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The Myth of the Great Idea

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There’s a common and weird conception in this country of The Great Idea.

This is the idea of PageRank, a graphical user interface, or sticky notes. Huge successes, right?

Sure. But for 99% of people, The Great Idea is a big fat myth.

At the beginning of 2004, a few friends came over to get some advice. They wanted An Idea to start a company around. Cool, I thought, and we started brainstorming. But I soon realized that while they said they were looking for An Idea, they were really looking for an excuse not to do anything, to remain where they were and grind their wheels.

I’m not into BS so I told them as much. This is what I told them (fade to black with a pipe in my mouth)…

* * *

The myth of The Great Idea is a dangerous one. It makes you constantly search and search for something that you’ll probably never find. My friends, for example, are still searching, and it’s two years later. How many of you know an older person (maybe a parent?) who is always tinkering and muttering about the Great Idea he wants to find?

Success almost never comes from a mind-blowing idea, so sitting around trying to find one is a waste of time. Success comes from a basic idea executed amazingly well. Ideas are rarely found by thinking. They’re found by doing. I didn’t come up with the idea of IWillTeachYouToBeRich one night, staring out at the beach through a rain-drenched window. I thought of it after getting a $2,000 scholarship check, investing it in the stock market, and losing half of it immediately. (And really, is the idea of a personal-finance site really that compelling of an idea?) I’ll answer my own question: No!

It’s all in the execution.

So The Great Idea is a myth. Now what?
Ok, you know you want to do something entrepreneurial. Maybe you want to write a book. Maybe you’re good at helping underprivileged children, and really enjoy it, but aren’t sure what to do with that. Or maybe you are amazing at Etch-A-Sketch drawing. Sounds good, but you don’t have the Big Idea yet. So what! Most people don’t. But you can do better than most people because you’ll stop searching and start doing.

These are the few steps that have worked for me and some of my entrepreneur friends. Identify a broad, high-level goal. It might be an industry (“I want to do something in fashion”), it might be a lifestyle (“I want to have a flexible schedule”), it might be some kind of financial outcome, etc.

Now you have the top of the funnel. Now, write down the things you like and the things you don’t like. Be brutally honest. I’ve been surprised how few people do this. I wrote down things like “I like talking to people” and “I hate Excel.”

Next, narrow the funnel down by identifying opportunities that will open up more doors in the right area. For example, if you want to get involved in fashion, you probably don’t want to work as an administrative assistant. Two years after doing that, what will you have to show for it? Will you be any closer to your broad goal? On the other hand, if you intern at a fashion company, or even start a simple blog about fashion, in a few months, you will have created more opportunities for you in the right area.

In other words, if you want to be in the music business, you don’t start working at a music store. That won’t give you a leg up on any jackass who can walk in off the street and do it. Avoid jobs/projects/opportunities that lead to dead ends. Instead, find opportunities that open more doors in the right direction.

A couple more things: It takes multiple steps to reach a goal. It sounds obvious, but I know so many people who are frustrated that they can’t send one email and become a sports agent. Being entrepreneurial, having a disproportionate impact, takes a lot of steps that don’t necessarily have a clear payoff. I don’t want to belabor the point. Just think about how this relates to you.

Also, eliminating choices is as important as finding ones that are interesting. I have a friend who wanted to be an investment banker because, in her words, it’s glamorous, prestigious, and there are lots of smart people. She did an internship and realized she hated it. Great! Internships are your friend; they’re like free trials at a company. Chalk that one up to the now-I-know-I-don’t-like-that category.

And now it’s time to start doing. Even though you may not have a sense of exactly what you want to do, you’ve found some of the right people you want to talk to. If you want to start a dog-food company (or whatever), you don’t have to have contacts at Kibbles. Think laterally–do you know anyone who runs a retail business? Email them and take them out to lunch. Know pet owners? Go over and find out what their problems are and what they’d want from a new product. You’ll be surprised after talking to 10 people–I guarantee this. People love others who are eager to learn and full of energy. They’ll offer you help with connections, ideas, and maybe even resources.

