Almost everyone is familiar with the following classic from American Masterpiece Theater:
A humble kitchen. AVERAGE JOE sits at the table, thinking hard. A scrap of paper at his elbow has “Business Ideas” written at the top, with a long list of crossed-out sentences beneath it. Suddenly, a light bulb appears above his head. Tense concentration transforms into joy and excitement.
AVERAGE JOE: Eureka!
Anytown, USA. AVERAGE JOE is now seated in the back of a vintage car, waving serenely as children strew flowers in his path and the mayor awaits with the key to the city at the end of a street lined with ADORING CROWDS.
ADORING CROWDS: Huzzah!
AVERAGE JOE: I made it!
It’s an attractive scenario, to be sure: the only thing standing between you and success is a single good idea. But is it realistic? Levi King, CEO of Nav, doesn’t think so:
“I used to think ideas were worth something,” says King. “And people are always worried, ‘someone’s going steal my business idea.’ But an idea is actually worth less than zero, because it takes an investment to make it worth something. So you actually go into the negative first. [In that sense], ideas are just a liability.”
That may seem hard to swallow at first. An idea, even a great one, has no value? The answer, nevertheless, is a resounding “yes”—so long as the idea remains just an idea. It is, after all, merely a concept; a thing that exists in the mind and nowhere else. What’s truly valuable in a business context is the energy, creativity and resourcefulness of the entrepreneur in charge of an idea’s execution.
In other words, it’s what you do with the idea that really matters. Inspiration can be helpful, but it can also be hurtful in that it creates a sense of accomplishment before anything’s actually been accomplished. The sort of inspiration that pushes you forward and provides fresh strength during late nights and long days is produced by taking concrete, measurable steps toward your goal.
Let’s consider a few ideas about ideas.
1. Ideas are expensive.
Let’s say you’re considering buying a quality pair of sunglasses. As long as you’re only considering it, the sunglasses don’t exist. The zoomable, high definition photograph on Amazon is only an idea. But the moment you put your money where your mouth is, click “add to cart” and finalize the order, the sunglasses spring to life. They’re real and they’re really yours even before they arrive on your doorstep. Your business idea is also awaiting payment before it can actualize, with one vital difference. This time you’re paying for the privilege of producing the sunglasses yourself, from scratch. And unless you can convince many others that this product—into which put your blood, sweat and tears—is worth adding to their cart, you’re left holding a very costly pair of sunglasses that you can’t even use.
2. Being protective of an idea isn’t the same as protecting it.
Jealously guarding an idea because you’re afraid someone will steal it is a great way to stall your momentum with negative energy while your competitors plow ahead. Remember, until you actually execute the idea, what you’re guarding is less than worthless, because you went into the negative just to get it off the ground. Don’t waste strength and ingenuity trying to protect what is, for now, a figment of your imagination. Don’t be afraid to ask others for their opinion either—without proper market research and feedback from experts, you’re just making assumptions about what customers want from your product or service. Make it real, ask others for feedback, figure out if the idea is commercially viable before you decide if it’s worth protecting.
3. An idea doesn’t have to be unique to produce unique results.
When we call an idea unique, we’re usually confusing the idea itself with the unique people who implemented it. Google arose in a market flooded with search engines. Starbucks didn’t invent coffee. The best idea you’ve ever had has likely been shared by others; your personality—including your experience, knowledge, passion, preferences, quirks and expanding perspective—are yours alone, and eventually what will make your business succeed or fail. The history of ideas in general is largely a history of people taking existing ideas and improving upon them.
4. Allow yourself time to explore your idea before devoting yourself to it.
If an idea seems interesting, start exploring it. Do your research. It doesn’t have to be a huge idea to be worth your consideration. If the creators of Angry Birds had passed on the idea of shooting chickens at pigs from giant slingshots in order to wait for something on the scale of a big studio masterpiece, they wouldn’t be billionaires.
On the other hand, exploring an idea doesn’t mean diving head first into an aimless project the minute you think of your idea. In the wise words of Levi King, “Don’t do anything that seems awesome unless 3 months have passed from the time you said, ‘I gotta do this.’”
5. An idea doesn’t have be perfectly realized to be meaningful.
Ideas evolve. Twitter began as a podcasting service! According to Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, investors who passed on startups that eventually became massively successful usually did so because they “focused too much on what [the startup was] doing at the time and not enough on what they could do, would do, and did do.” What you, as the owner of a fledgling business, are doing do now isn’t necessarily the last word on what you can do in the future.
Transforming a business idea into a reality is a drama of more than two acts. It begins with freeing yourself of ideas about ideas that constrain you and narrow your vision. You aren’t lucky to have an idea; it takes hours of hard work to bring that idea to fruition before you start reaping the benefits of a great idea. As with any substantial investment, be cautious to begin with, and only commit to your idea when the time is right for you.
This article was originally written on January 18, 2016 and updated on November 2, 2016.