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What should I do with an idea?

Ramit Sethi

A little email exchange I had with an iwillteachyoutoberich reader about what to do after coming up with an idea:

After explaining his idea, Devin writes:

I have some great ideas for the marketing and business end of things, but I need an engineer or someone with some serious electronics access/background to build a prototype. Do you have any idea who I should start calling to get things in the works?

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I know you said to not be concerned with giving an idea away, but I feel like this one is really dependent on being one of the first out of the gate. I’m really interested in any insight you have on who to talk to. I’d love to spitball more of the framework to you, but like the previous idea, I have precious little in terms of background, and people I approach with the idea generally aren’t very convinced no matter how passionate I lay it out for them. If I want this to work, I’m going to need to talk to someone who can provide me with enough cash to get some programmers working on it.

I reply:

I think you may want to keep shopping these ideas around and hearing what people have to say. If nobody is sold on it, that usually tells you something. I don’t want to crush dreams, but I hate seeing people spending a bunch of time on me-too projects. So ask yourself: Would you use another social network? Or small device? How many of them already exist? If you still think you would, then I’d continue asking trusted people what they think and if they can recommend engineers.

Devin’s response:

I appreciate the advice. You know how it goes… You get an itch, and the next thing you know you forget about it, and then a year down the road, someone pops up with your idea and makes a bunch of money. It’s happened to me twice, and I don’t let it get me down. After all, I’m still quite young.

I’ve just come to this recent crossroads where I’m in my third year of college, and I’m desperate to start working on something interesting and bigger than myself while I have the time. My personality lends itself to leading these sorts of projects, so I guess the real question is, how do I find people who are willing to help me execute ideas?

The toughest part about that I’ve found, is that so many people in college are really more focused on their own studies, career, or future. The cost of college, the majority of which is being paid for by moms and dads, has really (in my opinion) stagnated a lot of the off-the-cuff on-a-whim ideas that ought to be pursued in the academic setting. I’ll probably coming off sounding like an asshole, but I have to be honest with you– I feel like the majority of people I talk to think innovation is impossible and while they may be brilliant, rarely have the capacity to throw caution to the wind and run with it. Where have all the young inventors gone?

Hell, just one more person with passion equal to mine and I’d have a company, but I’m telling you, I’ve had some pretty bad luck in finding people who believe their ideas are worth more than a semester of college, and that’s getting me down.

And finally, my response:

I agree with you on some points, but disagree on others. Bottom line is why not just build the skills for yourself to develop the ideas on your own?

Once something of yours takes off, you’ll find people flocking to you. People love riding the coattails of success. But trying to convince people without something is hard–and rightfully so. My friends and I get people trying to pitch us on “this great idea” all the time, but they’re rarely around 2 months later. That’s why building credibility is so important.

I love how excited he is about his idea. The next step, of course, is to take Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher’s words to heart:

“We have a ‘strategic’ plan. It’s called doing things.”

See also The Myth of the Great Idea and all of my articles on personal entrepreneurship.

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22 Comments

 
  1. stratamarr

    Ramit- I think your thoughts are dead-on, there’s no need for him to be afraid of someone stealing his idea. And he doesn’t need an “Idea” partner (maybe a financial partner, but it doesn’t sound like he’s at that stage yet).

    The thing is, I get that he’s passionate about the idea, which is essential when you’re building a product from the ground up, but that it’s thrilling/scary at the same time. This may be enough to freeze him and shelve the idea, only to see it produced later.

    I would be bothered if I was 0 for 3 for a product that I had the idea originally, only to see it produced later. Thankfully, that’s only happened to me once!

    I’m not sure what type of college he attends, but I’d be surprised if he could not tap into the resources available. Maybe because he is young and has little business experience, but I sense he is holding back.

    Has he tried going to the engineering department (if his college has one) and talking with professors and students? I mean, engineers love to tinker with new stuff, at least the ones I know. Has he posted a flyer with his contact info? Sought out clubs at his school and if near a city where other schools are, networked there? Heck, has he even gone to see his advisor?

    Many of the larger schools have entrepreneurship programs that love to help, even if he does not attend their school, they would likely give a couple of contacts to him to pursue.

    Of course, he should also get this down on paper, starting with a business plan (even if he does not have all the details yet) and develop his elevator speech.

