This is the first essay from the first chapter in my community book “The Failing Point” – essays will be published here online first, and I’m looking for feedback from the community. The permanent site will be live shortly. Each essay title finished the sentence “Under no circumstances should you…”
I can’t tell you how many great ideas I have had in the last decade. I am literally a legend in my own mind when it comes to creating awesome products that everyone in the world must buy. It seems like I have a new idea every day. Here are a few examples:
- Spinner rims for baby strollers
- A teddy bear with a beeper network activated voice box
- A book about the Internet for college kids
- A location based dating application for the iPhone
- An SMS based trivia text game
- Fleece gloves which are sleeve length
- Children’s utensils that have cars, trucks, boats built into the utensil
As much as I would love to believe that I am the master of generating million dollar ideas, one look at this list would tell you that I am as much a fool as the next guy. However, being the eternal optimist, when I came up with these ideas I thought they were, in the words of Kenny Bania from Seinfeld, “gold, Jerry, gold!”
In any event, once I have come up with the most awesome product in the world, I come up with the most awesome name, which of course has the proper awesome domain name available, and then of course I figure out how I am going to promote this awesome product via a blog, Facebook, or even Twitter. The romance period of thinking up ideas often involves thinking I am awesome, which I clearly am not. The challenge is that these are all ideas, without any action plan. I never once put in the time, energy and effort to kick start any of these projects.
As someone who used to be a semi-professional motorcycle racer (which basically means that I paid way more than I ever hoped to make), I can tell you that the time honored tradition of bench racing is not reserved for those of us who used to flog around a track on two or four wheels. As racers, we all used to love getting together after a race and talk about this lap or that pass. It’s pretty funny that I was always faster and closer to the front of the pack the more time that had elapsed from the race itself.
Startups and bench racing go hand in hand. It’s like peanut butter and chocolate (not to be confused with peanut butter and jelly, an abomination I don’t get, which is further compounded by those loons at Smuckers who put them both in the same jar). People love to sit around and talk about that company they are going to start “one day.” Or, better yet, “when the economy improves a little bit.” Or, my personal favorite, “when I’ve saved up enough money to tell my boss to shove it and start my own gig.”
What it is about the startup that has so many people spending so many hours fantasizing about taking on such huge risks, with extremely low probability of success, and really is quite a thankless task? It’s the fantasizing on which they spend so much time. Not the “start”-ing or the “up”-ing (as in – get up off the damn couch), but the fantasizing. Let’s call it aspirational dreaming. All the energy which is wasted thinking about how a person would spend the millions they are going to make when they eventually start their company would be far better served accomplishing tasks toward the goal of getting your idea off the ground.
The biggest mistake that people make is setting some big hairy audacious goal without properly level setting expectations as to what is required to get there. Nerds and tech folks love this big hairy audacious goal (or “BHAG”s as it’s called), because for them it’s like a badge of honor to have accomplished this big hairy thing. A great example of this would be Google. They want to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Wow. That’s big. Hairy even. Sergey and Larry didn’t start with that one though. Their original vision was slightly more mundane: "The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine.” You see, before you can start working toward your BHAG, you need to have accomplished a few smaller items to get some momentum.
There is no greater killer of an idea than lack of forward momentum. The easiest way to set yourself up for success is to decide what the end point is, and break the task into a series of smaller tasks. Preferably, there would be some very small, very easily accomplished tasks on the front end such that you can feel like you have made some noticeable level of progress in a reasonable period of time. This is a little trick I learned many years ago. You trick the mind into thinking you have forward momentum. Celebrate some of the early successes. You know what happens next? Each successive step actually requires less and less effort.
Here’s a great example. I’ve been saying I was going to write a book for 15 years now. Why haven’t I done it? All signs would point to the fact that I am quite the able bodied accomplishment engine. How could it be that this over-achieving, type-A person would have so much trouble getting off his ass for one of his ideas? To put in bluntly, it just seemed too hard. Every book on my shelf appears thick and meaty. Lots of pages. Plenty of words. That just seemed like too hairy a goal for me, for whatever reason, and I never got around to it.
This time is different. First, I broke the task down so that I could make progress every day. There was coming up with the topic, then coming up with the chapter topics, then working through the potential names, and of course finally getting around to writing the content. Specifically because I broke down the BHAG (“to be a NY Times Best Selling Author”) into a series of mundane tasks (“come up with a topic”, “come up with a name”, “come up with some topics”, etc) I was able to make some progress quickly, get my excitement levels up, and maintain the energy.
The moral? You can get off the couch and start that thing, whatever it is. If you can’t seem to muster the excitement, you either have a terrible idea, or too big of one. If the latter, then break it down to some smaller pieces and get moving.