Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is the Chief Product Officer at Get Spiffy and the founder of teachingstartup.com. Joe has a long entrepreneurial history in the Triangle that includes Automated Insights, ExitEvent, and Intrepid Media. He writes a column about entrepreneurship and startups exclusively for WRAL TechWire. His posts are published on Tuesdays.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Great products don’t happen by accident, but sometimes they start with a joke.
One night back in 2010, at a startup awards dinner, I was seated with a few of my peers, and I joked that the only time I’d had a beer in my hand lately was at a startup event – so I should start my own startup event, just to have an excuse to drink more often. It wouldn’t have any agenda, just entrepreneurs and beer.
A woman across the table, whom I did not know, told me that she knew I was joking, but it sounded like a good idea, and she had just moved her company into an awesome space that had an event room. By the end of the dinner, everyone around the table was pushing me to follow through on my joke.
I had to admit there was some merit to this crazy idea. Having grown up in New York and having spent a bunch of time out west, I knew that half the problem with our fledgling startup ecosystem was that it wasn’t being run by entrepreneurs, as it had been in those other places.
What if I could sort of… provoke a solution… starting with entrepreneurs just coming together and having a few beers.
The result, ExitEvent, developed quickly after that, and it became wildly successful before being acquired three years later. But in the end, ExitEvent’s own exit had almost nothing to do with the event from which it sprang.
And that’s my point.
Crazy ideas are everywhere
The more cynical among us entrepreneurs tend to look down on ideas. Ideas are cheap; everyone has a million of them, and they mean nothing until you execute on them. But we shouldn’t forget how important perpetual ideation is to the process of building a product.
Great products are usually built from ideas that seem crazy at the time. And truth be told, those ideas are usually exactly as crazy as they sound. But with constant ideation and iteration, what starts out as something laughable can turn into something amazing.
Look, there’s no such thing as a billion-dollar idea. In fact, that kind of “magic seed” thinking is what dooms most potentially great products in the first place. It’s extraordinarily rare for an idea to “sell itself.” But on the flip side, the most pragmatic ideas rarely become successful either, because the products they spawn drown in a sea of innovation from the inevitable competition.
A great product is actually dozens or even hundreds of crazy ideas lumped together. Companies that don’t foster, reward, and implement crazy ideas will always be doomed to extinction by the very innovation that launched them into existence in the first place.
Crazy ideas extend the innovation boost
It’s kind of an unspoken fact that all startups stop innovating at some point, usually when the focus shifts from ideation to execution.
Once a startup hits its stride and starts to scale, everyone around it will start emphasizing the natural progression to higher margins, larger markets, and ever-fatter top and bottom lines. Innovation starts to look more like efficiency than creativity, and entrepreneurs tend to be tasked to lead this new, and, let’s be honest, boring version of innovation.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Revenue is nice. Every startup should be listening to their customers and reacting to those customers’ needs – to a point. At the same time, every startup should also be listening and reacting to its own gut - developing crazy new ideas and experimenting with those ideas within the growing playground of its own customer base.
Crazy ideas aren’t just for beginnings
Perpetual crazy ideation isn’t just the domain of early-stage startups.
Google has a whole sub-company, Google X, dedicated to coming up with crazy ideas. Amazon is not afraid to launch the Dash button or the Fire Phone. Apple has a track record of turning failed crazy ideas (Newton) into great products (iPhone).
These companies foster crazy ideas and launch crazy products because there’s a method to the madness. If Tesla wasn’t going to be an automobile company, it was going to be a battery company, or a solar company.
An exercise in ideation
I’ve gotten quite good at coming up with crazy ideas, because about ten years ago, I started a sort of “10 Crazy Ideas Before Breakfast” routine. It’s the first thing I do when I open my laptop, every morning, weekends included. And while none of my ideas have been magic-seed billion-dollar ideas, I’ll get one idea almost every day that pushes my company a little bit further.
The exercise doesn’t have to be the first thing you do every day, but before you get into your daily routine, open up your laptop or your phone or your notebook and write down some ideas.
- They don’t have to change the world, they just have to change something.
- They need to be actions, not opinions.
- They should have reasons.
- They should be an answer to a problem, not a solution searching for a problem.
- You can have two ideas about the same thing (in fact, you can have ten ideas about the same thing), as long as each idea is unique.
Most days you won’t get to ten ideas. That’s fine, just do as many as you can. When you’re done with today’s ideas, go back and look at yesterday’s ideas. In fact, try to go back two to three days to see if there are any ideas you can build on. If you can move an idea forward by changing it or adding to it, do that. If you can’t, let it go.
Or take action.
Execution is just a fancy word for action
Almost all ideas die because they never become actions. Despite conventional wisdom, it’s not fear that keeps most entrepreneurs from executing on a crazy idea, it’s just plain lack of approach.
Just as a crazy idea doesn’t grow straight from seed to great product, it also doesn’t go anywhere without a next step. Breaking down the daunting task of a billion-dollar idea into its appropriate initial two-dollar next step is what concepts like Minimum Viable Product, prototyping, and positioning are all about.
An idea becomes a task, tasks become projects, projects become features, features become a working system that eventually becomes a great product.
And that is the eventual exit story of ExitEvent: An event became a series of events, those events spawned a website, that website gathered data, that data powered content, that content spurred activity, that activity built features, those features generated revenue. And then that revenue spawned a valuation, and the company was acquired.
Each of those transitions were the result of ideas - some of them even crazy ideas - but all of them were generated one at a time, in sets of ten, over years and years.
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