  2. MyNameIsMatt

    Oh the pains of trying to make an idea happen. I know them well. From my experience, if you don’t have the money to hire people, even if they’re enthusiast and interested in an idea, they’re more worried about what they’re doing now to stay afloat. Most people are not entrepreneurs, and most people aren’t willing to take on the risks of living that kind of life (which from my opinion are far less than people think, but fear has a way of distorting).

    Doing or making an idea on your own is a requirement. You don’t have to be able to make the finished product, but if you can’t put something into a person’s head beyond words out of your mouth, you’re doomed to chasing someone who can do that work, and they’re more likely to be doing the work, or working for someone who will actually pay them. That’s the painful truth. However, if you can draw something, excel something, construct in claw, whatever, then you chances will get better. Still, you’re fighting an uphill (more like mountain) battle convincing people to join your team, especially if you’ve never done this before.

    The most important quality of an entrepreneur isn’t someone who can think up great ideas, but someone who can execute. If you can’t DO an idea, then that idea is worthless. If someone else makes it a year later, it’s because they could do. I have friends who like to think they could be entrepreneurs, and I absolutely hate when they say, “I had that idea a year ago, two years ago, etc.” So f’n what. What did you DO about it? Nothing. And where were they when I made my ideas and actually made them come true? Rooting me on, but not picking up a finger to actually make it happen, and those are my closest friends. Why should a stranger react any better. That’s the difference between a real entrepreneur and a dreamer. Some people just aren’t made for this kind of life.

  3. Nathaniel

    Great post Ramit. I know I’ve felt the same way more than a couple times: you get all excited about an idea but as you talk to people they bring you down. Ideas need emotional backing far before they need financial backing. The bottom line of course is, as Ramit pointed out, that we learn from doing.
    And hey, a lot of young entrepreneurs are right here on this blog. I’m sure a lot of us would be happy to assist with questions—I’m far from an expert but I’d be happy to bounce ideas around.

  4. John

    When I see things like “first-mover advantage” and “confidentiality agreement” in the context of entrepreneurship, it screams to me one thing: INEXPERIENCE!

    I could go on and on, but I think it would be easier to point this reader to a master of these sorts of things: Guy Kawasaki. He’s got a great post that deals with this sort of thing: The top ten lies of entrepreneurs. Your reader should take a close look at #5 and #6 and then spend some time on Guy’s website learning more about how things really work.

  5. John

    it seems to me that devin is in the perfect environment to get what he wants done. go down to the business school & grab a few 2nd or 3rd year students, then head over to the computer labs for some techies, & if he’s really smart, he’ll pitch the ideas to a few professors to get it to count as a class project (it’s amazing how much free work you can get out of people under the guise of school credits). someone in the right place might even get you approved for a research grant to help offset development costs (just be careful the school doesn’t try to sell the idea out from under you).

  6. Jason Sares

    He should find a php developer to create a mockup. That’s what Kevin Rose did and look at his success. Of course I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Kevin was a semi famous TV personality. 😉

  7. Leio

    Rammit, I have to politely disagree with you on a couple points. Mainly your advice that this guy “develop the ideas on [his] own.” After reading the email through, it sounds like this guy wants to develop some software. Unfortunately, developing software and selling the product is MUCH more difficult than most people think. Most people have the idea that once a great software product is developed, it takes the world by storm and the creators make a pile of money. Not true. There are TONS of software projects out there that fail all the time regardless of their technical merits and/or social merits, because they are unable to sell themselves properly, or address the needs of the users they are targeting properly.
    I would point this everyone to joelonsoftware.com. A blog written by Joel Spolsky, one of the leading voices in the software development community. In a recent interview, when asked if there was anything that Joel could go back in time and do he responded, “The number one thing is a micro-ISV shouldn’t be one person, it should be two people at the very least and one of them should have the business and marketing and sales skills experience. The other one should have the tech skills and the programming and the inventing the product type of skills. That kind of partnership is far more likely to be successful than the individual working alone just because people don’t usually have both of those skill sets and so they really need to all be covered.”
    Finally, I’d just like to applaud your stance on shopping ideas around. I think it is far more important to KNOW you have a good idea before spending months or years developing it, only to find out it isn’t such a great idea. I’d like to point out that there are very few tech ideas that aren’t pursued by multiple people, usually the one that wins is a combination of good design and proper marketing. The best software doesn’t usually win with crappy marketing, and crappy software with good marketing doesn’t either (disclaimer: sometiems large companies can get away with the latter because they have a large built in customer base already, and can throw insane amounts of resources into making a bad product better in a relatively short amount of time).

