The Value of Ideas

Every week I receive emails from people who tell me their ideas for new websites, businesses, or organizations they’d like to build. Usually they ask me for feedback on their ideas, implying that their ideas have some intrinsic value. Occasionally they want me to invest in their ideas, either financially or by putting in some of my time and effort.

I recall a similar experience while running my computer games business. People would send me their ideas for new games, asking me what I thought the ideas were worth. Some wanted me to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) just to hear the idea because they were worried I might steal it. I still get a few NDA requests today. I simply disregard such requests. If people are paranoid I might steal their ideas, it’s best they keep the secret to themselves.

I generally tell people that their ideas are worthless. Good ideas are a dime a dozen, and even that price is too high.

Generating Good Ideas

Coming up with good ideas is easy. This includes ideas for new websites or businesses. Anybody can generate good ideas.

One technique you can use is to simply brainstorm a list. If you write down 20, 50, or 200 ideas for anything, chances are you’ll come up with a few gems. You probably have a decent flow of good ideas popping up at random times too, such as while showering or exercising. You certainly don’t have to be a genius to come up with good ideas.

Do you honestly suffer from a shortage of good ideas in your life? It’s more likely you have the opposite problem. If you had to decide between gaining 5 great new ideas vs. successfully implementing 5 ideas you already have, which would you choose? I’d much rather have the implementation.

If you truly feel deprived of ideas, you can get as many as you want for free. Just ask other people. In January I asked for suggestions for future 30-day trials and got more than 100 suggestions, far more than I could possibly implement. If you want more ideas, just ask around. A small percentage of those ideas will be useful.

The Value of Implementation

The real value of any creation is in the implementation, not the idea.

Do you really bemoan the fact that you didn’t think of some great idea before someone else did? Would it have made any difference if you did? You’re probably sitting on lots of great ideas that someone else is already implementing.

In the gaming industry, I saw several companies do quite well with ideas that were totally unoriginal. They succeeded because they had great implementation of those ideas. There are a lot of Galaga and Tetris clones on the market. I remember that many developers were disturbed by the success of these cloners.

I had an original game idea that I thought was pretty good, but it didn’t generate any income by itself. It just sat there on paper. It took months to turn it into an actual game, and the final product sold quite well. Some people assumed it was the idea that caused the game to sell well. No, it was the implementation of that idea.

Ideas are easy. Implementing ideas is hard because that’s where things get complicated. The devil is in the details. Turning something mental into something physical is often quite a challenge.

Sure there are exceptions, but even when people value ideas, solid implementation is still required to extract the value.

Making Ideas Concrete

Part of implementing an idea is making it more concrete, such as by creating a design doc or business plan. A structured document is more than an idea — it’s part of the implementation process. This is where you begin working out the practical details. If you do it correctly, this kind of work can really make you pull your hair out. But it also creates a lot of value.

For example, writing a 25-word, high-concept description for a new movie is pretty easy. Erin recently took a screenwriting class at UNLV, and she and I had fun cranking out several high-concept movie ideas in a matter of minutes. Even her instructor (an accomplished screenwriter) liked some of our ideas. But those ideas aren’t worth much by themselves. Turning an idea into a complete script is hard. Getting an agent is hard. Selling the script is hard. Revising the script is hard. Filming the movie is hard. Cashing the six-figure check is easy.

I usually have at least 100 good ideas on my “to blog” list. I add ideas to the list from time to time, and people send me more ideas every week, so the list never gets depleted. Keeping a good bank of ideas is trivially easy. Turning those ideas into helpful articles is the hard part. In the time it takes me to actually write one article, I could generate at least 200 new article ideas. It would take me about a year to implement the article ideas I could generate in a single hour. If these were books or computer games instead of articles, one hour of idea generation could occupy me with a lifetime of implementation.

Even when you’re dealing with flexible content like, software, music, or video, it still takes a lot of work to turn a high concept into something you can actually implement. A general idea for a new web service is largely worthless. But a few documents that include the technical requirements, market analysis, and high-level software and database design do have some value.

