Susan Snipes • September 12, 2016

As a UX strategist and designer, I meet with a lot of potential customers. A substantial number of these customers are starting new business ventures, new websites, new products, or some other new endeavor. As is the nature of business today, a lot of them ask me to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement,) which of course I do happily. Some business owners ask for NDAs as a matter of course, mostly because their legal counsel told them it was probably a good idea. Others take it very seriously, and won’t say a single word about their idea before meeting with the signed document.

But why the secrecy? Why the fear?

I come up with ideas from time to time. I’m willing to bet you do too. But if you never discuss them, then how on earth do you expect these ideas to succeed?

“The best ideas start as conversations.” — Jonathan Ive

I am comfortable discussing possibilities in prospective client meetings — yes, even before we have a signed agreement. I look forward to these idea sessions! During an initial meeting, I don’t hold back, and neither should you. I will provide my feedback about someone’s idea. I’m not going to allude to possible solutions and then “save them” for when we’re under a signed agreement. I consider the idea brainstorm part of business development and the way I do business. I’m willing to share my knowledge. For me, it’s creative and fun. I may give prospective clients some ideas or feedback that are useful. If they don’t work with my company, it’s okay. Yes, it’s even okay with me if they use some of those ideas with someone else.

Not too long ago, I met with two women about a prospective website project. They recently opened a brick-and-mortar shop and were looking for a new ecommerce website to support their physical store. We got along well, and I enjoyed hearing about their company’s vision. During the course of our conversation, I wasn’t a good fit for their project because of their specific technology. But that didn’t stop me from sharing. I talked with them about two paths they could take for their online store and the things they should watch out for if they decided to go the route I recommended.

I’d much rather see someone make a smart choice, even if they don’t ultimately choose my business or services.

In business, as in any other part of life, ideas generate more ideas. Talking about ideas makes them better. It helps them grow. As any entrepreneur knows, it takes passion, time, money, research, experience, trust, knowledge and much more to bring an idea to fruition. What are the chances you’re going to be able to create something completely on your own? Unlikely, at best. As Thomas Edison said, “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t give away your ideas for free. In professional services businesses, there is the fear that you’ll give away your best ideas without getting paid for them. But if you have the ability to spark inspiration, why not offer that to your clients? And if they take your idea and run with it or give it to someone else to execute, then they aren’t the right kind of clients in the first place. Plus, they likely wouldn’t be able to do it as well as you would have in the first place.

When is not okay to give away ideas?

What I won’t do is spend time exploring ideas and outlining possible solutions in a project proposal of any type. This is the kind of work that should be compensated. If I’m writing down solutions in a document, this has moved beyond a discovery conversation of “Are we a good fit?” “Can you help me solve my problems?” or “Do I trust you?” to free work.

If someone asks for this kind of work in a proposal, then their expectations are misguided. They are not respecting your business, nor you as a professional. Setting expectations is an important part of any proposal, and doing free work is not part of that equation.

Ideas come and go, and I’m not at all afraid to share mine. If someone thinks highly of one of my ideas, they can trust my experience, vision and skill to take it from vision to execution. Sharing my ideas enables me to find a true fit with clients and partners.