  8. Sheridan

    Let me give you some perspective from the other side of this problem. I can’t count the number of times someone has learned that I have a degree in Computer Science (not to mention several years of experience working with web-based technologies) and then told me they have got “an idea that will change my life.”

    Now, I listen politely no matter what kind of idea is being described. Then I discuss the idea, and more importantly what the person has done already. 9 times out of 10 the conversation drops off here because the only thing the person has done is to think about the idea. From my perspective this is the same as saying, “I have something I thought up but haven’t done anything with. If you do all of the work I will gladly share the profits.”

    Now that may sound mean, but when you have ideas coming at you all the time you notice that many of them start sounding very similar. For example, the two most common ideas I have been pitched amount to the next Monster.com and the next MySpace.com. So the idea of my doing all of the work on an idea that I have heard half a dozen times before just isn’t going to get me onboard.

    Very recently, however, a friend came to me with an idea. He didn’t present it as something that would change my life instantly. Instead he went over actual numbers that he had collected through market research. He discussed where and how the product would be sold. He even had thought up some of the questions I might ask and presented me with their answers before I had to ask them. Being a technical person, I am very interested in working with someone who is going to handle all of the sales and marketing. Someone who has done market research and has actual numbers they can present to me. You see, these are all things with which I don’t have experience.

    To top all of this off, he even presented me with hand drawn sketches of some ideas for what the web pages for this might look like. All of this effort, along with the fact that it really appears to be an original idea, is what finally won me over.

    I hope this helps to clarify why some people don’t seem interested in helping, and how you might change their minds.

  9. Parveen

    I usually reply to arrogance in kind with blasphemy: That is pretty god-damn arrogant.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pitched ideas. Ideas don’t matter as much as execution does. In most cases that I’ve seen, the first idea is wrong and it is iterated on until something correct is forged.

    As a game developer, I can’t tell you the number of times “teh best game evar, d00d!!!” has been pitched to me.

    Game development doesn’t work like that, software development doesn’t work like that, and product development in general doesn’t work like that.

    If you are a business/marketing guy, concentrate on putting together capital, infrastructure, and connections. Leave R&D to people that do R&D.

  10. JonP

    I’d like to recommend a book called Winning Credibility by Michael Michalewicz (ISBN 1876462418). The problem I see your reader having is that he is lacking credibility, and hence lacking the acceptance from people willing to invest in his idea or to even work for him.

    The book is somewhat different from business books in that it doesn’t delve too much into how to run a business, or financials etc. Instead, it gives advice you would normally get from a mentor. How to get started, who to approach, how to build up the little pieces of credibility. And you need that credibility so that clients will want to buy from you, so that capitalists will want to invest in you and so that people will want to work for you.

    Right now they see him as just as another student, he plays his cards right and he will be seen as the next big up and comer. Someone to hook up with early and ride the waves of success to come.

  11. Drew

    It’s almost like Devin has been reading from a transcript of my last six months, almost verbatim.

    I try to tell myself the same things that you’re telling him, but my problem remains the time to develop the technical skill set to develop the prototype.

    Bootstrapping a start-up like this leaves you very little time to step back from your idea and learn the specific technical skills to get there. You can spend hours learning a development tool and before long forget why you’re doing it.

    My advice would be a compromise between outsourcing the expertise and the “just do it” recommendation you’ve mentioned. Try to develop a 35-30% solution on your own, improve your pitch/presentation, and build mock-ups or write up design specifications for the 70-75% you can’t do.

    Armed with a little more information, maybe you’ll be more apt to find the right person to help you out. People get excited by ideas, but will always need to see it for themselves. Show them a little bit more.

  12. Kent DeCesare

    Ramit — very nice post. I agree with you wholeheartedly that a large part of being passionate about an idea is to find ways to get your idea done. You will always have to sell your idea, whether it’s to customers, investors, friends, family, etc. It seems as though a barrier to an idea is finding talent to help you execute. I believe that is one of the hidden barriers that provide an out from taking a risk. I have used that very barrier myself in the past, and only realized it after the fact. Bottom line is once you believe in your idea and get to the point of that idea being executable, you will find a way to get it done, whether it’s a resource, a partner, whatever. The point is that you must first believe in that idea to the point that you can sell it to most anyone. Once you get to that level, finding the resources to execute should not be a problem.

