Ideas Are Cheap

Occasionally you come across an article that gives you an epiphany and shifts your view of the world. One such article for me was Tom Sloper’s excellent #1 lesson for aspiring game designers. While its interesting in and of itself (assuming that you’re interested in video games), I think the core idea extends to most areas of life.

It is: “Ideas are worthless, it’s implementation that has value”.

This flies in the face of a lot of deeply held beliefs many people have. I knew one man who spent his life coming up with ideas for inventions and trying to sell them to companies. He was retired and broke (late in life he finally tried to finance one of his ideas himself and lost his house). He was convinced that a clever idea pitched to the right person would make him rich.

The Google guys originally made the rounds trying to sell their PageRank approach to various companies for $1 million. They were turned away, and eventually decided to just do it themselves. The idea wasn’t worth $1 million, but the company they’ve built is worth over 100 billion.

The argument could be made that the value of their idea was unknown when they were pitching it, and that its worth more now that its been proven to be a better approach. I’m sympathetic to that view, but I really feel there’s more to it than that. You can read their original paper on PageRank and implement it yourself if you want, but your new search engine certainly isn’t going to be worth billions.

I think there’s an abundance of good ideas in the world. The easiest part of creating anything new is to think of an idea that would be an improvement on what is currently in existence. I think just about anyone can do this easily. The hard part is making that idea happen, and dealing with the hundreds or thousands of obstacles that stand in your path. This takes resources (including your time), in a way which brainstorming doesn’t, and makes it inherently more valuable.

In his article, Tom cites the example of a friend of Dune author Frank Herbert who suggested to the author that he tell him a great idea for a novel, Herbert write it, and they split the profits 50/50. Herbert refused, saying that writing is the hard part. Similarly, Craigslist is FULL of people trying to find a programmer to implement their “revolutionary idea for a website”. They offer to give the person who does all the work building it a share of the resulting site. How nice! I foolishly met with some of these wannabes in my younger days, and not only did they expect me to do all the work, their ideas were pretty lame (“its like MySpace, but cooler!”). Ideas for websites are the easy part, BUILDING them is hard!

I have over 20 ideas for innovative businesses that I think all could work. Implementing any one of these ideas (or even building something that wasn’t original, like starting a Subway franchise) would be FAR, FAR more valuable that a “portfolio” of ideas that never go anywhere. I’ve actually been tempted to start a series of posts detailing my ideas just in the hope that someone likes one and implements it: these ideas have so little value that I’m happy to give them away.

Starting a business is REALLY hard, which why I just yak about ideas instead…

18 replies on “Ideas Are Cheap”

Mr. Cheap I couldn’t agree more and I’m the same way. A CS grad with a lot of ideas! I generally have the motivation to start the ideas and get about 20% done then another idea comes along to take the place of the original plan. Leaving many unfinished projects sitting idle.

Focus and determination would be the 2 huge assets in seeing an idea through to completion. I think harnessing those would lead to pretty great things.

I, too, have a notebook full of ideas. Some are simple, some are very grandiose. The implementation, or getting a working prototype is the hard part (these are actual product ideas, as I’m a mechanical engineer).

But to be honest, there’s a lot of really smart people out there. I guarantee someone has already at least considered the ideas that most of us come up with.

I think once in a blue moon someone comes up with a great idea (pet rocks?) that is actually worth some money but you are correct that it’s the implementation that is the hard work.

Ideas are cheap, you’re right. Ideas alone never lead to anything by themselves. It is the implementation of the idea, the insurance of hard work, and the assumption of the risk of failure that make things happen. Great ideas without anything to back them don’t make much of a difference at all!

I agree and have wrote about this before. Ideas are easy to find, but leadership is very difficult to find. Leadership to build a company is the missing element. That’s what new companies need to look for.

[…] Of all the business ideas that I’ve had bouncing around in my head, I think this is the #2 best idea (I’ll either finish this series with my best idea or keep it for myself.? I don’t think this is the most popular “theme” we post on, so I’ll probably end it after the 20 ideas I originally mentioned). […]

Of course neither ideas nor implementation have any inherent value. A great idea with no follow through is worthless. A bad idea that is well implemented is equally worthless.

Where the real value of ‘ideas’ lies is in their ability to inspire people to want to implement them.

Mark: I’m not so sure about that. Of course I’d rather have a well executed great idea, but if my choices are a great idea without implementation or a well implemented bad idea, I’d take the bad idea every time.

Opening a restaurant is a bad idea in my view. Long hours, hard work, fickle customers and poor ROI. That being said, I’d take a well run restaurant over a “killer idea for the next social networking site”.

Of course, you can take the extreme view of a truly terrible idea that would be harmful if implemented (no matter how well it’s implemented, I’m not interested in soylent green), but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.

I’m not sure if I’d view the value of ideas as their ability to inspire either. Is Google the top search engine because the page rank algorithm “inspired” its engineers? Naw. Its the top search engine because the page rank algorithm is a damn good way to retrieve relevant information. It’s POSSIBLE to build a business on this foundation (e.g. The Body Shop), but I wouldn’t generalize this perspective as far as you do.

Interesting comment on an old post, thanks!

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