Danger Clients #43: Those With Secret Ideas

Contributing Editor

All my clients are great. Yours probably are too. But once in a while, you’ll be approached by someone with an idea which is so revolutionary, they can’t possibly reveal the details. They fear you’ll steal their concept … but they still expect a quote! And then start haggling.

My advice: run away. Quickly.

Perhaps you’ve just rejected working for the next Google, but the chances the client will make millions are infinitesimally small. The reasons…

1. Their idea won’t be good or original
Neither Facebook or Twitter were particularly pioneering, but they took existing concepts, added a few twists, implemented them well and generated publicity. A secret idea usually means zero market research and no pre-launch marketing.

Besides, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover it’s yet another social network or auction system. Or a social network with an auction facility.

2. They’re not an expert
The client may be an expert in their field but they’re approaching you for your development knowledge. They may have considered the overall concept and how amazing it’ll be for their customers, but it’s a long, long way from implementation. They cannot build it themselves yet only they can explain it. If they’re unable or unwilling to do that, the system won’t ever be completed.

3. They have trust issues
I don’t mind signing a Non-Disclosure Agreement, but a client who doesn’t trust you at the start won’t suddenly change their attitude. They’ll never trust you; you’ll never trust them. It’s not a basis for a profitable relationship.

4. Money is not your motivating factor
I don’t know a single software engineer who’s in it for the money. Most of us learned the techniques — unpaid — because we were interested in the subject and created our own projects. We’re passionate about programming; not ripping off client ideas.

That said, the client shouldn’t expect you to work for free because…

5. Your ideas are better than theirs
The best developers are full of great ideas. You may not have the time or inclination to complete them all, but your project has a far greater chance of success than someone who doesn’t understand the industry. It’s always more rewarding to work on something you truly believe in.

But Don’t…

…be tempted to do work on a project out of curiosity — unless they’re willing to pay for every minute of consultancy time.

The worst clients will instantly offer you a partnership or share options. They don’t know you and are not willing to share their idea — but are happy to give away part of their company? Ultimately, it means they’ll do the fluffy thinking while you the hard work translating their unworkable ideas into reality.

What’s the worst client approach you’ve ever received?

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  • Alex Barylski

    Have had a few of those :o lol

  • http://Www.powersbusiness.com Shane Powers

    I get some variation of this approach two or three times per week. With people getting angry that I “don’t see the vision” and I’m only talking about how huge of a project it’ll be. Run fast for sure

  • http://niteodesign.com Blake Petersen

    At Grad Weekend a few years ago, I was approached by my fiance’s friend. She had an idea of having a social-network for people who are traveling around the globe so they could meet up and party (because there’s a huge market for rich kids delaying adult life to jet-set and party with strangers?). After the initial pitch, we ordered drinks at the bar and by the time we had our drinks, I invited reality to join the conversation and proceeded to poke about 10 holes in her idea and dropped the bomb that it would cost a lot more than the grand she had to work with.

    She was not nearly as stoked to see me by the end of our brief consultation.

    This was the first time I said “No” to a challenge right out of the gate, for us pit-bull developers, that’s not something that comes easily. The fact that many of us aren’t in it for the money but more for the satisfaction of figuring out complex problems with coded logic, I feel many of us take on these lofty projects more often than we should. If we looked at it from a pure profit-maximizing standpoint, we’d all be SEO consultants instead. ;]

    Great article, Craig!

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Thanks Blake.

      I receive a steady stream of “We intend to be the Facebook of [our industry]“. To which I reply: “Isn’t Facebook the Facebook of your industry?” It rarely puts them off, but they burn through their $2,000 budget within minutes and are never heard of again.

      • http://niteodesign.com Blake Petersen

        Exactly! Like Pierrot, it’s both funny and sad.

    • http://niteodesign.com Blake Petersen

      … hmmmm… not so much a “Secret Idea” (to me anyway), just a poorly thought out one. But regardless of whether or not the idea is directly expressed during the pitch, if the idea is touted as new and revolutionary (or “the next facebook”, “ebay on steroids”, etc.) from an industry outsider, it’s best to just walk away, lol.

  • DT

    There are those that do, and then there are those that talk about doing. Most clients who have something of substance will generally have some kind of tangible presence – maybe some plans, maybe a rough or knock up website, or at least something. And they are willing to share the risk and share the ride.
    But even then some are just plain trouble.

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ James Edwards

    To be fair to Twitter, it was a pretty new idea. Sure they didn’t invent micro-blogging, but they gave it a whole new twist, and the integration with SMS had never been done before.

    Facebook though, meh, just a neat MySpace for normal people. And it will die as quickly as it grew.

  • http://cyanide.com.au Steven

    They’re about as much fun as late/non payers.

  • http://www.bluepinemedia.com John

    I had a gentleman contact me who fit this mold exactly. He was “assembling a team of really smart developers” for a project that was unique – there was “nothing like it”. But he wouldn’t tell me about the project until I signed a NDA. As you mentioned, I have signed NDAs before, but that was always after they described the project to me and got a quote. Then he said he couldn’t pay me and wanted to work out a part-ownership agreement. In his words: “there’s a chance it won’t go anywhere but I think it’s going to be a great success”. What kind of idiot would invest his resources into a product who’s owner shows such apparent lack of confidence. I could just see him getting ripped apart on “Shark Tank” (TV show). Of course I said I didn’t have time and I’m glad. Don’t know what ever happened to his project, probably nothing still.

  • http://www.salyris.com Sean Cook

    There are those that also offer you a “piece of the pie” if you labor away on the project for them. I have been caught up in these “dreamers” before and was burned, so stay the hell away from them! I have also done paid work for “dreamers” and warned them of the pitfalls if they go forward with their ideas just to see them crash and burn right before my eyes. ;-(

    I would say the consistency is lack of funding and proper research/strategy. If this hasn’t been done, RUN!

  • http://www.webmentor.cr/ Marco Berrocal

    I was approached by a friend who came with this idea. He doesn’t know anything about programming. He told me the idea and I said, learn a bit about programming then come to me. I might consider it.

    I told him to write a business proposal to see how serious he was, he never did it (was 3 years ago).