The Value of an Idea

Zen Digest

  • Ideas alone are essential useless
  • The value lies in execution

The Whole Picture

When I was in college, I had an idea for the next big video game.  At the time, games like Everquest were huge and the game World of Warcraft (the highest grossing video game of all time) was in development and slated to be released.  The gaming world was ready to open their wallets and pay huge amounts to play games that would provide them with endless hours of game-play.  I had an idea for a game that could have been huge.  But this isn’t about that game, so I’ll spare you the details of how the game would have worked.

At the time I had this idea, I was running College Boredom and as a sub-site, I created a game called Boredom Ville.  Boredom Ville had massed a few thousand users, many of which were paying for additional perks within the game.  So, armed with my minor success with Boredom Ville and my great idea, I enlisted the help of a professor of mine to get a meeting with a major game developer to sell my idea.

I was lucky and was given the audience of a senior project manager.  I was allowed 1 hour to sell my idea to this person.  I spent days perfecting my presentation, and walked into the meeting with a great Powerpoint presentation as well as a batch of freshly baked cookies.  While I wasn’t quite as experienced as I am today, I can honestly say that I nailed the presentation.  All the cookies I brought got devoured, everyone watched with awe (one of my teachers, as well as my dean was also in attendance).  I even heard a few “wow” and “awesome” here and there.  45 minutes went by and I got to my final slide.  It had the words “Thank you for listening.  Questions?”

I got a question I was expecting, “Where’s the demo?”  My response was something eloquent, but in short I said that I only have the idea, but I was pitching the idea so that I could be hired on to produce or project manage this game and see it to completion.  I even showed a very reasonable budget for how much it would cost to build.  I’m not sure what I expected as a response.  I guess I hoped for a job offer, or maybe even an investment proposal.  What I got was shocking at the time.  The response was, “Build it, then we will produce it.”

I then learned that “produce” meant they would put the final product in a box, and put the box in stores and get it distributed and take 15-20%.  I would have to front the cost of development, and build all of it.  I was in awe.  At the time I was angry, and even challenged the person to say “If I have to fund and build this, why wouldn’t I just distribute it myself?”  Needless to say, I was never given the opportunity to build this video game, but, thanks to an NDA, this company is also unable to ever build my idea for themselves.

For years, I was always frustrated by this experience.  How could an idea be so worthless?  How could a company be so audacious to believe that they can take my finished product, slap their name on it, put it in a box, then take 20% (which is apparently a fairly reasonable, if not low, distribution/production fee).  Business school didn’t prepare me for that one – maybe an MBA would have, but not undergrad.

Since then, I’ve had lots of ideas.  Many of them crazy, unrealistic, or simply not commercially viable.  But a few of them were genuinely good ideas (in fact, others have also had these ideas, and successfully executed on them, many of which are thriving businesses).  I remember one time thinking to myself “They stole my idea.”  In fact, I’ve heard many people say that.  But, it took me a long time to realize that ideas are rarely unique.  In fact, good chance is that someone else has had your idea.  For every idea acted on, there are hundreds passed up.

Where value lies is in the ability to turn an idea into reality.  A great idea, executed poorly, will have poor results.  A good idea, executed excellently, will have excellent results.  It is actually better to execute very well on mediocre ideas than it is to execute poorly on amazing ideas.  Take Starbucks.  There is nothing terribly genius about a coffee house.  It was not a unique idea, it was far from the first coffee house, but Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker, and Zev Siegl executed their idea in an amazing way.

Working in the world of start ups, I’ve seen many failures.  Many of the companies that were fellow start ups a few years ago, are no longer in existence.  Some of them had amazing ideas, some of them had terrible ideas.  What is always shocking is when an idea that you think is terrible or crazy becomes a success, but more confusing is when an idea that you think will be huge simply flops.  Looking at the big picture, I realized that I was looking at things the wrong way.  I judged a business based off it’s founding idea, and not it’s implementation plan.  When I looked at things from that perspective, things made much more sense.  Those crazy ideas suddenly seemed more viable because their management team played to the PR strengths of the craziness, and capitalized well.  The companies with great ideas that flopped failed to listen to their market, or failed to create a strong team and product.

The same principles apply anywhere.  When writing a book, the ability to weave a good story that is consistent, and the ability to resolve the story in a reasonable fashion is actually more important than the idea itself.  As always, a bad premise or story will lead to a flop, but the ability to consistently weave an interesting story is what is key.  The best writers can do that book after book.

No matter what you’re doing – planting a garden, taking a road trip, cooking a meal, writing software, or even just being a good friend – the key is knowing what your goal is, and being able to get there.  The idea (or destination) is simply a point on the map, your ability to get to that destination creatively, and with as much excitement as possible is the key.


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