One of the big, abstract, philosophical debates is which is more valuable, the inspiration or the execution? Is Google a two-trillion-dollar company because of the clever PageRank algorithm the founders came up with or because of the wise business decisions they’ve been making since? Was Harry Potter a global phenomenon because J.K. Rowling thought of a clever idea or because of the blood, sweat, and tears she put into writing the million words in the 7 books? Were Einstein’s flashes of inspiration his genius or was it developing his ideas about physics and convincing the scientific community to overturn centuries of Newtonian thinking?
Like nature vs. nurture or light as a particle or a wave, the obviously correct view is that each of these things is due to both of these factors and many other factors combined. It’s worthwhile to think about which is dominant, to assign credit for shared developments, or to decide where to put our effort during future endeavors.
I am wholeheartedly of the opinion (spoiler from the title) that execution is far more important than inspiration. Originally this view came from an excellent article on game design where Tom Slope developed the concept that “Ideas are Worthless“. I was at a game conference and was talking to two students studying game design and one of them talked about selling his game idea. When I told him that no one would buy his game design, the two of them got quite hostile. Regardless of whether they wanted to hear it or not, no one is going to buy their (or anyone else’s) game design.
What About Terrible Ideas?
Someone feeling pedantic might say “so you’re saying that a well-executed business where you go around randomly handing out $20 bills to people is a good idea?!?” Of course not. However, “well executing” this concept might involve a pivot that turned it into a related, workable business.
Opening a restaurant is a pretty bad idea. Long hours, hard work, difficult customers and employees, high chance of failure, and a low return on investment. That being said, if you offered me the choice between a well-run restaurant and a great idea for a new app, I’d take the restaurant every time (and I’d probably immediately turn around and sell it – something I couldn’t do with the app idea).
The threshold for a workable inspiration is far lower than the threshold of execution. To make something of value, you need to be prepared to work incredibly hard.
So What To Do With This?
Once you get over any lingering thoughts that ideas have much value, it actually clarifies the best path forward. Pour as much time and energy into doing whatever it is that you’re planning to do as you can. Outwork the competition. I think this is true for businesses, artistic works (like books), academic research, or pretty much anything else I can think of. Randy Pausch was a brilliant and insightful computer science researcher at Carnegie Mellon University and in his famous “Last Lecture” he joked that if you wanted to learn the secret to his success, drop by his office working at 10 pm on Friday nights and he’d tell you.
If you’re not willing to work particularly hard at something, it’s probably best not to waste any of your time at it – even if the idea is killer, you’ll be beaten to the punch by someone who is willing to work harder.
Because ideas are worth so little, I think the concept of worrying about someone stealing your video game or business idea is silly. Getting feedback on whether it’s actually a good idea or not is worth FAR more than potentially inspiring a competitor. My experience has been that people want to work on their own idea – stealing yours is the last thing they’re going to do. I’ve had what I thought were great ideas for add ons to friends’ businesses and projects and typically when I’ve suggested them it’s been met with indifference.
Stealing someone else’s DEVELOPED idea is a great way to move forward! If you see it being executed successfully, definitely build on what they’re doing. I recently posted about doing roof inspections with drones, which I think is a great idea. Even though people are already doing it if no one is doing it in your town why not be the first?
Google wasn’t the first search engine. Facebook wasn’t the first social network. Microsoft Windows wasn’t the first operating system.
Build On The Shoulders Of Giants
When something of value has been done before, learning how the other person did it and building on their work seems to be a no-brainer to me. Why would you start an e-commerce site without studying Amazon? If a store is successfully selling bubble tea, they don’t own the exclusive rights to sell bubble tea. You should certainly try to do a better job than them if you decide to start a competing store. You’d want to make sure there is a big enough market for both of you. However, if you think you can do a better job and there’s enough business for you both, have at it!
I’d almost go so far as to say it’s foolish to start a business that is a totally new idea never before seen in the world. There are so many good business ideas that have evidence that they’re working, why take the extra risk of something totally novel?