When Is An NDA Right?

Yesterday I spoke with an entrepreneur during open office hours who asked me to sign an NDA. I said no.  I always say no when someone asks me to sign and NDA to have a discussion.  We had a long chat about this and a very good discussion.  I thought it would help others to hear my answer to the question: When Is An NDA Right?

Let’s start with his situation.  He reached out because he was looking for help hiring a programmer to build his app idea that friends said was a good idea.  In human terms,  asking someone you have never met and who you may never work with to sign an NDA is like asking them to take a criminal background check on the spot.  It isn’t a good way to start things off.  In fact, it makes you look amateur hour because it is simply akward.

In his case, he is someone who might have gone to a meetup asking for people to work for him without any prior knowledge of what he wants to do.  This is a bad way to start off for him because he wasn’t selling himself, his idea, or really anything.  In a world where everyone wanted to code for entry level wages or sweat equity this might work, but that isn’t the world we live in.

There are far more people with app ideas looking for help from coders who will build their apps than there are people out there who are coders looking to work for little reward for their hard work, or no reward which is the outcome if the app fails like the vast majority do.

So I suggested that he not let his NDA request get in the way and focus on selling the notion of why people should work with him on this idea.  This should make things easier.

You are probably wondering what an NDA is for if it isn’t to protect your brilliant idea that will mint money.  Let’s get down to that now.  First, a disclaimer, I am not an attorney and I do not provide legal advice. I’m an entrepreneur who has hired a lot of people and built several profitable companies.  I have advised dozens of companies that have been through successful exits and worked for a few of them along the way.  You should talk to an attorney about how NDA’s work and how to use them.  I’m only going to discuss the use case here.

Imagine that you are Larry Page and Sergey Brin.  You have an idea for a search engine.  If you ask people who you want to hire to work on your search engine app idea to sign an NDA up front they are going to think you are crazy or difficult or just plain amateur hour like I mentioned above.

Why is that? It isn’t that hard to build a search engine.  You need to be capable of installing Elastic Search, Solr, Lucene or one of numerous other search products that are available for free.  A few extra things are required such as a server, a domain name and a relatively simple user interface that just about anyone could build.

If you tell someone you want to build a search engine, and provide some details about why you want to do it and how you are really passionate about the idea then you will come across as authentic.  This is especially true if you have done some research and have ideally created a search engine already.  For example: a search engine could be stood up to search a folder on a computer, it doesn’t have to be competitive with Google.com.

The person you are asking to work for you or with you or to be a co-founder (ideally someone you know and have already worked on some project with) can now have a conversation with you and get to know you better.  They can decide if they like you and like what you are talking about doing and work with you.

At this point you really should do some sort of small project together to see if you can work together and to make sure that this person you have met can do what they say they can do.  Non-technical founders should either get their hands dirty and learn to do some coding themselves (see the Learn to Code section here on SocialMatchbox.com) or already have a technical advisor who can help with assessing this person’s capabilities and making sure that the app idea is soundly planned, architected and executed on from the get go.  No need to disclose the secret sauce at this point, just the general idea.

At the point when you decide that you want to hire or work with this person, you should get some basic help from an attorney familiar with early stage ventures.  This should be someone from where you are because even if you want to be a Delaware company you are going to be operating in another state (unless you live or will be doing the work in Delaware).  This is important because it will make it much easier for you and your employee or sweat equity collaborator or co-founder to properly work out who owns what and what happens if there is a disagreement, etc.

Part of what you will get help from your attorney with is setting up the NDA aspects of the work and the intellectual property conditions for once work begins.  No secret sauce has been revealed at this point and none should be.  Your potential hire or collaborator or co-founder knows what they are signing up for.  Your attorney can also tell you about the differences between things like trade secrets or copyright or patents (including provisional patents).  An IP attorney may also be necessary if you decide that you want to pursue patents.

Once you get yourself set up properly, and remember that every case is different so if you hire a lawyer or don’t or do things one way or the other that doesn’t mean game over.  It just means that you may have extra costs, liabilities or problems later.  For example: I had a friend who split equity 3 ways with two co-founders who both later quit.  When they quit it was like he was painted into a corner and could not do anything but surrender.  A startup lawyer or even an experienced founder could have suggested vesting and saved his startup.

