So, You Have An Idea?

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Our business in life is not to get ahead of others,
but to get ahead of ourselves — to break our own
records, to outstrip our yesterday by our today.
–Stewart B. Johnson

You have an idea playing pinball in your head.

Good, great but before filing for that LLC, quitting your job, and putting a deposit down on that office
downtown, consider what type of idea you are working with and what, if anything, you should do with it.

Entrepreneurial types go through “good” ideas like t-shirts and when you are building products on a platform that lets you open up shop for the price of a domain name, it becomes a wee bit difficult to figure out when you’ve hit gold.

So, as we begin exploring ideas, here are a few questions to ask yourself the next time a great, new concept hits you.

  • How much time do you have?
  • What are your technical talents?
  • How important is “income” to you?

Surprised you, didn’t I?

The first few questions have nothing at all to do with the product and everything to do with you.

Before beginning down the long, dusty trail of the entrepreneur, take a moment to take a personal inventory because honestly, if you have scads of talent, infinite amounts of time and a trust fund waiting for you, you have a lot more room to try out new ideas than if you are working on paying off student loans and have a bun in the oven.

The best ideas, the ones that build brands and transform industries, position you to make the right product at the right time. The only way you can hope to take advantage of this is if you are certain that you are, right at this moment, the right person for the job.

Let’s Get You Started

Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one’s ideas, to take a calculated risk - and to act. -Andre Malreaux

If your personal inventory teaches you anything, it should be to introduce you to your first big constraint, yourself.

To that end, I don’t want to help tell you how to get more ideas. This isn’t a book about creativity and I am going to assume, starting now, that finding interesting things to build is not your core problem.

What I will try to do is help you sort through your ideas and find the good ones.

If your first constraints are the time and resources you have to devote to the project, then your next few constraints can be summarized by asking how easy it is for you to get the right people, in the right place, with the right tools to get your idea to market.

The people and the place are mostly up to you (though we will touch on these topics briefly later in this chapter), the tools and the questions you need to start asking are where I want to turn our attention next.

Let’s start with this one,

Will they use it?

Let’s say you’re building a Social Network.

Whatever the concept behind that network, you’ll want to know who in the world will actually use this, and why does the world need another Social Network?

Where can your answer be found?

Your first filter should be pain.

No matter how amazing you think a project might be, the only thing that matters is whether the problem you are trying to solve is causing someone, somewhere excruciating pain. Real or imaginary, people only use products that they think will make some nagging problem in their lives go away.

  • Lightbulbs keep you from running into things.
  • Freezers keep your Chunky Money cold.
  • Television sets keep your children from driving you to an institution.

The list is endless.

Ask yourself whether you could build a support group around your idea and you will start to see whether the pain you are healing is substantial enough to warrant a product.

Seeking out the point of pain should be your first line of defense when trying to determine which projects to pursue.

If that isn’t enough, this short exercise might help you whittle that list down even more.

First, start with your best idea.

  • Write down a short description of your idea on a piece of paper. Try to explain all the features that made you excited about building it out in the first place.
  • Show that piece of paper to someone who you believe is a potential user. Ask him what he thinks of the idea. When you hear his suggestions, write them down.
  • Take that same piece of paper to another, random person and show it to her – listen to her reaction and record her suggestions.
  • Repeat this process as many times as you have the patience for, taking special note of the problems, suggestions and amendments that come up the most often. Alter your original idea so it solves all the problems on your list.
  • Once you have your new concept, repeat this entire process again.

Introducing your idea to Iteration is the next big step to filtering out the ones that don’t meet muster. If your idea came out of that process stripped naked and weeping, then chances are there were significant holes that you did not notice while it was only in your head.

Speaking of Iteration.

If you want a build a better product, you first have to assume that your current idea will begin its life in a sorry state. Allow at least one other person to slice open your ideas while you are still lightly invested enough to be willing to take suggestions. Keep an open mind and realize that the changes you make right in the beginning, when the idea is little more than a gleam in your mind’s eye, will be a lot more palatable than when it means shifting around 4 weeks worth of work.

Those two filters should get rid a vast majority of your mental detritus. If you are still finding yourself trapped with too many ideas and not enough time, here are a few steps you can take to process the remainder.

