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?
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.