So now you have things set up.  Your prospective hire accepts your job or becomes a co-founder.  You know what to do to protect your idea from having gotten some appropriate legal advice (i.e. you did not download a doc from doc stock or download a stock legal doc for startups from some Accelerator’s website that isn’t specific to where you are operating (or that was written by an attorney who isn’t right for your state or situation)).  NOW you start filling in this person on the secret sauce.

Let’s revisit the example of Larry and Sergey.  Their search engine’s secret sauce involved a few hacks.  For starters, they used a cork board server built with off the shelf computer parts that doubled the number of servers in a server rack while providing a crazy big increase in the server’s power.  Next, they put multiple servers in a co-location facility space that they leased that hosted Google.com.  The additional servers used more electricity and bandwidth, but at that time there was no additional charge for the additional usage in either case.  Does this still sound like a search engine? It is sure does, but Larry and Sergey had some tricks up their sleeve that they needed to protect.  They also had some special algorithms.  The server, the way they implemented it, and the algorithms are the stuff that NDA’s and trade secrets are intended for.

But that isn’t the end of the story.  Did you know that most really successful startups begin with one idea, but kick out of it and pivot or move on to a completely different idea?  For example: Twitter is the by-product of a video blogging platform called Odeo.  Invite Media, a company in the display advertising space sold to Google for $70 million, was the fourth idea that the founding team worked on together.  Netscape’s founders originally thought they were going to work on a gaming company.

It really is about the team.  Your idea may be a good one or a dud, but if you have the right team and you are all motivated the odds are much greater.

Today, and possibly back then, everyone signs a generic NDA when they visit the Google campus.  Who knows if that is even enforceable.  But the important thing is that you get going and if you put NDA’s in front of selling you and your basic idea then you are going to make it harder to succeed from the very beginning.  And most importantly, you might miss out on an amazing team member.

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Scrum, Listening and Product Management

Full disclosure: I flirted with the idea of titling this post Scrum, Lies and Politics, and yes I was thinking about the expression Sex, Lies and Politics when I wrote it.  This is a post about checking yourself before you wreck yourself and your whole team.  There is nothing that prepares you for being a startup founder more than seeing your bright idea crash and burn quickly.  The best founders often got to be the the best by trial and error or by trial and iteration.  By “best” I don’t necessarily just mean the most successful ones.  On the other hand, some founders are more like a slow snowball rolling down hill that just builds mass on the way down.

I am talking to those of you who are trying to build a clone of some app, or the “Uber of” <fill in the blank>.  You are trying to do something that someone else did quite successfully.  Perhaps a number of teams did it quite successfully.  But you are trying to match your apple of an app to theirs by copying, not by creating something that people want or will even care about.

One of the hardest things about failure is losing your life and your team’s life to a project that does not succeed.  I can’t emphasize enough that you don’t get your life back.  If you are lucky you get to hang on to some great lessons learned and some friendships, but that isn’t usually the case if you are building the Titanic and painting it as if anything else is true.

As a founder you need to spend a lot more time testing your assumptions and checking your progress along the way.  If you have an app that is ready for people to start using it then get them using it.  If you think that you need every feature on the menu then stop right now and get your app in the hands of people.

As founders we sometimes feel like what we are carrying around in our heads is the equivalent of the President’s nuclear launch codes or something really important.  What is really important is your passion and your time, not your idea(s).  If your passion and your time are high then you will rub off on your co-founders, customers (including early ones), and you will have wind in your sails.  But if you are building the Winchester house and keeping it under wraps then you are probably going to run out of passion, time and resources before you even figure out that what you are building is not going to appeal to very many people.

To get back to the title of this post, I chose scrum because it is a system that emphasizes taking a collaborative approach that involves listening and iterative product development.

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Email Automation User Experience Considerations

I was using an mobile app yesterday that prompted me to write this post about automation user experience considerations.  The app publisher had a nice feature and I sent them an email about it using their website’s contact us form.  What happened next was not very nice.  I received completely generic auto-response email from them that attempted to cover all kinds of different topics.  It was basically a FAQ page as the auto-response email.  When I followed the instructions in that email and sent a reply saying that their auto-response did not suffice, I got the exact same auto-responder email all over again.  It was a complete mirror in the mirror effect.

