Is your idea worthless?

The startup community has embraced this mantra: “Your idea is worthless. All that matters is execution.” 

Here’s what others have to say on this:

“Your idea is not original. I guarantee that other people have thought of your idea before you, and right now there are at least five different startups trying to make your idea work.” 

Ideas Are Worthless! Why Sharing Your Idea Isn’t A Problem

“What I find is that people systematically overvalue their ideas. They think the idea in itself is inherently valuable. In reality, it’s the execution, not the idea itself, that holds value.” 

Ideas Are Worthless, Execution is Everything

Not all ideas are worthless … are they?

When I first heard this, I immediately started thinking of examples where this isn’t the case: patentable ideas, science breakthroughs, new medications. I just couldn’t believe that ideas are worthless.

Then I remembered some of my own product ideas. Like “Oh I See!”: 

“Oh I See! is a web application and community that allows defining ‘monitors’ and ‘relays.’ A monitor is a separate mini-application that will proactively watch the behavior of some web-available information. A relay is a designated broadcast point for other monitors.”

You can see my full write up here: I wrote this in 2005 - then did absolutely nothing with it. 

Do you know what would have been valuable? Doing something.

Who knows, maybe this would have turned into IFTT, which launched in 2010. Or not. We just don’t know…

Okay, so my awesome idea also needs hard work. Got it!

Thinking back on Oh I See!, it’s clear that not doing anything with an idea renders it worthless. But what if you work hard on your idea? Will that make it valuable? 

Enter WidgetWeb, a fully WYSIWYG website builder I created in 2005. I spent three years writing this program my spare time. I wrote and rewrote the codebase twice. At peak, I had a handful of customers. 

I ended up selling the product for a soda. 

Execution matters most.

Derik Sivers shared the concept that ideas are just multipliers. He asserted that a brilliant idea with no execution is worthless, but a poor idea with brilliant execution can be worth millions. It’s the execution that matters most.

I don’t know if WidgetWeb was a brilliant idea, but I do know I failed to execute well.

So, how does one brilliantly execute an idea?


Execution = Customer + Problem + Solution

Execution requires that

  • You identify and communicate with potential customers;
  • Your potential customers have a problem they’ll pay you to solve; and
  • You have a good, if not great, solution to their problem.

Brilliant execution, then, is identifying many potential customers with the same problem and giving them the best solution that they will pay for. 

Sounds easy, right?

If you’re an engineer, I bet you start with solutions.

I’m an engineer at heart, and here’s how I’ve always solved this equation in the past: 1) build the solution, 2) look for the problem, 3) then find customers.

This almost never works. 

Think about how hard this is. Spend months and months working to perfect your mobile, web, or desktop app. Spend days and weeks dreaming up that perfect URL and designing and posting a product page. Then, hope that some of the seven billion people on the planet decide to visit your perfectly crafted site and ask to buy what you’re selling.

Well, when you put it that way…

Start with the customer

There’s a movement in the startup community that advocates starting by talking to people to discover their problems. In short, you pick an industry, e.g. real estate, then ask a bunch of real estate agents a set of questions until you find a problem they all have in common. Once you identify this shared problem, you devise a solution and start validating it.

Most, if not all, problems require this level of investment - learning the space through talking to real customers. However, this step is time-consuming. Because of this, there’s a focus on quickly validating the problem hypothesis first. Consider this a pre-step.

Start with the problem

One technique I’m enjoying is the approach advocated by QuickMVP: design a landing page, include a signup button that captures emails, and drive traffic with web ads. LaunchRock is another product that facilitates parts of this.

The advantage of both is that they are quick and inexpensive (or free).  I’m using Squarespace because I paid for a year’s subscription a while ago.

Here's one I created to test the idea of getting your friends to help you eat better:

Is This Healthy Concept Page

Is This Healthy Concept Page

What I love about this method is that it forces you to think about your idea from your customer’s perspective. It’s all about the benefits and value to them.

It takes me a few hours to build one of these. I spend most of that time thinking about the problem that the idea solves, and then writing good copy to tell that story. 

Ads + Landing Page + Email Signup = Validation

If you have an idea that you think is valuable, it’s worth your time to validate whether your hunch is correct before investing money and time. If you’re struggling with how to do that, using this formula can be a great way to start. You’ll find that the work of defining the landing page, the ads, and the right keywords will greatly clarify your understanding of your customer and their hypothetical problem.

Building your own landing page to validate an idea? If so, share a link.

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