The ideas are the easy bit

How much is a good idea worth?

Sabeer Bhatia, one of the founders of Hotmail, was so convinced that free web-based email was the best idea ever ever that he became terrified he might blurt it out to a passerby before he could incorporate. He later sold his business to Microsoft for $400 million, so maybe he knew what he was talking about. On the other hand, he didn’t sell the idea for all that money. He sold a thriving business. How much was the idea worth?

Joel Spolsky of JoelOnSoftware takes a different view. In his opinion, the idea is secondary to the execution. Good ideas are cheap as chewing gum. As he puts it:

The common belief is that when you’re building a software company, the goal is to find a neat idea that solves some problem which hasn’t been solved before, implement it, and make a fortune. We’ll call this the build-a-better-mousetrap belief. But the real goal for software companies should be converting capital into software that works. The trouble with build-a-better-mousetrap is that there’s not a lot of evidence that it works.

We have some sort of in-bred predisposition to overvalue the idea and undervalue the work required to do anything remotely useful with the idea. I once heard an interview with chameleon-comedienne Tracey Ullman in which she said she based her cab-driver character “Chic” on a self-inflation phenomenon she had witnessed in LA. On more than one occasion, cabbies told her stories about how, for example, they had given Spielberg a lift and gave him the idea to make a movie about dinosaurs, or World War II, or whatever. And then he goes and makes a million dollars! The bum! He stole my idea! He owes me big time!

As writer Neil Gaiman says in an excellent essay called “Where do you get your ideas?”

Every published writer has had it – the people who come up to you and tell you that they’ve Got An Idea. And boy, is it a Doozy. It’s such a Doozy that they want to Cut You In On It. The proposal is always the same – they’ll tell you the Idea (the hard bit), you write it down and turn it into a novel (the easy bit), the two of you can split the money fifty-fifty.

The real question for Gaiman and other talented and productive creative types like him isn’t “where do you get your ideas?” The still more vexing question is “where do you get the ability to overpower blank pages day after day after day and create stories that people will pay good money for?” The ideas might not be the magic part, but that doesn’t mean there’s no magic in there.

4 thoughts on “The ideas are the easy bit”

  1. Hmmm… did you get that link to Gaiman from Angus in my blog comments? As he said in email to me, he turned my thread into an old favorite beer conversation topic between us: “why we suck.” :-) I have a post i need to make following up on that, with the theme of “hire smart people, who get things done” — another Spolsky point.

  2. I can’t remember where I came across that essay. It may have been on your site, but it connected immediately with a few other things drifting through my lazy head. Like my mom always said, “those that can’t do, write, and those that can’t write, blog.”

  3. I guess if it was only the idea that mattered, Lazyweb.org would be minting millionaires by the minute. And I wouldn’t characterize Hotmail as “a thriving business” at the time it was purchased by MS. It was a money losing service with lots of free-loading users, and well, MS bought it any way so go figure. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  4. Hey Ned, long time no see.

    I have to give you 100% support for this point. I often tell clients, “Good ideas are all around us. We just need to pick a few up and make them work to be successful.” It’s truly remarkable how disarming this comment can be … it takes the “consultant as fount of ideas” (which is a false panacea at best) and turns it upside down. In fact, I try to be sure on each project to tell client leadership that the ideas came from their own people. Makes them look good, feel good, and take ownership of a combined effort to fix whatever issues are at hand.

    I’d take your theme one step further and say, “What good ideas ever reach fruition without significant transformations along the way?” The evidence supports that a good idea is barely step one. Then you need to think of everything that could go wrong and develop contingencies (and refine those continuously along the way!), stay flexible in your execution, and have some very smart and experienced advisors who can offer counsel in the form of “sanity checks” on your progress and options to deal with obstacles that do arise.

    It’s attributed to Thomas Jefferson but fits your theme well, though it’s quoted with such frequency that the true meaning is dulled (I see it often quoted to somehow “prove” that risk equals reward) … “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” My humble interpretation is the more ideas put into play, and refined along the way, the more likely that factors beyond your control (“luck”) will come together to make a viable venture.

    Paracelsius rambles back, anyone? Imitiation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if you remember our days in grade school, I was frequently your shadow in that regard … just trying to make your ideas work I guess :-)

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