Auto-responses can be great.  Automation can be great.  But doing something and not testing it before you unleash it on people is not great.  I went from being a fan of the app to considering whether or not I trust this app publisher at all.

Here is the message, but with their info removed:

From: Appname <hello@app.com>
Date: Sun, Mar 1, 2015 at 6:08 PM
Subject:  Appity App
To: Me

Thanks for getting in touch!
Hi Me,We hope this mail answers your query, if not reply to this mail and we will get in touch with you.If you are complimenting Appname – thank you!If you have questions, most answers can be found on our Help page. Were you looking for an answer to one of these questions?:

  • To disable auto tweeting of stats on my Twitter profile?

Log in at app.com or the mobile app
> Click on “Automate”, the last option on the left menu bar
> Uncheck the “Tweet my stats” option
> Click “Save”.

  • Why is Appname not displaying who unfollowed me?

Sometimes, your follower count will go down if Twitter suspends the accounts of some of your followers. Twitter’s api restricts us from displaying these users. You can safely ignore these unfollowers.

  • I unfollowed/followed quite a few tweeps using Appname, but there is no change in my Twitter follower/following lists.

Wait a while and check back again. Sometimes, it takes a while for yourAppname actions to sync with Twitter.

  • How can I remove my account from Appname?

You really want to? Can’t we talk it over? If you are having issues with the app, please share them with us and we’ll sort it out for you. But, if you really really want to remove your account:

Log in to app.com
> Click on “More” at the top (located extreme right)
> Select “Settings”
> On the next page select “Remove account” (it is right next to your account name).

We’ll be sad to see you go! :(

Your question isn’t answered? Reply to this email and let us know.

Best Regards,
The Appname Team


Still no response.  I am definitely not going to keep using this app.

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A Quick Glance At UDacity

A few days ago I received an offer for $10 per course for any course offered by online course site UDemy, not to be confused with premium online learning site UDacity.  UDemy is like an enhanced Youtube channel, but with a pay wall.  After a comprehensive review of all of the site’s offerings in technology and learn to code categories, I decided that what UDemy has to offer at this time isn’t worth it at any price.  A few looked somewhat tempting, but the reviewers confirmed my assumption.  I can’t understand why UDemy has not put more time into securing or producing higher quality content for its collection.

The pay wall for vid is typically in the $75 dollar and up category.  Now granted, the instructors put a lot of time and energy into the courses offered through the site. The problem is that there isn’t as much quality assurance of the offerings as there could be.  A little curatorial and editorial assistance to the publishers could help solve this problem even if it was in the form of volunteers.

One big problem is that the instructors are not necessarily credentialed for what they are teaching.  This isn’t always going to be a major issue, but it assumes that the the buyer isn’t savvy enough to visit YouTube, Coursera, UDacity or any of the plethora of other high quality sites out there.

I will keep an eye on these guys even though I decided to pass this time around.  UDdemy has a lot of content and even though there isn’t anything that would be in line with what I would like to learn about right now, at least not at the quality level that I require to invest my time, I would go back and look at their offerings again.  Someone just trying to break into web development or learning to code would probably be better served looking elsewhere (hint: YouTube) for similar content.

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Marketing For Independent Musicians

As I firm up the details of a planned trip to SXSW in a few weeks to help a friend get some users for a recently launched mobile app, I have spent a ton of time checking out the bands and individual performers who will be in the music lineup this year.  Marketing for independent musicians is really interesting to me as it turns out.

One thing that I am noticing is that people are all over the map, more so than businesses.  There are a lot more “social” sites that you need to put a flag up on besides Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (it is pretty big for musicians).  Among these are SoundCloud and Vevo (similar to YouTube).

It seems like the music industry is single handedly keeping template website companies in business too.  It isn’t just our parents either.  It seems that having a website is really important, but having a really high quality website is more often optional.  At least for early stage indy musicians.  Or maybe it is a resistance to the whole idea of embracing tech in an effort to make the art.

