Ideas Are Worthless: It’s Where You Take Them That Counts

Innovation through entrepreneurship is a journey, one that usually starts with a big idea, inspired by insights, experience, and imagination. There is already a lot written around the discovery of the idea at the front end: Finding unfulfilled human needs, framing opportunities with a lens focused on the future, and so on. It’s all very exciting stuff.

But generating ideas and thinking creatively about how these might project into the future, what value might be untapped, and how the product or service might play out is, frankly, a little too easy. What I want to explore is the much more difficult, challenging, and daunting process of actually taking an idea, developing it into a product or service, and ultimately, turning it into a working business.

I have direct experience doing this myself as an entrepreneur, having invented a shock-absorbing material and postulated how I might actually make a business out of it – the result of which became an impact protection solutions company called D3O Lab. I have also spent a lot of time with many startups and fellow entrepreneurs, exploring how businesses develop and succeed at this early stage. Let’s explore some key learnings I have uncovered for what can very loosely be described as the process of creating a business from an idea.

1 Find the Believers

Let’s begin with a short, somewhat philosophical discussion on the importance of the attitude and culture you need to take an idea forward in a startup environment. In the first two years, two key missing ingredients challenged the process of developing my business: people (talent) and money (investment).

What I learned during my 300-plus unsuccessful initial meetings with investors – who quite rightly questioned how I was going to build a materials business when I wasn’t a chemist, had no production knowledge, and no product or customers yet – was that there are two types: Those who measure, and those who believe. It was pretty clear I needed a lot more of the latter if I were to secure the necessary funds to get the business started. This was, to some extent, more of a eureka moment than inventing the material in the first place, as it transformed not only my ability to get the investment I needed, but my whole approach to the challenges one faces when starting any type of business.

The language of the future is belief, while the language of the past is measurement; and since I had no past (customers, sales data, patents granted, production facilities), I needed to bring the investors into my world, to believe in our future. This is absolutely true for the development of any early stage idea, and the more people who can share the vision of what the idea could be, the better.

But how? Stories are the secret weapon for creating believers, so get the stories right and the momentum will follow. Everyone wants something to believe in, something they can be a part of; create a story that is not fictional, but rather shareable, inspirational, and above all, believable.

2 Don’t Be a Know-It-All

I have a hunch that the most interesting and unique products, services, and businesses come from a fundamental lack of expertise in the beginning. Not knowing what can’t be done is ironically often the secret for doing what has never been done before. The key point here is not that you should employ or engage a team of naive, inexperienced creatives to solve problems without the legacy of established dictums and conventions. It is the ability to approach a problem or challenge with an eagerness to learn and question, but also to recognize that learning by asking and thinking will not in itself create any sort of breakthrough; it is learning by doing first that differentiates most successful startups.

You could replace the word “doing” with “prototyping” if you want to formalize the language; however, most prototypes in a startup are not always originally conceived as a steppingstone. They are often pushed into the market as a trial solution, and this makes a huge difference. A “jump in headfirst” attitude, especially on an unrealistic timeline, forces solutions and progress that a prototype and a carefully planned out timeline will never deliver. The pressure that comes from jumping headlong into the market when you know you haven’t yet solved all the problems can be the very thing that inspires radical innovation.

3 Stick to Your Convictions

We all believe in our product concept, and we have pushed through impossible challenges to take them to a beta trial, with late nights, last minute adjustments, and all the expected – and unexpected – catastrophes on the way. And sometimes it can feel like it still doesn’t work.

But what could be seen as a failure is often the seed for future success if the approach and the culture allow it. I remember one of those moments in my development of D3O, when I found an almost identical patent to my work after 12 months in the lab. I had already sold my house and was expecting the patent to be my salvation through licensing. Needless to say, I lost a lot of sleep and had a lot of late nights in the lab trying to figure out a path forward.

With belief comes not just a vision, but also a complete conviction to make it work and to persevere. Startups spin, reconsider, rethink, reevaluate, and even reinvent, but most importantly they learn from these hurdles about what they need to do next – never looking back, always looking to the future. But no turning back doesn’t mean you can’t take a sharp left (or a handbrake turn or two) on the journey.

With D3O, we invented a whole new way of creating the material that was both unique and significantly easier to manufacture; we never would have made this innovative step without this hurdle. Motivated teams who believe in the future and are committed to making it work are a much better investment than an apparently perfect, predictable plan.

The big idea that gets a startup started is vital. It’s the seed that leads to the business having life one day. But don’t be afraid to take your ideas somewhere beyond the drawing board. Find your believers. Do first, think, and then plan. And always, always believe in your idea.

Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue

Richard Palmer is VP, chief resident entrepreneur at Idea Couture. He is based in London, United Kingdom.

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Richard Palmer