Identify Your Problem

When coming up with ideas, a lot of people have a really unclear grasp of what problem they are actually trying to solve. What are you trying to accomplish with this idea? What type of quantifiable goals are you trying to achieve? Before you take your new idea out of the paddocks, you have to clearly define what it is you are actually trying to do.

“I want to create a social network that will attract college age students who are interested in graphic design.” is a much better problem domain than, “I want to get rich.” When trying to come up with an idea, the first step should always be to get as clear a picture as possible of what you want to accomplish.


After you understand your problem, start writing down solutions – lots of them. Most people believe they need to come up with the best possible idea the first time up to bat. They fear appearing to be wrong, even to themselves. This is intellectually crippling and the death of good idea generation. Think back to any good decision you have ever made and you will find that your “best” ideas are always a combination of many failed ones. Never be afraid to start brainstorming. I bet no one believed in the spork, but without it mashed potatoes would be a real chore to eat.

Even if something sounds ridiculous, there is likely a kernel of truth hidden inside. To make sure you don’t miss it, have a surplus of ideas. If you think you’ll need three concepts, work as if you’ll need ten. Force yourself to think outside of your comfort zone and you’ll find that ideas will start coming to you easily. Once the flood gates open, the most important thing is to write everything down. Your mind is a horrible place to store ideas.

With good ideas, the devils in the details and details require pen and ink.

Best of Breed

Now that you have your long list of potential ideas, it’s time to start being selective. Eliminate concepts that simply can’t work, but don’t forget to write down what you liked about them. What you should be left with are two lists: one containing reasonable ideas and the other with the best elements of your unreasonable ones. Maybe you can’t get 50,000 people for your marketing survey, that doesn’t mean surveys are a bad idea. Keep what works and fix those things that don’t.

Drop It

You have your list of great ideas and you feel like you are just one big push away from solving your problem. Congratulations, now it’s time to drop it. Put down your pad, close your mind map and walk away from the problem for the rest of the day. Do your best not to think about it at all. I don’t care how much you want to. When you spend a lot of time brainstorming solutions to a problem, myopia is quick to set in. Walking away from the problem gives your mind time to process everything that you have worked on, and gives you an opportunity to regain perspective.

Second Pass

Now that you have had some rest, it’s time to go through your list again. This time, you’re not alone. Run your ideas by friends, family, colleagues or anyone else you can find who is willing to sit down and listen to you ramble. People are afraid of allowing others to see ideas that are still in incubation, primarily because most of us really hate criticism, and assume any critical suggestion is a dig against the idea. This is simply not true. Getting fresh perspective on an idea can help you refine it, also explaining your ideas to others allows you to get a better understanding of what you were trying to accomplish in the first place.

Take external advice with a grain of salt, but be sure to take it. Use it to whittle down your list.

Take the Plunge

By now, you probably have a feel for which idea will be “the keeper.” It’s time to throw caution to the wind and put your thoughts into action. You can spend a lifetime refining an abstract concept to a fine point, but the absolute best way to improve an idea is to act upon it, see how it turns out and then make the adjustments. Take a deep breath, open your eyes and dive in.

Now that we know how to choose our ideas, let’s explore the other side of the coin.

Controlling Your Creativity

If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.
– Carl Sagen

Ideas are a buck fifty a piece, tops.

You should never be afraid to throw away a few that don’t feel perfect.

If you are going to build ideas for a living, what’s the point in keeping one around that isn’t up to par? If you don’t like it, burn it to the ground, salt the fields and move forward. Most importantly, be honest with yourself about your misgivings.

If you can’t put a finger on who would actually use your newest product, chances are no one will.

If you don’t understand how all of your features fit together, they probably don’t.

If you have no idea how you would ever make money off of this product, you probably can’t.

Never be afraid to start over. Sometimes, throwing an entire concept into the trash is the necessary first step to transform it into something you can be proud of.

Unwillingness to remove cancerous ideas from your life often boils down to the belief that:

There is Only One Perfect Idea

Tell that to the millions upon millions of imperfect ideas that have hit it big.

