Note: I wrote this answer on Quora in 2014 after about one year trying to make it as an independent software developer. I often think of my early “fresh out of college days” as just messing around, but I’m actually pretty happy with this answer in 2018. Ideas are worth very little and the real value comes from consistent execution.
It is crazy how often this question comes up. Everyone has seen the social network, thinks they have the next Facebook and that anyone they mention it to is going to take the idea and run with it.
Here is the reality:
Assuming your idea is really great it takes a very rare combination of factors to make it something a developer you are paying wants to steal.
-First you would need a developer who is ambitious, determined, immoral and not creative.
-Second your idea needs to be super simple. Why? Because the average person who would steal your app would probably not be someone who could run a real business behind it.
-Thirdly the idea has to have a very obvious potential to make a lot of money or be super exciting and cool.
I openly share all of my business ideas with people who I know can code them. Ambitious developers are either employed and making a pretty decent living or are happily hacking away at their own projects. In the first case, they are working full time and don’t have time to steal your billion dollar idea. In the second, 99.9% of the time they think their idea is better than yours and don’t care.
Once you release your app, it’s out there for the whole world to see and anyone can copy you. At that point of your app is even slightly successful you have to compete to stay on top where every capable developer in the world can see your work and devise ways to improve on it and beat it. By the time anyone notices your app, you already have to be at the point where it would take a year for someone to catch up. If it’s simple, and profitable, someone will make a better version unless you are the best person in the world to pioneer your app idea.
Even if you have a fantastic idea, you will still have to convince even forward thinking people that it is a good idea. Ideas are worth almost nothing, value comes from execution.
In the rare event you accidentally hand your idea to the best programmer with the least moral fiber and the most time on their hands and enough drive, connections and partners with matching free time and determination, maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll turn it into a multibillion dollar company and you can sue them for stealing your idea and still walk away with a boatload of money.
Pay developers well, connect with them personally, thoroughly evaluate them before hiring, make them part of your team and give them a real stake in what they are building and I’d say you’re pretty safe assuming your idea is great and you are the best person to see it through.
If you don’t think you can crush the competition once it shows up, don’t waste your time. If you have a legitimate reason to believe you can maintain a competitive advantage, anyone who tries to knock off your app in the early stages will be a joke compared to the people who will step up later on.