Like the startup community, there are some very interesting and well produced podcasts and blogs like the DIY Musician Podcast.

If you are interested in music tech or music industry marketing that involves tech let me know.

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SXSW Music and Interactive Fest Here I Come

I have started counting down the days until this year’s SXSW Music and Interactive Fest.  This will be my third trip to SXSW Interactive and my first to SXSW Music.  I was there last year helping a friend gather interactive industry feedback and connections for his app that was launching soon.  This year we will be doing the same thing except the app will be live and we will be connecting with people in the music business as well as some select interactive industry insiders.

Having taken more than a decade off between SXSW festivals before the trip last year, I am looking forward to going back with a bit more savvy about how things work.  I will not be hitting the events with lone lines and nothing but loud music – especially ones on the edge of town this year.  I will be spending more time enjoying music and mixing it up with people in small dinners, coffee meetups and happy hours while I am there.  These are the best part of the event which can sometimes be a bit like running multiple concurrent marathons if you try to get to everything.

To get a better idea of what to expect from the Music Fest performances, I have been sampling their music wherever I can find it and creating a list of them via Twitter.  The list is here and samples of music can be found here.

There is a music hackathon (details here) that I plan to participate in this year as well.  If you are interested in joining me shoot me an email ahead of time.  There is also some sort of music tech meetup sponsored app demo event that we are planning to attend as well.

No news yet on whether or not there will be another secret Texas Hold’em game, but if you hear any news about one let me know.

Besides hackathons and poker games, we have been talking about hosting a flash mob or two focused around music apps or a Rock Band contest if we can line things up for it.

If you are going this year let me know.


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Mobile App Analytics Tools I Am Using

I have spent more time on growth engineering for mobile apps recently.  A few of the tools are the same, but mostly because when you have a mobile app you also have a website so there is some overlap involving Google Analytics and web traffic tools.

Here is a quick roundup of the mobile analytics tools that I have either used or am looking at using.  This list will be updated as I use new tools, use my current tool set more comprehensively, etc.  All of these tools have free plans.

Flurry Analytics by Yahoo! (HERE) (Features List)
Flurry Analytics is the best mobile analytics tool that I have worked with so.  It is very similar to Google Analytics and even allows for creation of custom dashboards just like Google Analytics.  Tracking activity for  mobile app is a bit more complicated though so I am not able to get the same data as I thought I would be able to.  There is no official mobile app for Flurry Analytics which mens iI have to log into the app via my laptop.  I really hope they launch a mobile app soon.

Intercom.io (HERE)
Intercom.io is a tool that reminds me a lot of MixPanel.  You can see user paths and some things that overlap directly with Flurry Analytics, but you can also contact a user directly through the app.  Getting all of the data that Intercom.io allows you to track into their system is also a bit more complicated so I have yet to put it to a true test of its potential.  There is a very limited mobile app that seems to be more of a nudge to free users to get them to upgrade than a practical tool.  You can view a list of users in it, but it is not practical to use right now.

mixpanel (HERE)
mixpanel is an advanced tool that I have worked with when adding large groups of new users to study how they use a web application.  It works really well, has a lot of great features, and comes with a bit of a learning curve.  It is very similar to Intercom.io from based on my experience, but I have not used it for a mobile application analytics effort yet.  It is more of a premium product so it is also more expensive after an initial free trial and as your application scales up.

MobileAppTracking by TUNE (HERE)
This is a tool on my to try out list.  It is described as an attribution analytics tool that lets you measure the value of your advertising partner.  I know a marketing agency that uses it, but I don’t know much else about it yet.

TapJoy (HERE)
I have not used TapJoy yet, but it looks interesting and I plan to very soon.  There are a number of solutions offered through the company that provides TapJoy including paid install options (I am not sure how I feel about paid user acquisition when it comes to getting loyal early customers – maybe that is ok for buzz purposes in some categories).  There also seem to be some user segmentation, advertising and analytics capabilities which could all come in handy sooner or later.

If I missed an analytics tool (or failed to mention one since this is a first draft at something more substantial) please use the comments to let me know or send me an email.

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