with such clients since those clients are so scared that they will probably not give anyone to code their idea. And if the idea is so good and lucrative and will bring millions, why they don't hire local agency for $150/h which he can sue if they steal his idea. Because he does not believe in his idea so much ;). I never waste lot of time with such client, just reply to them in a few sentences. I suggest you do the same.

0

Every single person on this planet had the most brilliant business idea of their time and beyond. Multiple times.

Idea is nothing. Implementation, monetization, found product-market-fit, optimal business model, flexibility, field expertise, risk taking, and perseverance have some value.

Now this is that this guy will not believe for you. Probably will believe for Forbes.

--

I do not think I (we) could do too much here. Some business owner in the world believes in something that is maladaptive. If i should name the primary obstacle in freelancing or consultancy, I would say "changing mindsets". I believe icevolcanooo - and every self-employed - got to learn how to handle this. Probably the best approach is just consider if do or don't. Then decide if one can/want to work with such conditions. And if the answer is "does not worth the effort", then quit.

  • Good article (yes, I read it). Can you edit to expand some on the answer though? It's quite short, and triggered our Low Quality filter. Thanks – Canadian Luke Jul 9 '14 at 15:59
  • Umm, @CanadianLuke, I do not think I (we) could do too much here. Some business owner in the world believes in something that is maladaptive. If i should name the primary obstacle in freelancing or consultancy, I would say "changing mindsets". I believe icevolcanooo - and every self-employed - got to learn how to handle this. Probably the best approach is just consider if do or don't. Then decide if one can/want to work with such conditions. And if the answer is "does not worth the effort", then quit. – Lorinc Nyitrai Jul 11 '14 at 8:34
  • Great! Now, use the edit link to include that information in the original answer :-) Thanks for expanding though, it makes us a much better resource for everyone. – Canadian Luke Jul 11 '14 at 15:24

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