September 28, 2012

Your Brilliant Idea is Useless

People often pitch me on “great ideas”, they have a revolutionary new product idea, they’ve got an idea for a website/magazine/restaurant that “can’t fail”, some small company assures me that they have something that will make them into “the next Microsoft/Google/Apple”, etc.

Brilliant ideas make my eyes glaze over. Why?

Because 95% of the time you are being pitched on something that will never go anywhere. And it the reason it goes nowhere has little to do with the validity of the idea itself.

I remember the day well, probably 10 years ago now when I was on a Board of Directors for one company and we were on a directors retreat out in Vancouver. The Chairman of the Board was an older fellow who had been around the block about a billion times. As I got to know him over the years I was always a little more impressed each time I learned about some other business he either owned, or had at one time run throughout his career.

“Ideas are fucking useless” he told me over coffees in the lounge, “the world is up to its ass in great ideas. You know what the precious commodity is kid?”

I was waiting with baited breath.

“Execution. That’s what makes the difference. All kinds of people have absolutely brilliant ideas….never going to go anywhere ’cause they can’t execute on them. Then you take the right team with even a mediocre one, they knock it out of the ballpark.”

That always stuck with me. However knowing that, believing it, has made the cognition that I myself am a sub-par performer all the more painful.

But everybody thinks it’s the idea that’ll get them there. It won’t. The idea is just the ante, all it does is get you in the game – and not even that much if you don’t get around to actually taking the first step in making it a reality.

I once interviewed a prospective CXO level hire for one of my companies. Prior to that he had worked for a competitor and I had patiently waited four years for his non-compete to expire so I could get him working for us. When we met I laid out my objectives for him which included 3 key deliverables I had in mind for the company that I thought he would head-up and implement.

“Oh, well I’m not really active at that sort of stuff anymore”.

I was caught a tad off-guard. “Oh, really? So why are we here then?”

“I’m going more into consulting, so what you could do is pay me a retainer and I can give you some business ideas.”

I shot a sidelong glance at the bookshelf in my office, the one filled end-to-end with notebooks crammed full of ideas from the last decade “Ok, well I’ll keep that in mind. Ideas aren’t really in short supply around here. Thanks for coming in.”

My first thought coming out that meeting was that if his ideas were truly worth paying for, the smart play for him would be to go start a business and do them. Had he done that and then come to me for investment, instead of trying to sell me the idea for “consulting fees” he would have been taken a lot more seriously.

Because here’s the thing, if it’s your idea then you are the one who has to make it happen. Nobody else will do it for you. A lot of people suffer from what I call “the unsigned band” syndrome. You got a bunch of guys in the garage, they’re broke, they’re eating dog food and busking for change to make ends meet, they think “all we have to do is come up with one great song” and then they’ll get signed by some big record label who will henceforth take care of everything for them and make it all happen.

That’s “the game-changing idea” daydream. You get a fantastic idea and you think all you have to do is sell somebody on that idea and your problems are solved, they’ll make it all happen for you. If that’s the case, then what the hell do they need you for?

“Potential”… potential WHAT?

I sift through countless opportunities, investments, websites for sale, micro-businesses, businesses and one of my filters is that if the pitch, the advertisement, the executive summary or the prospectus contains the word “potential” I throw it in the garbage and look at the next opportunity. That something “has potential” is just another way of saying “we have an idea we can’t execute on”. Why back a losing team?

Sometimes I still hear an idea that on it’s own is still pretty exciting. This happened to me a couple years ago when an old friend of mine started obsessing about a new business concept he had come up with and I really thought he was onto something. But I had never seen the guy actually do anything. A few years earlier he managed to acquire some intellectual property that he and I both thought was a monster asset. “Dude! You can build a business out of this and be set for life” And that was his plan. After researching the space exhaustively and “figuring it all out” he eventually went “Plan B” and sold the asset up the chain. Don’t get me wrong, he made a pile of money, roughly 20X his initial investment! But it wasn’t enough to “retire on” and now he had nothing.

As a potential investor and co-founder and seeing what looked like the pattern repeating, I had reservations about his ability to actually execute on the plan, rather than meticulously research it, think about it, and then think about it some more. When I finally told him as much he told me “go fuck yourself” and I haven’t heard from him since. And he hasn’t launched yet, either.

Everybody Suffers from Bad Execution

Well, that’s probably not true. Steve Jobs certainly didn’t, for example. But sometimes I tell myself that to make it easier to face the fact that despite everything I know about the value of execution vs the superfluousness of “brilliant ideas”, I’m still a pretty sub-par executor¬† (executioner? executionist?)

I rate myself about a 2 out of 10. Why? Kids. Wife. Life. Distractions. Lack of Focus. Too many ideas! The only thing that keeps any forward motion going is that I am starkly, painfully aware that I am not good at this, and it drives me to  occasional flashes of productivity where I get a bunch of stuff done. That builds up enough momentum to get me through the next lacklustre phase of sub-par performance.

There is hope, I think I am getting better, I am making headway and I’ll write more about how I did that in the coming months.

In the meantime just remember: ideas are plentiful. Execution is the rarity.