Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lifting the Skirt

MartianCraft has received a surge of requests for quotes and proposals in the several weeks. A disturbing trend that I've been noticing in some of these proposals is that more and more of the people who contact us are wanting us to sign NDAs before they'll lift their skirts even a little. Often, we can't get the most basic information about a project, not even things like ballpark budget, timeline, or type of application until we've signed an NDA, often a pro-forma NDA that was downloaded from the web.

The last thing any reputable iOS dev shop is interested in doing is stealing your idea. First of all, it would destroy our business if we did that. NDA or not, it would be unethical. This is what we do for a living. If we were to steal an idea and publish it as our own, word would get out and people wouldn't trust us. Our business would die even without ever being sued.

More than that, though: Ideas, with only rare exceptions, have little value without the ability to execute on the idea and execute on it well. I guarantee you that no matter how great you think your idea is, we have several of our own that we'd rather be spending our time on. But we don't even have time to work on our own cool side projects right now, never mind steal yours.

It's absolutely understandable, of course, to reserve certain strategically important details until after a contract is signed, but you have to give us enough information for us to decide whether we're a good fit for your project.

Every NDA or contract we sign costs us money, and not an inconsiderable amount of money. Every single one goes to our lawyer before we'll sign it, and most of them have to be modified and negotiated. It's a costly process. Even the simplest NDAs cost MartianCraft hundreds of dollars by the time we've signed it. We're not going to spend that if we don't have some notion that it's a good project for us and that we have the resources to do it well. We'd quite honestly go bankrupt if we were to forward every NDA request we got to our attorney.

If we know a little about your timeline and budget and a brief synopsis of the app you want to build, we're far more likely to submit a proposal. If you're not willing to give us even the most basic information, then we're going to politely decline your NDA and pass on the project unless you're a Fortune 500 company… maybe.

Here's the important thing for you to realize if you're looking for any mobile developer, but especially an iOS developer: there are nowhere near enough competent, experienced mobile developers right now to meet the demand. By now, all the large companies have realized that mobile is the strategic battleground for the next several years. As a result, experienced mobile developers rarely have to look for work. MartianCraft has existed for less than a year. In that time, the only advertising we've done is to put a banner ad here on my blog, and yet we already have had to turn down at least as much work as we've accepted. I say that not to brag, but to show what the current state of the market is. It's not unusual for us to receive a half-dozen requests for proposals in a single day when you combine requests to MartianCraft and those that come to us individually. When we don't submit a bid on one of those proposals, it's not out of hubris, but rather out of practical necessity.

We are far from alone in this. All of us have friends in other longer-established mobile dev shops, and it's the same story all around. There's a lot of work — a lot of interesting work — and simply no way to accept every interesting project that comes along.

If you insist on an NDA before you give any information at all, you are potentially limiting your pool to the developers who are desperate for work, and given just how much mobile dev work there is out there right now, I'm really not sure that you want to limit your talent pool to just the ones who are desperate for work.


Jaanus said...

I have some VC friends who face similar concerns, they sometimes get applicants who want to do NDA-s. Their response is very simple. “We believe that sharing a few pages of a basic background and objectives of a project cannot be harmful to anyone. If you are afraid to come to us with your idea in good faith, our advice is that you should rethink your strategy since the idea probably wouldn't withstand competition in the market.” Now of course you are not a VC, but it’s fair to just pass such projects.

Maybe you should have a FAQ on your site to clarify that, the current Martiancraft site is, er, sparse :)

Jeff LaMarche said...


Yes, a FAQ would be a good idea. Fleshing out the website is one item on a very long list of things to do :-/


Allen Pike said...

We've been having a similar experience at Steam Clock Software, and from what I've heard it's the same for all mobile development shops. If you're good, you're turning away work. One option that we've considered is raising rates until there's an equilibrium, but I think it's better to be turning down clients than be forced to take the only ones who can afford you.

Matt said...

Hi Jeff, I also totally agree with your comments. In fact, I also recently wrote an article about why we at Makalu don't sign them:

Ray Merkler said...

It is for exactly this reason that I'm openly posting all of my game ideas on my "company" blog. :)

ZuCom said...

Competition in the mobile space is fierce today. Having worked in a few Fortune 500 companies I can tell you that rarely is there a game changer like mobile is today. I suspect that as it becomes more of a standard (already under way...) the pressure may be relaxed a bit. Til then the closed door design meetings may require a ticket.

Robert Zullo

Markusn said...

Great post!

On top of that, I question the enforceability of most NDA's. It's in the nature of the NDA that people want to use it BEFORE they share information. But if the descriptive part of the NDA is very vague, well, then good luck enforcing that document. And if they are detailed enough to be enforceable, then there seems to be a certain trust level already, so why do an NDA anyway?

I would love to see a collection of cases where NDA's were successfully used in lawsuits in case an "idea was stolen". My believe is they are extremely rare.

So not only do they cost a lot of work/money, I'd go so far and say they rarely deliver what a lot of folks think they will.

In my previous company where we did contract work, I tried to find a compromise: If you feel you need an NDA, keep it high level and less than one page. Describe your project rather detailed. That way it doesn't cost us too much to evaluate and you still have a protection for the case of extremely blatant idea stealing from our side. Won't happen, but hey, peace of mind. If you don't comply, we will respectfully pass on your job.
Similar to what Jeff and others stated as well, with a "one page" tweak.

Rob Pearson said...

Nice post Jeff.

I remember last hear I had to do the whole NDA thing before setting up a meeting with a potential client. Turned out the core premise of his idea was not technically possible on the iPhone (due to Apples restrictions) so the whole thing was a waste of time. Time I could have saved if I'd been given any details of the project up front.

Dad said...

100% agree. And most NDAs have timelines of 5 YEARS or something that might make sense for manufacturing but are laughable for software.

The idea vs execution is something most people don't understand. I wrote this blog post after running across a good equation on the two: Idea without execution is worth $20 max

brother said...

We have had similar requests - one thing to look at (which is what we have done) is to have your lawyer create a "two-way NDA". This essentially covers both parties for confidentiality and also protects any 'pre-existing' ideas of conflict. Of course this basically nullifies the request from the client, but also keeps them happy.

shawn42 said...

I totally agree; I recently read a similar article about NDAs

Jeremy Olson said...

A lot of folks don't realize that they (the client) need us much more than we (the iDevs) need them. If they don't understand that, as you said, they will likely end up with a bunch of proposals from developers who are desperate for work which, in this market, probably means unqualified.

Josh said...

Totally agree that somehow we've moved into a business culture with way too many NDAs floating around.

It's almost as if some of the core good reasons to have an NDA (sharing strategy), especially when dealing with a public company (i.e. stock prices, sales #s), have given way to the notion all ideas should be protected.

It's an unnecessary hurdle for small companies especially when things need to move fast.

With Fortune500 companies even, ideally there should be a project ready to start before we'd like to sign one. Only during the courting process out of good reason—not as SOP.

Josh Oakhurst

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SunFish7 said...

You could of course save yourself all of the legal fees by drafting your own NDA, and offering to sign it.

That would actually be a really smart business move IMHO

Intellectual property is a big stumbling block for punters. Sometimes just the fact that they cannot navigate this tricky situation sometimes puts them off entirely.

I would recommend a fairly straightforward NDA with an even more straightforward introductory summary that puts in layman's terms what you agree as the developer to abide by.

Of course if you catch a big fish, you could still be open to signing theirs, so long as they pay.

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