The idea will come. It may be something as prosaic as “let’s do photos online!” (Flickr, acquired by Yahoo) or “let’s build a social network–for college kids!!” (The Facebook, multi-million-dollar VC-funded startup). It’s not about The Idea. It’s about the process that gets you there and the people around you.

And once you start doing all these things, you’ll get closer and closer to your end game–even if you didn’t know what it was when you started.

* * *
Back to The Great Idea. The whole reason it’s such a terrible way to think about personal entrepreneurship is that it’s a veiled excuse to get not get anything done: “Oh, I’m waiting around for an idea” is the most foolish thing anyone can say. The myth of the Great Idea is a great way to think yourself into oblivion and failure.

Look, at our age, there’s nothing wrong with not knowing what we want to ultimately end up doing. Let me say that again: Stop feeling guilty that you don’t know exactly what you want to do! But I think there’s something entirely wrong with not actively trying to find out exactly what we do want.

Trying, not waiting.

Experimenting, not “thinking about it.”

Give it a shot. I can’t wait to hear how it goes.

(See my other articles on personal entrepreneurship.)

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50 Comments

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  1. Compelling article, thanks. So true, most people who talk this way generally are wanting to make maximal bucks with minimal effort. This thinking leads to the idea that becoming rich is just a matter of chance. Whoever just happens to get the Great Idea gets rich.

    By the way, I already had a Great Idea, which I’m going to implement very soon (maybe today). It involves a web page about “Cooking with Peeps.” You know, Peeps, those cute marshmallow chicks sold at Easter time. This is an overlooked delicacy in the culinary world. Do you have any VC contacts? 🙂

  2. Ooh, I love Peeps!

    Ramit, some of your points in this article brought to mind another one I read that’s very complementary. It’s called “How to Get Any Project Up and Running” and you can find it at http://www.markforster.net/index.php?view=56 .

    I’m really looking forward to this category/series!

  3. Gerard van Stijn Link to this comment

    Thanx for the insight. It will be very useful for me.

  4. THANK YOU for this article. I hate my current job; I am a) sticking with it for now cuz it will get me where I need to be and b) working on other steps on the side…your article gives me reason to continue rather than end it all now. PS I am reading your blog at work 😉

  5. The folks who ask their friends for help coming up with an idea remind me of the people back in the DotCom days who’d run out, collect funding for a web business, hire employees, negotiate “strategic partnerships” and then, six months into the project, think “now we need some _content_”. Cart before the horse, much?

    If you expose yourself to the world you want to work in, the great ideas will come to you, as will the werewithal to do something useful about them…you don’t have to chase them down, just pay attention when they start beating you about the head. Deciding to start an idea business before you have an idea is just begging for failure, because even if you do come up with ideas that way, they’re much less likely to be related to solving real people’s real problems…which is what new businesses have to be really good at in order to survive and prosper.

  6. Ramit, Great point! I find one of the biggest things holding many entrepreneurs back is overvaluing ideas. Few people make a living selling ideas. Selling products or services as you mention is probably a more reliable road to wealth.

    Doug, You serious about the Peeps? I’m sure the VCs will be knocking at your door. Just don’t feed them until they give you money.

  7. Great article! Let me just add that you’re never too old to start looking for what you want, also you’re never too young to find it. If you never find, well at least you get to have fun trying. I am currently embarking on my fourth career after finding the others not to my tastes.

  8. If you liked this article, you may also enjoy Paul Graham’s article on Ideas for Startups.

  9. People that sit down at try to come up with ideas are doomed to fail. Those who have good ideas as a result of reading and thinking and later think “Hey, I could turn this into a good idea” are more likely to succeed.

  10. Interesting article.

    There are so many opportunities out there for taking existing ideas and doing them better, particularly when it comes to software development.

    Like you, I hate Excel. I’d pay good money for a better version of Excel, and never mind the next big idea.

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