Ideas vs Execution close

David Hart
In Musings, Apps
17th October 2013
Ideas vs Execution

We’ve long espoused the view that the value of an idea, especially in technology, is far smaller than the value of the execution of that idea.

There is a quote attributed to David Sivers which sums this up nicely: “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier.”

We have seen it time and again from potential clients or people wanting to do a JV with us, believing that their idea is going to disrupt industries or make them rich. We regularly get people offering to let us build their ideas for them and in return they will give us a stake in their (future) company. And for these people, in their minds, their idea is valued way higher than our skills in executing it. After all, developers are two a penny, ideas are unique, right? Wrong.

Ideas vs Execution pie-chart

Unless you have genuinely come up with a cure for cancer, or using a cyclone in a vacuum cleaner, or a method for packaging food in tetrahedron-shaped cartons, chances are someone has already thought about it before you. And this is especially the case when it comes to digital products.

But it’s more than that. Even when people have ideas, so often it’s the wrong idea because they’ve gone the wrong way about having that idea. Here is the clichéd approach to creating an idea for a great app:

  1. Get a bunch of smart people into a room. Preferably ones with MBAs.
  2. Brainstorm some great ideas. Assume that, given the collective size of your brains, that nobody will have ever been smart enough to come up with these ideas before.
  3. Pick one of those ideas.
  4. On the way, come up with more great thoughts about why this initial idea could be expanded to encompass a whole load of other industries or customers. This will be a way of minimising risk for potential investors.
  5. Write a business plan.
  6. Go out and get funding.
  7. Give yourselves titles such as CEO, CTO, COO and CMO.
  8. Find some coder to build it for you. If you fail to find one that’s any good, use an agency and hope they’ll do a better job.

Trouble is, most of these ideas end up actually being a collection of ‘cool features’ rather than a commercial idea. It’s the business equivalent of designing your rock band’s logo when you were a teenager before writing any songs or learning to play the guitar.

Some more enlightened people might say “yeah, it’s about finding a need and then meeting that need’ – the whole ‘scratching an itch’ thing. And we have definitely done that ourselves believing that was all you had to do. But I’m not even sure that is enough. I mean, you have to ask yourself, if it’s that itchy, why hasn’t someone built a metaphorical back-scratcher already? Maybe it’s because it’s too niche, or its an immature market, but chances are it’s because it’s just not really that much of a problem. And more importantly, even if you do scratch someone’s itch, who’s to say that’s a good business anyway?

If you want to go from London to Edinburgh. You don’t start by brainstorming every single mode of transport you could use to get you there. You don’t even try working out what the most frustrating bits of travelling to Edinburgh might be and come up with innovative ways to avert them. No. You say, I need to get to Edinburgh as quickly, conveniently and cheaply as possible – am I going to fly or take the train?

Whether you are a business, or a charity, or a public service, starting with your ultimate destination makes everything else possible. If we know that our end game is to make money, or change perceptions, or provide advice, then we have a framework that we can use to start identifying your user’s needs.

Idea generation process

You can apply this approach easily to a tech business idea. Saying something like, “I have an idea for how we can use location-based technology for people needing their windows cleaned” is putting the horse before the cart. Instead, you should be saying something like, “I understand the window cleaning industry and I need to identify ways in which I can generate £80,000/month in revenue from it.” Why start with anything else? Once you know what you need, then you work backwards asking how we can segment that market and offer them premium services, what services would they value, what else is out there etc etc and only then should you start to think about ways in which you can do that. So often, the business plan or the channel to market is an after-thought. Like the poor cousins. And as a result, it’s often very poorly thought out. And this brings me back to my original point.

Execution process

Think of some of the businesses you wish you’d started: Facebook? Twitter? Spotify? Instagram? How many of the companies you admire became great because they had a great idea and how many because the idea was well executed? Put it this way: if you had access to a time machine and could go back to 2003 a year before Facebook started, would you try and start Facebook yourself, or would you try and find Mark Zuckerberg and offer to invest in his company? It’s Zuckerberg’s skills in execution that is valuable, not the idea.

And let’s not confuse creativity with this, either. The most creative part of a project is again, the way an idea is executed, not an original idea on its own. I had a quick look at the most successful movies of last year. In the top 5, let’s have a look at how many were an original idea:

  1. Marvel ‘s The Avengers (Marvel comics started in 1961)
  2. The Dark Knight Rises (Batman first appeared in 1939)
  3. The Hunger Games (based on 2008 novel)
  4. Skyfall (James Bond created in 1953)
  5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (based on JRR Tolkien’s fantasy, first published 1937)

What conclusion would you draw from that? The best way to make money in the movie industry is to come up with a brilliantly original idea (the rest will take care of itself), or take something that is already successful and evolve it with a brilliant execution?

At Codegent, we do more than design or build a product, we are able to advise you right the way through, from initial requirement, through resource planning, identifying opportunities, working out your channel to market and finessing the financial model that will make whatever you are doing, successful. Yes, you might be able to find some dude in Estonia who can build you an app on the cheap, but if you do, I wouldn’t start worrying about the colour of your Ferrari Spider cabin upholstery just yet.