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How Silicon Valley’s Open Culture is Both Its Greatest Strength and Its Greatest Weakness

How Silicon Valley's Open Culture is Both Its Greatest Strength and Its Greatest Weakness

A very interesting piece on Politico recently caught my eye. Titled How Silicon Valley Became a Den of Spies, it laments how the West Coast is a hotbed for foreign espionage, with spies attempting to steal technology and ideas for their own countries. Silicon Valley is especially bad due to its culture of openness and innovation, notes the piece’s author Zach Dorfman.

“We tend to think of espionage in the United States as an East Coast phenomenon,” writes Dorfman. “But foreign spies have been showing up uninvited to San Francisco and Silicon Valley for a very long time. According to former U.S. intelligence officials, that’s true today more than ever.”

“Unlike on the East Coast, foreign intel operations here aren’t as focused on the hunt for diplomatic secrets, political intelligence, or war plans,” he continues. “The open, experimental, cosmopolitan work and business culture of Silicon Valley in particular has encouraged a newer, “softer,” “nontraditional” type of espionage, said former intelligence officials—efforts that mostly target trade secrets and technology.”

Honestly? I can’t say I’m particularly phased by this news. Nor am I especially worried.

I won’t deny that this brand of espionage is a problem. Nor will I deny that we need some framework in place to prevent foreign spies from stealing technological innovations. Dorfman’s assertion that we need a system and set of incentives that will allow tech firms to report potential espionage is a sound one.

At the same time, motivations aside, how are these spies any different from the particular breed of vulture that’s always circled around cultures of innovation?

You know the type. They have no original ideas or concepts of their own. They’ve none of the passion or drive that defines an entrepreneur.

Instead, they’re lazy thieves. They don’t really care about changing or bettering the world – they just want to ride on the coattails of someone else’s success. And they’ll steal just about any idea they think will help them make bank.

We can’t let the existence of people like this get in the way of progress. Instead, all we can do is try to protect ourselves. To that end, let’s wrap up with a bit of advice on how you can do just that:

  • Never reveal too much about a product or idea. Only tell investors and prospective partners what’s absolutely necessary to secure their participation. Convey what your idea is and what it will do, and let them fill in the blanks.
  • Consider distributing NDAs. Note that some investors might refuse to sign an NDA before speaking with you – the same is true of potential clients.
  • Patent it as soon as possible. This is probably the best way to protect your idea. The trade-off, of course, is that it can get very expensive.
  • Only speak to trustworthy investors. If an investor or businessperson has a history of stealing ideas from other people, that behavior will inevitably catch up to them. For that reason, whenever you plan to meet with someone, do your research first – find out who they are, and if they’re worth sharing with.

Document every meeting. Create a paper trail. Keep minutes of every single thing you discuss about your product. That way, if someone does try to make off with it, you’ll have a paper trail for when it inevitably goes to court.

Trust your gut. Last but certainly not least, first impressions matter. If you get bad vibes from someone, don’t ignore that.

Whenever an open culture like the one seen in Silicon Valley starts to take root – whenever a region starts attracting innovators and inventors – they’ll inevitably be followed by a tide of rats. It’s always been the way of the world. And honestly, that’s okay.

The people who are actually capable of changing the world will continue to do so regardless.

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