If you think you have a great idea for a business, be advised: the ground you must cover in getting from idea to business is steep, demanding, and—nine times out of ten—near impossible to traverse. Here’s why: An idea on its own is never a business. It’s an idea, nothing more. Let’s say you take the next step in the process and turn that idea into a tangible, working thing. You develop it further and it works just like you’d hoped.
So is it a business now? Nope. Your idea is actually one of two potential things: a feature or a product. Either of these may—or may not—support a business at some point down the road. Much, much further down the road. That’s not to minimize the achievement of turning your idea into a tangible working thing. It was a lot of work. But to become a business, there’s still a ton of work ahead of you, and that’s if your feature or product can birth and support a business at all. The huge majority, I’m sorry to say, can’t.
Before we launched Waveset, I sat in as an adviser to a venture capital firm. Over that time, I heard all kinds of pitches for all kinds of ideas, features, products, and businesses—and I began to notice what I eventually dubbed the Bowling Pin Analogy. Almost without exception, people pitching us could describe only one of two things with great clarity: their initial idea—which I took to calling the headpin, the first one at the other end of the bowling alley—or their idea’s effect on humankind once everybody was using it, which I called the other nine pins. Remember, a strike means knocking down all ten.
To a team of venture capitalists, a headpin idea might sound interesting, but it most likely will never get big enough, in terms of market opportunity, to go much beyond the idea or feature stage. Then there are the people who aimed for the other nine pins. They could describe with great clarity how life would be fundamentally altered thanks to their app or innovation or whatever it was. Their idea might have the potential to impact thousands, or tens of thousands, or even millions of people, but they lack the understanding to make it so. The ones who are the most successful at turning their idea into an innovative new business were the ones who knocked all the pins down.
As an entrepreneur, your job is to understand how far your idea can go, and how it will affect the marketplace—that’s hitting a strike. Doing that requires stopping for a moment and asking yourself, “Is this just an idea or maybe a feature at best? Or is it a product—and if so, could it actually become (and sustain) a business?” It also means doing some good market research to understand how your idea would be received by your buyers. How does your idea solve something for your customers? Are there other products like it in the market and how can you make yours different? There is no wrong answer; each of these has value. But understanding the true potential of any idea is the first crucial step in making it a reality.
Any company that is not listening to their markets in a strategic, repeatable, consistent way, and applying what it learns, is not going to be around very long. I discuss the importance of listening to markets in my book Joy and Success at Work. Whether we’re talking about a market you already serve or one you want to move into, learning how to listen effectively can take your idea from a gutterball to a triple strike.
You can find my book here. I hope it’ll be a valuable guide to creating and evolving innovation in your organization.