That Time a Developer Stole My Idea and Made Millions

A Horror Story

Back in 2014 I had an idea for a new app that I was really excited about. It was groundbreaking…. no one had ever done anything like it before!

But I can’t code myself, so I started looking for a developer to make my idea come to life.

I found a bunch of people on Elance and made each of them sign an NDA before I revealed the project.

After lots of back and forth I finally hired someone. He started coding and at first everything was great.

But then suddenly he stopped answering my emails. Countless attempts to get in touch were no help. Eventually I just gave up and moved on to another project, frustrated by apps and developers.

Lo and behold a few months later I found that same app (my app!) in the App Store. Attached to that developer’s name!

Now I read about him in the news. The app has millions of users and the developer is making untold sums of money.

He stole my idea.

What Really Happened

I recently got another email from a reader who was afraid of losing his ideas; he wouldn’t even tell me what it was when he asked for my help:

“I apologize about the vague nature of this idea however I’m not in the habit of giving ideas away.”

That’s the classic horror story right? If I tell a developer my idea, he might steal it.

Well, that story above? Never happened. I totally made it up.

That’s total clickbait, you say. What a jerk.

Eh, not really. The reason it’s not clickbait is because so many people think that’s a real possibility.

I wrote it because the most common question I get is “how do I prevent a developer from stealing my idea?”

So let me be straight up with you. There’s some good news and some bad news.

Bad news first…

The Bad News

If a developer really likes your idea, there’s nothing you can really do to stop them from stealing it.

While perhaps you could make them sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), that still wouldn’t help you (And frankly would also scare away the good developers.).

Why? Because a signed contract, any contract, gives you the mere right to sue someone for breaching said contract.

Do you know:

  • How much it costs to use the courts to find a legal remedy?
  • How long that would take?
  • The likelihood that you’d ever get anything out of it?

The answers are: 1. Lawyers cost more than developers, 2. Months if not years, 3. Zero chance.

The Good News

This will never happen to you.

I’ve literally never heard of anyone losing their idea to a developer.

To back it up with some numbers I even tweeted asking if any of my followers had ever heard of such a thing occurring:

Potential app directors still ask me “What if the dev steals my idea” Have any of you EVER heard that happen? Please fav this if NO

— Trevor McKendrick (@TrevMcKendrick) June 10, 2015

According to Twitter analytics, that Tweet was seen 350 times, and at the time of this writing, it’s been faved 26 times. That’s a huge level of engagement for Twitter.

And most of my followers right now are app developers themselves. If anyone would have heard a story like this it’d be them.

Why Don’t Developers Steal App Ideas?

I can go a step further to put your mind at ease. Developers have very good reasons and are highly incentivized to not steal app ideas.

1. Developers See Lots of Ideas

Developers see tons of app ideas all the time.

At dinner parties, during the holidays from relatives, from strangers at the grocery store who find out they make apps, etc. They get pitches from pretty much everyone.

And the cold truth is that most of the ideas they hear aren’t very good. To them your idea is nothing special. It’s just another heap to add to the pile.

They’ve probably forgotten about your ideas within 2 minutes of hearing it.

2. Developers Have Seen Many Great Apps Tank

Because developers have made so many apps for clients they’ve seem big successes, but they’ve also seen many apps do poorly. Good apps. Apps that cost tens of thousands of dollars to make.

And what they realize is that with so many ideas, it’s really hard to successfully predict winners.

So even if your idea could be somehow be instantly turned into a high-quality app, a developer still wouldn’t be able to predict how well it would do.

3. Developers Want to Get Paid

It takes a lot of work to code an app. After all that time and effort of making your app, your developer has two options:

1. Give the app to you and get paid cash, immediately.

2. Steal it and put it on the App Store as their own, praying it makes money.

The 2nd one doesn’t happen because they want to get paid!

They are in the business of making apps. If they don’t get paid for the apps they make their families don’t eat!

All a developer wants is to make your app, get paid, and move on to the next project so they can get paid again.

If they wanted to bet on the likelihood of a given app succeeding, they’d be an investor instead.

4. Developers Live and Die Based on Referrals and Ratings

If they stole your idea you’d (rightly) make a huge fuss about it and tell anyone online who would listen.

And you’d obviously give them no referrals.

Here’s the thing: developers live off word-of-mouth referrals. Or ratings, if they work on a platform like Elance.

They can’t afford to steal your idea. They need you to be happy. And they want you to send future clients their way.

Developers Respond to Incentives

Just like you and I and every other human being, developers respond to incentives.

And the incentives are aligned: devs want to make your app, get paid, and earn referrals for future jobs. That’s it.

So the next time you think about telling someone your idea, don’t be so afraid! Do it openly.

You’re more likely to get good feedback and improve the idea than lose it to some random developer.