Our choices as creators are rarely between good and bad. Most often, they are between bad, better, best and all the shades of meaning in between.

There isn’t just one good idea or five or ten, there are an infinite number good implementations and it is up to us to recognize that our job is not to find the diamond in the rough but to find the perfect fit for ua. The idea that lines up with our strengths and uses our talents to their best advantage.

I’d like to expand on a point from earlier because I think it’s critically important. To maximize your chances of finding the right idea for you, when you’re brainstorming, always overdo it. If you need to come up with four new slogan ideas, why not come up with 14? If you’ve thought of 3 approaches to monetization, take the time to come up with 6 more. Even if a few of them are downright awful, you have a lot better chance of ending up with that diamond if you learn to mix and match.

Remember when I said we would talk about finding the right people? Why don’t we take a detour and do just that?

Going it alone

Let’s start with the dream.

The image of the noble inventor, sitting alone in his lab, rolling out an endless string of amazing ideas is quite a picture.

Tesla did it.

Einstein did it.

diVinci, well, we all know that story.

With a card catalog of geniuses who have blazed a trail, “all on their own” available for your perusal, it’s no surprise that so many of us believe we can do it all by ourselves.

The truth is that most of us can’t, sorry to say, and those of us who can probably shouldn’t.

Great ideas are pieced together from experience. Not only our own limited experiences, but those of our friends, family, co-founders and partners. That’s why the best piece of advice I can give you, once you have an idea that you believe is ready to pursue, is to find a group of people to take the journey with you.

For some of you that means filling a skill gap, finding a co-founder who can do what you can’t.

For some of you that means filling an information gap, finding people with the subject knowledge that will allow you to move forward intelligently.

For the rest of you, it just means filling a perspective gap, finding people who can flip your idea on its head and see it without the biases you have developed from looking at it for too long.

No matter the case, take some time to develop a core group of people whose opinions you can rely on.

Well, that took a while, coming up with good ideas can be a painstaking process, and sorting through them to find where your resources should be directed can be even worse. Let’s take another perspective. Instead of grinding out a giant list of mediocre ideas, we should explore the mechanism you are using develop ideas and see if we can improve upon that.

Nurturing the Seed

All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up – Pablo Picasso

How do you grow your ability to get good ideas?

When you were young, it was easy.

You would sit down on the swings and ask yourself whether the Incredible Hulk carried around extra shirts for when he transformed, or in my case, whether a man-sized paper airplane made out of crate paper and dropped from the roof could really carry me off into space (the answer was no, painfully).

It was so easy then, these days, you’re lucky if you can pick out a new cup of coffee.

What changed?

A big part of the problem is that so many of us forget the most important lesson from our childhood, the lesson that we are capable of learning and that imagination is limitless.

More often than not, we start to forget the moment we’re thrown into the real world and find ourselves with a job.

You, Inc.

Too many of us feel we are defined by our careers.

Who can blame us?

Most of the practical skills that you have now came from the training that you received “onsite.” You were taught how to work and how to excel at a particular task, and you were brainwashed into believing that your task was the axis on which the universe spun.

Despite the fact that you are now escaping that world to pursue your dream of Internet riches, the skills you picked up in your career are still warm places to hang your hat, and the box from which most of your ideas spring.

Stop limiting yourself!

Learning to Learn

If you were an investment banker, why do all of your ideas have to do with finance? If you were a marketer, why can’t you stop developing new marketing techniques?

There are two things that are critically important for you to realize if you are going to develop good products.

The first is that if you are too close to a subject, it’s nearly impossible for you to come up with a novel idea around it. You understand it too well, you’ve “seen” too much of it, you know all of the rules and subconsciously you are going to develop ideas that play within these rules. That’s why children are so great at coming up with interesting things, they don’t know any of the rules so no matter what subject they are looking at, they are always threading on new territory.

The second rule is that really great ideas take something you know well and applies it to something completely different. Ask yourself how all of the techniques you picked up in finance can apply to teaching? How can the skills you picked up as a blogger be used to build a strong Fishing community? How can you take two, seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge and combine them to make something better than both.

It worked for peanut butter and bananas. You can do it too.

