There’s a refrain that’s become popular with some of the most respected voices in the start-up landscape. It goes this like this: “Ideas are worthless; execution is everything.” I agree 100% with the second part of this statement — execution is key — but the first part pisses me off. Ideas aren’t worthless. In fact, they’re the lifeblood of most entrepreneurs.
I’m an entrepreneur. I love ideas. I love brainstorming. I especially enjoy that short period in the morning when ideas rush through my head as I’m waking up. In that moment, I am the most remarkably brilliant person on the planet. I think about hundreds of ways to make world a better place and make a generate a billion dollars in revenue. I’m Einstein, Jobs, and Edison all at once. Of course, after a coffee and a shower, the ideas aren’t not quite as brilliant. Most stay scribbled in a notebook or get lost over time. But that’s the point. If we don’t rejoice in the experience of creating and contemplating ideas, we’re stifling a key part of the entrepreneurial process.
Moving beyond the idea stage and pursuing execution is hard. It’s a big step and requires perseverance, patience, communication skills and deep knowledge. You have to be committed order to move an idea from the abstract to reality. It takes leadership and vision. But the foundation of the vision is your idea. You need to shine it brightly in the sky for everyone to see clearly and refer to when tough decisions need to be made. In other words, ideas shape execution. Amazon wouldn’t be the earth’s biggest marketplace if Jeff Bezos didn’t start with a audacious idea. eBay, Airbnb, Instagram, Google, Twitter — all brilliant ideas that guided execution (with a bit of good timing and luck). Every great company started with core idea and belief — perhaps, like me, something that entered as a vision in the half-light of the morning.
It may seem like a minor tweak, but I think it’s important to choose words very carefully. The word “worthless” demeaning and demoralizing. It would be fine to say “ideas are easy, execution is hard.” But don’t ever call my ideas or anyone else’s worthless, because they’re not.
There’s another issue related to ideas that’s often hotly debated – protecting your idea. Many entrepreneurs are fearful that someone will steal their great idea. They ask partners, advisors, and even sometimes investors to sign non-disclosure agreements so they don’t steal their idea or give it to someone else. For a person just starting out, this is unnecessary, and in fact, counterproductive. The more people you speak with the more introductions you can get to other people who can help you move your idea from your head down the path of implementation. NDAs are common, and justified, only once you’ve developed some process around creating your product and protecting details primarily for marketing purposes. You want to control the messaging and timing of announcements so it’s seen as news by reporters and bloggers.
On the other hand, if you set the vision and foundation for the company and other people take it and run with it you may have a legitimate claim. That claim wouldn’t be that you “owned” the idea, but participated in the building the foundation of the business. You may argue that the Winklevoss twins and the origin of Facebook is a good example of someone — namely Zuckerberg — stealing an idea. But in that case, the bigger issue was the implied contract between the Tyler and Cameron claiming that they had hired Zuckerberg to build a social networking service (ConnectU) for them.
There’s another legal case playing out now that could help determine the value of an idea. Reggie Brown was a frat brother at Stanford with Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, the two founders of Snapchat. Brown worked with Spiegel and Murphy on the original service — then called Picaboo — and claims that the idea for “disappearing messages” was his. After some early friction and maneuvering he was kicked out or simply chose to leave the company. Brown filed a lawsuit claiming that he is 1/3 owner of the company — which is now valued at between two and three billion dollars. So this is really big money. But is participating in the formation of an idea worth the same percentage as execution? Probably not. It will be interesting to see what the court decides.
Image via Kevygee on Flickr