The more concrete your ideas become, the more valuable they are. The ultimate value, however, isn’t delivered until your idea is in some kind of physical form that can be shared. You might be able to find an intermediary who will carry your implementation the rest of the way, but you still need to take a few steps beyond the idea phase before such people will want to listen to you.

Focusing on Implementation

It’s easy to get stuck on the treadmill of idea generation (i.e. analysis paralysis), mistakenly assuming that ideas themselves have value. I often get caught in this trap myself. I keep trying to find more optimal solutions to problems when it would be faster and easier to just implement a mediocre solution and deal with the consequences. I have to remind myself that getting some value is better than none.

There are some situations where advance planning is critical, such as the $8 billion City Center project being built on the Las Vegas Strip (the most expensive private construction project in the world). If they screw up the construction, that’s a pretty costly mistake. For that kind of project, you have to make sure your plan is very concrete before you start pouring real concrete.

In many situations, however, mistakes can be easily corrected. If you make a mistake in building a website, you can reprogram it to fix the mistake. If you move to a neighborhood you don’t like, you can move again. If you get in a bad relationship, you can break up. If you quit a job and later regret your decision, you can find employment again. If you write a bad draft of your book, you can rewrite it. Sure there are consequences, but in many cases it’s not the end of the world if you jump to implement a half-baked idea. At least your implementation will still provide some value, and sometimes that’s good enough.

If perfectionism and obsessing over finding the right idea or the right approach keeps you paralyzed indefinitely, but you have a mediocre idea you could implement right now and start enjoying the results, that’s basically a no-brainer, isn’t it?

If you’re not sure if you’re stuck in the idea phase, give yourself a deadline to start implementing your idea, regardless of how good it is. Deadlines are a necessary evil in many creative fields like movies and game development. Creative people typically hate deadlines, but without deadlines they’d rarely finish anything. They’d remain stuck in an endless loop of pondering new alternatives. What you release may not be the perfect implementation, but at least you’ll get it out the door.

For example, my website has a fairly basic design. I put together something simple and functional in order to get the site launched without worrying about perfecting it. If I were starting from scratch today, I would have done a few things differently. That’s okay though. At least I got the site launched, and I was able to adjust course along the way. The value is being delivered. Lots of people will look at my site and say, “I’m sure I can create a better-looking site than Steve has.” I’m sure they could, but did they already do it, or are they stuck in the idea phase? Are they already enjoying good results?

If an idea doesn’t quickly lead to its own implementation, maybe it’s not such a great idea after all. Maybe you’re overcomplicating the idea to the point where it actually becomes demotivating. Can you define the idea in simpler terms, so simple that you can actually start working on it today?

If you implement a lot of so-so ideas that aren’t perfect, you’ll gain experience. You’ll probably learn a lot more than you would if you spent all your time perfecting ideas instead of taking action.

Action Time

If you find yourself lost in a sea of ideas while lagging behind on the implementation side, work to shift yourself to the action side and see what happens. One of my favorite techniques for doing this is to have Action Hours or Action Days. I set aside a block of time such as an hour or a day to do nothing but implementation.

To kick off this period of action, I create a quick Action List. An Action List is a specific type of to-do list. It doesn’t include any items that involve planning, high-level decision-making, communication, or discussion. Every item on the list must be geared towards moving some project forward to the point of value delivery. This means each item on the list must shift a task or project further along the spectrum from mental idea to physical action.

Once I begin working, I tackle tasks in order, and I don’t stop to second-guess myself. I trust that the decisions I made earlier are good enough. If things don’t work out so well, I can hopefully fix them later.

What good ideas are you sitting on right now? What can you do to shift one of those ideas from your imagination into physical reality? Do you realize that your very best ideas are worth less than a single mediocre idea you actually implemented?

In the forum discussion, consider sharing your best methods for moving from idea to action. How do you get yourself to implement your ideas? How do you know when you’re ready to move beyond the incubation period and start taking action?