Ideas Aren’t Worthless

It’s common knowledge that “ideas are worthless”. An idea will bring you nowhere – you need implementation, focus, a good team, the right environment, luck, etc. And I won’t argue with that – obviously, an idea doesn’t bring you anywhere by itself. Just google for “ideas are worthless” and you can find dozens of convincing articles. Ideas change, ideas evolve, initial idea doesn’t matter.

But that’s the perspective of the businessman. A person whose interest is to make profit (nothing wrong with that, of course). Emphasizing the worthlessness of ideas brings a whole slew of startups that are there for the sake of being a startup. We’ll build something. We’ll figure it out along the way. Then they master the skills of fundraising, they focus on Lean, MVP, time-to-market, exit strategies, etc. etc. And that’s all great. Except that it’s not technology.

The perspective of a “hacker” is different. A hacker is thrilled by technology, he wants to be challenged. The ultimate point is not to have a startup, to get acquired, to make money. The ultimate point is to make something cool, something different, something technologically innovative.

I can have a dozen ideas per day. Things that may actually be turned into a startup. I know all of the above buzzwords, like Lean and MVP, so probably I can turn them into some sort of company. Do I do that? No. And not because I’m afraid not to have a stable income or wasting a couple thousand bucks. I don’t do that just because I’m not convinced they are cool, technological and challenging enough.

Probably, that’s the difference between great startups and mediocre ones. Not between successful and failed, because even mediocre ones can be “successful”, in terms of some revenue, some investment, being acquired. But between game-changers and the rest.

Yes, your ideas may be worthless, if they are worthless to you. If your idea is motivating you by itself, rather than by making you envision the success of the future company (i.e. “fall in love with the process, not with the end result”), then it’s the most important thing. Not for “success”, but for your experience.

So I’d choose carefully how to invest my time. I may be more valuable to the world and to myself by doing my job for an existing company, than by starting a new company for the sake of starting a company. Ideas are what’s important for us.

13 thoughts on “Ideas Aren’t Worthless”

  1. I’m a developer in the local startup scene. I must hear a hundred variants of ‘help me build my amazing idea and I’ll give you some equity’ every year.
    It’s these guys that the ‘ideas are worthless’ meme are aimed at. Their ideas are worthless. Not because they can’t work, but because they have no worth.
    My idea, however, is awesome. Because as you point out, it makes me get up in the morning and code all day, and go do uncomfortable things like marketing to help make it succeed. As an idea it’s still worthless to anyone else. As a dream it’s incredibly valuable to me.

  2. “I don’t do that just because I’m not convinced they are cool, technological and challenging enough.” —

    This exactly reflects my line of thought, but I always wonder whether this is the proper way of looking at it.

  3. Ideas are worthless? That’s news to me. Shit, I better close out some of my short positions.

    The problem with VC and this kind of chatter is that most of the industry has no clue what they are doing, which is why it performs so terribly as an asset class. Even some of the biggest names are basically MOMO fish.

    If anyone says to you that ideas are worthless, they deserve to be laughed at. A better statement might be: most ideas as worthless, and possibly startup ideas are overvalued.

    Good ideas – They are enormously valuable. But if you can’t monetize without telling people, then start telling them and don’t bother with the NDA b.s., because no investor wants to hear it.

  4. It’s rather bold to claim that you have a dozen ideas every day that could be turned into a company through simply knowing buzzwords, but that you don’t simply because they’re not challenging enough.

    This reminds me of someone I once met who claimed he knew all about swordplay because he’d read a book about it. We put a (training) sword in his hand, and it was obvious he’d never actually tried anything of the sort.

    All the people who founded startups but failed before they got off the ground, do you think they just don’t care enough about their own idea? Or didn’t know the right buzzwords? Or just aren’t as good as you?

  5. Do you know what Hyperbole means? 🙂
    Plus, I didn’t say anything about my previous record. I do have two failed sort-of-startups, so I know what it’s about 😉

  6. Ideas are multipliers, as Derek Sivers puts it:

    In short, a crappy idea times a brilliant execution gets you middling value, as does brilliant idea and crappy execution. Ideas are not worthless, but they are valueless. If you have lots of great ideas that you never execute on, they aren’t valuable. If you execute constantly on terrible ideas, they still aren’t valuable. But they aren’t “worthless”.

    The trick is finding an excellent idea and then executing it just right. The catch is that, as the saying goes, the battle plan never survives first contact with the enemy. Being able to iterate is a more useful skill than cranking out ideas.

  7. Have you guys not heard of the phrase “reductio ad absurdum”? (It means to extend an idea to the most extreme position and then talk about how wrong it is.)

    Ideas are, by themselves, worthless. This conclusion is based on (among other things) the following fact: every “insanely great” product Steve Jobs ever produced at Apple was based on an idea that Microsoft had first, released first and flopped with.

    Don’t believe me? Read it on Bloomberg ( ). Or how about this: Decades ago, Microsoft had a nifty idea and created a product called “Xenix”: a version of Unix that ran on an x86 processor. Or google the term “Douglas Englebart” (or, for that matter, “Nicola Tesla”).

    Or, to put the question another way, “How often does the best idea because the solution that everyone uses?” Add Batamax/VHS, Laserdisc/prerecorded videos, DAT, HD-DVD.

    Your goal isn’t to create a company that is a commercial success? Then don’t worry about the statement– it isn’t directed at you. It’s directed at the people who insist thinking of a solution is the irreplaceable component (this group includes, by the way, patent trolls and people who believe in patents on processes and software features).

    And, yes, you could say that a good team is worthless, that marketing & sales is worthless, that targeting an audience is worthless, that funding is worthless. And if the world were tilted toward believing any of those things at the moment, you would probably see many of those articles.

  8. Ideas are not worthless. It’s just that most ideas are derivatives of other ideas and there are few truly unique ideas that get released. It’s the meme-ification of culture. Even in terms of modern pop culture and media, most ideas for movies and tv shows that seem new are derivatives of some of the classic works of literature. In a pretty lengthy career in a lot of unique and innovative startups, I’ve come across maybe one idea that was potentially new and society altering, and even that idea was similar to something that had been done before, just with a twist on the idea. What matters more than anything for startup success isn’t the idea itself, but the execution of the idea. Then you just have to manage to do two hard things.

    * Select the right price strategy – there’s a trend towards giving out anything you have for free and making it up on advertising, but this takes a massive scale to get right.

    * Get users- between search ads, email marketing, social media (see for instance), content-marketing, display ads, and more there’s a wealth of options available in 2014.

    Most startups focus on the wrong things and end up dying as a result.

  9. Philip – The dozen ideas a day doesn’t seem unreasonable. One of my favorite party tricks is Buzzword Bizplan: Give any three buzzwords and get a business plan. Cellphone + Camera + HDTV -> document management; real time maps for gaming, … , Coffeeshop + Skype + Internationalization -> v walls, translations, black sun, …

    It’s an easy game once you have the background knowledge and your mind has done enough bending.

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