"How do you keep someone from stealing your great business idea before you can get your business off the ground?"
Before I give my opinion, here are some other blogger's opinions ...
Paul Graham's blog comments:
As a rule, startups shouldn't worry so much about competitors, especially big
companies. Competitors are a second-order problem. Startups should worry more
about making something worth copying and less about whether someone will.
From The Cardboard blog:
Remember, good ideas without PROVEN success are nothing more than BS.
I must agree with Seth and Paul that most ideas are not as special as the inventor thinks. If a problem is obvious, there will be someone trying to solve it. The real key is to turn it into a business. Clearly that is the difficult part and it often involves many more parts than the inventor originally imagined .... distribution channels, financing, manufacturing, packaging and more.
On the other hand, it just makes good common sense to get as much protection for your idea as possible. If an idea is patentable and you show it to someone you could lose your rights to patent it. I highly recommend reading "Before You Quit Your Job" by Robert Kiyosaki (author of the Rich Dad, Poor Dad books). In this book he tells about how his failure to put legal "barriers" in place caused him to lose out to cheaper competitors.
As in many areas of business, there is not a simple answer. On the other hand, if you have the opportunity to get help turning your idea into reality from someone like Seth Godin, TAKE IT! It is better to take an idea to market than to protect it and never make any money.
Plus, it is more than likely that your initial idea won't be the one that will work. The second or third or 100th iteration is much more likely to work if you are learning along the way!
One last comment that I think applies comes from Hugh Macleod, who makes art on the back of business cards. When he is asked whether or not he is worried about someone copying him, he replies ... " Let them try. No one will have spent all the time I have doing it and it is unlikely that they will understand it as well as I do." (to paraphrase).
So, GO FOR IT ! Do something... even if it is wrong. If it is wrong, do something else. You will still be far ahead of the people who did nothing, but protected their idea!