Keeping this in mind, how can you recognize a good idea when you see it? Here are four rules that might help:

Great Ideas Are Cheap

“If I had $50 Million in funding and a hundred person staff I could definitely put together a Google killer.” This kind of thinking, even if it is backed up by some technical details, ignores the fact that you don’t, in fact, have any of these things. Worse yet, you aren’t going to be happening upon a bundle of bills anytime soon. Especially on the web, great ideas are ones that you could put together with elbow grease, some social engineering, a little bit of hope and an American Express card.

Before considering an idea, make sure that it’s something that you could reasonably see yourself putting together if all your pie in the sky dreams of VC fell through.

Great Ideas Are Stupid

Great ideas take really simple concepts and build on them. No matter how technically complex it ends up becoming, the concept needs to be crystal clear. The best products are those that are built on incredible “stupid” ideas.

The telephone let two people talk over a distance. The airplane let people travel to far away lands quickly.

If the concept you are trying to get across can’t be explained just as broadly, spend some time working on clarifying your purpose.

Great Ideas Build Themselves

Know your skills.

An idea is only as good as your team’s ability build it. If you don’t have the talent, you better have a ready pool available to you. Once you have that raw talent, have enough faith in your team to use it. If you are spending hundreds of hours trying to figure out how to form an SQL query, you probably shouldn’t be putting together a database driven web application.

Successful ideas are one part concept and nine parts skill. Before throwing yourself into a project, take an inventory of your intellectual capital.

Great Ideas Just Work

Have realistic goals; have concrete steps that lead from concept to conclusion. If your idea banks on everyone in the world deciding that tweed sweaters are fashionable, well, you probably want to spend a little more time sanity checking it. The reason that so few ideas make it past the pad of paper is because they read more likely boring science fiction than practical products.

Before you dive into a new idea, try to decide whether anyone you know would actually use it and why.

The Short Version

We covered a lot of different ways to deal with ideas in this chapter. Before you leave, I want to make sure you pick up the following:

  • No matter how many good ideas you may be toying with, the first thing you need to do before trying to sort through them is to take a personal inventory and find out how much bandwidth you really have.
  • The next two questions you need to ask are who might want to use this idea and why they would choose it over currently available alternatives.
  • Once you are done asking the questions, it’s time to filter your ideas. One good method of doing this is eliminating any idea that doesn’t answer a clear point of pain. If it doesn’t bandage someone’s wounds, it is going to be a hard sell.
  • If any of your ideas make it this far, see how well they stand up to the scrutiny of someone other than yourself, and determine whether it would be easier to fix the problems or just start over.
  • Don’t be afraid to start over because ideas are a dime a dozen. Throw out anything that isn’t working and expand the ones that are so that you always have room to improve.
  • Finally, the best way to come up with better ideas so you don’t waste so much time sorting them is to realize that great ideas come from combining seemingly unlike things in unique ways. Be willing to think outside of your comfort zone.


  • Open up an Excel spreadsheet and make a list of all of your obligations (time, financial,
    personal). In a new column, create a list of how much time and money it will take to complete
    each segment of your project. Compare the two.
  • Write down descriptions for five ideas that you would love to see built. Send an email to a few
    friends and ask them to make your descriptions better. Make a new list of all the changes and
    compare your ideal projects against what the “world” believes is important.
  • Take an hour out of your day to learn something new, something completely unrelated to
    your project. If you need some inspiration, fire up your Internet machine and take a look at
  • Write down a list of must-have features for your product on a sheet of paper. Fold the sheet
    width-wise (this is critical folks, pay attention). Now, tear the paper in half. Keep your favorite half.
    That’s your new idea.
  • Take a day off from your project. Don’t write about it, don’t complete tasks associated with it, in
    fact, don’t even think about it if you can help it. Go outside, take a day in the park, and let your
    idea fend for itself.

Next: Case Study, Morten Blaabjerg, Kaplak | I know you’re excited about getting the PDF.

3 Responses to 'So, You Have An Idea?'

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  1. [...] Week 2 - So, You Have An Idea? [...]

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  3. [...] things that we create, and to be open to the fact that sometimes the best thing you can do for your nascent ideas is to leave them alone for a while, finish off what you are currently working on and come back to [...]

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