My first job was as an engineering tech for a small electronic instrument manufacturer. The company actually made things here in the US of A, by hand. They bought boxes of screws, drilled holes in sheets of beautifully-painted metal, and manufactured scientific instruments from the ground up. I put them together. Later, I was hired as an engineer and started designing and selling them.
Every day, I was reminded that the suppliers list, the customer lists, and the methods we used were trade secrets. I wasn’t reminded by some overly anal retentive Corporate Confidentiality Officer, I was reminded by the daily stories about who was discovered spying over at so-and-so competitor, who got a strange sales inquiry from a small town outside Berlin that just happened to also be the home of a competitor, or who at the European office was just fired for suspected espionage activities. And if our own paranoid CEO wasn’t enough, our customers were (at that time) building the super-secret stealth bomber using our instruments. They suffered their own security-clearance-driven paranoias, which of course propagated through to us once we were working on an order for them.
But they were right. Looking back, if I had their vendor lists, I could use my knowledge of their instruments to compete directly with them rather easily. It wasn’t about automation. It didn’t require a $2 billion dollar manufacturing facility. Sure there were patents, but there were also plenty of opportunities for leverage via innovation. The supplier catalog was indeed competitive intelligence. One of the most significant barriers to entry for that business would be finding the craftsmen and small tech shops that could fabricate parts from the special high-temperature materials we were using. Not every mechanic could spin graphite and machine small parts from high temperature quartz or sapphire, for example, without “learning on the job” with materials that cost as much as platinum and could not be recycled once broken.
Today we tend to get caught up in “tech world”. The Internet People are open, and use the Internet for everything. They move constantly from company to company, and work their networks to find jobs. They blog about their work. They give presentations and show source code, and contribute to Open Source. They rely on non-competes and non-disclosures to protect them.
But does that mean you should, too? Really? Are you sure?
I get asked to expand my LinkedIn network almost daily. I say no. It’s simply un-wise.
The Tech Companies ride the edge of innovation, which moves very, very fast. They can afford to be open about a lot of stuff, because no one can keep up with that pace of innovation anyway. It’s more about the pace at which you innovate (and work) than how you do it or what resources you use to get the job done. Their non-competes can be 1 year, and often proprietary knowledge lasts months. That is NOT the case in my business. How about yours?
I have some serious CSS people on hand, but I don’t own them. Fact is, you can have them at your disposal just like me, for the same great price I pay. Go ahead… but first you will have to find them (heh heh). Good luck. I went through dozens and listened to reports on dozens more before I found my “suppliers”. I won’t give that info up easily. If I LinkedIn my contacts, you’d be able to see my contacts in CSS land. They are very well-respected in CSS world.
I have some excellent database programmers at the ready. I pay them well for the work they do, but at best I probably cover their 4 weeks of annual Aegean vacation. They work for other people as well as me. And they could work for you. Good luck finding them. Oh, would they show up in my LinkedIn network? Of course… who else do I have to put in there but the people I associate with in my professional life?
When I need help on trends, I have some well placed people in advertising world of whom I can ask questions. Again… I suppose there’d be some serious vanity ego points gained for LinkingIn with them, but what do I gain from giving up my “suppliers list” like that? I suppose if I wanted to get a job I could work that extended network. Do I ever want to get another job?
So I routinely turn down LinkedIn requests, quietly and stubbornly declining. But the other day I got another one, from someone I don’t like. And it reminded me of this very topic. He reminded me by asking to “LinkIn” with me, when we are clearly not friendly. He digs through LinkedIn for competitive data he can use to make money on the web. I am just a name in his network, and a potential source of more names and contacts he can mine for free info to make money on the web. This guy is just like the temp at my first manufacturing job, who stole the wholesale client list and started cold-calling our customers the next day to sell them disposable static-control booties for $2 a box. He had no qualms about citing us as the source of his “referral”, and suggesting that they probably need to buy static control booties, and this was probably their lucky day.
Think your LinkedIn contacts are of a higher caliber than that dork? Think you’ve got the no-ass-clowns-in-my-network thing covered? Guess again. Your list is only as good as your vetting process, and hey… it’s all about being open and sharing, web two dot oh style, right?