  13. WhitneyDT

    I think a trip to a local library with a strong business reference service would be the right thing for this young man. They have many resources from patent logs to start-up listings that would give him a feel for whether or not his idea really is novel and really does have merit; in addition, librarians have patron confidentiality ingrained as part of their professional ethics, so he would not have to worry about idea theft.

    We have a number of entrepreneurs as part of our business patron clientele–several of whom credit the assistance received from the library as one reason for their success.

  14. michaelb1

    This is a great discussion.
    I have about 5 ideas bouncing around right now that I would like to develop. Not necessarily to get rich but to learn a lot and get involved in something.
    I go to a University in the DC area. I never thought to exploit my schools clubs and resources.
    I’m going to look into that.

  15. MyNameIsMatt

    One other person mentioned this, and it’s kinda under the covers of many other posts, but he needs to ask himself, if he actually finds someone to do the work, what would he himself do then? If there’s nothing for a person to do them self once an idea is out, then that person better be afraid because they’re of no use.

    In one partnership I tried to get off the ground, I was playing the lead technical role and had another technical person as well as a veteran sales man (25+ year of experience in sales and management). However, at the end of the day, I was the only person doing any real work. What was my motivation for working with them? I wasn’t even that enthusiastic about the idea. The other technical guy thought it was good enough just throwing out ideas, but did little designing or coding. The salesman didn’t even contribute ideas as much as I prodded him because he felt out of his element, and was only playing a subordinate role in marketing.

    Devin needs to ask himself if he’ll end up being one of those two guys. Really wants to be a part of the team, but provides no real value. Even if he can find people to work with (for free), if he can’t provide support beyond ideas, then they’ll leave him behind as I did the others. Where I moved onto an idea I was more passionate about, even if I couldn’t really find others with the same passion. People can like ideas and morally support an idea, which is nice to have, but that provides no real executable momentum, and at the end of the day, the one who sweats is the one who deserves the gain.

  16. junger

    That’s a great quote. Unfortunately, working in the corporate world often involves more talking and planning than actual action. Staying small and taking control can keep any product rolling along.

  17. Sri

    Dont be fooled by all those people who founded google, youtube, paypal etc….however great their success, its a needle in a haystack.

    Work for 3-4 years, save $50,000 and then look into developing your idea.

  18. Sri

    To the individual, I am sure your idea sounds the greatest. I had a few ideas myself that I thought was simply fantastic. Here are some: Now when I look back at it, I laugh.

    1) A very tiny 1 room hotel in the best locations in all major cities. A person would swipe their credit card to get in. (not a great idea coz ur using the best real estate location to make $100 a night? for 12 hours?)

    2) A chain of very very tiny stores that sold only Mcdonalds FRIES. Thats it. Nothing else but fries. (

  19. Sri

    Here is a way to find out if you yourself believe in your product/idea. After working 3-4 years and saving up $50,000….would you invest that money into your product? Its easy to say yes when you havent earned it yet. But if you know it was 3-4 years of blood and sweat, then you will think twice. I have the money right now to do wonders but what is holding me back is that it took me 7 years to save $X money. I would hate to blow it on a idea that is flaky.

    Its also very easy for people to take loans and start a business. As I said, when its not your money, you dont mind taking risks.

  20. M

    Make sure not to disclose your idea to the public if you intend to patent it.

  21. activevibe

    Being technically-oriented, I can empathize with Devin– but from the opposite end of the spectrum. My main issue with my ideas is shopping it around, and gauging and generating visibility, interest via marketing and exposure. Giving life and presence to tangible forms of my ideas are simple enough.

    It’s one thing to be gifted with an innovative or forward-thinking mindset, or to be technically or mechanically adept. It’s another to expect, especially nowadays, one person to be an expert of all trades necessary to successfully launch a business or succeed with an idea.

    The exception are those whose extremely rare ideas are so innately obvious and well-executed in hindsight which causes us ask, “Why didn’t I think of that myself?”

  22. K

    I get pitched ideas all the time, good, bad, or so-so.

    Ideas alone are pretty much worthless. What I want to see is some proof the entrepreneur is going to stick the project out, either past success, a prototype, heck, even a long running and successful blog. Something that shows the person is in it for the long haul.

    Many will start, few actually finish.