Ideas aren’t worthless

Dec 09 2011

“Ideas are worthless.”

You’ll hear this everywhere across the tech/startup community and it’s wrong. Don’t say it. If you hear someone else saying it, politely ask them to stop saying it.

When it comes to ventures, ideas are like lottery tickets. The vast majority aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. But there are exceptions. And then there are some very notable exceptions– exceptions that leave you jumping for joy on the couch and deciding which family members to leave out of your incoming fortune.

People who say ideas are worthless? They’re the same as the people who say, ”Everything that can be invented has already been invented.”

Ignore them. Then go invent, create, and execute. Fail if you have to. It’s one of the best ways to learn.

“But ideas don’t matter! Execution does.”

I get the intent behind this statement, but it seems to miss the fact that the fabric of execution is woven with ideas. Execution road is paved with idea bricks. The Sea of Execution is filled with idea fish.

You get the point.

Any successful business probably has hundreds of good ideas behind it– perhaps hundreds of ideas every day, if they’re a big enough operation.

Don’t write off the idea guy. Write off the guy who’s sitting on his ass, not doing anything with his idea. There is a difference.

9 responses so far

  1. Totally agree.

    Also: Love your template.

  2. Ideas aren’t completely worthless, but in my experience, they don’t matter as much as people think they do. I’ve seen too many great ideas (some of them mine) that never amounted to anything.

    An idea without good execution is like faith without deeds.

  3. The capacity to have ideas is what’s important. Much more important than the ideas themselves.

    One idea won’t get you very far because as you say executing any idea requires you to have many more ideas along the way.

    I do agree with Dave Winer about your template.

  4. I disagree or rather would clarify. Any given idea is worthless, even a jump up and down on the couch idea. It’s the stream of ideas that comes with solid execution that is valuable. But looking at the line that is execution and trying to pull out specific points that have merit on their own is like trying to find the specific glass of water that caused the bucket to overflow.

    I guess I’d say “Ideas aren’t worthless. Idea is worthless.”

    And to be totally fair the “Ideas are worthless” message isn’t for people who execute at all. The message is for those guys that have spent the last five years thinking about and tweaking their One Great Idea without doing a damn thing. Once every few months they trot it out at a networking event behind covert glances and NDA threats and it’s an absolutely confusing mess. Then they try to recruit a dev team on the “value” of their idea, thinking that having a napkin full of notes entitles you to kick back and take a 50% stake of a company. If they are lucky they may have a wit of domain knowledge or expertise but odds are even they don’t. So before you hate on “Ideas are worthless” too much I’d encourage you to work to understand who this statement is targeted at.


  5. Totally agree! This is what I tweeted few months ago – “They say – idea is worthless, it’s all about execution. I say – execution is nothing but choosing series of good small ideas.”

  6. Thought without effort lacks meaning. Effort without thought lacks joy.

  7. Totally agree! It’s nice to see someone else say this :) I actually wrote a blog post about exactly this 2 months ago. Feel free to read it:
    I absolutely agree with you, and would add that not only there would be no execution without ideas, but moreover in a startup you need ideas to execute. That is, you sometimes need to get creative to overcome the obstacles in your way.

  8. You’re basically saying this yourself after the second headline – Ideas in itself, als an abstract concept are, indeed, worthless. Because you cannot generate value out of an idea alone.

    Thats really all there is to say about that.

    What you are trying to say, I guess, is that execution, without any spark of inspiration or a strong idea behind it, is also worthless, and I would agree. But that is not what the saying is about.

    So, what Kav says: The “Ideas are worthless” mantra is both very true and also only very specifically targeted at people who think very highly of their own one big idea and forget to try their Idea on the world.

    @Aditya: This is getting a bit philosophical, but I’d say that even then every small idea needs to have an action as a consequence. :)

    Also, to continue the nitpicking niveau of this post, let me tell you that sometimes execution without ideas is entirely possible. Take any form of mastery (let it be arts, sports) as an example: Pure, uninspired, but excellently executed mastery will blow most of us away any time. If the spark of inspiration (or, put differently: a very good, spontaneous idea) is added to this, you’ll get what most people would call genius: The one totally impossible pass on the soccer field, the quirky element in a flawless rendition of a classic piece of music, the one crazy jump combination on the ice skating rink that nobody tried before.

    So, yes, execution, in contrast to ideas alone, can get you a long way, but to be outstanding (and in the end, that’s what you’re after), you better have some good ideas as well. Otherwise you will flawlessly play catchy tunes on a cruise ship for the rest of your life :)

    But as I said, that’s not what the saying is about. It’s about people who think that having the right idea will suffice.

  9. @Dave and Ted: Thanks! Still working a few kinks out, such as commenting (Think I’ll be using Disqus). I always wanted to do a comic theme, and I thought this would be a good opportunity.

    @Kav: I think the length of the discussion underpins my point. The phrase “Ideas are worthless” is far too simplifying and over-reaching. It’s also used way too often. It just seems silly that people would ever say it, given just how important ideas are in tech.

    @Jan: Great point. Execution can be all you need. You can certainly use that point to say that execution is more important than the idea, which I totally agree with. But to take it even further and say that ideas are worthless is just silly. And of course you’re right about the killer combo of good ideas and good execution.

    We tend to want to quantify things in tech, which leads to this seeming hostility towards ideas. Ideas are hard to quantify. They can lead you to making a lot of money, but there’s no real market to sell an individual idea.

    But I still think they have value. Sometimes immense value. If we could look back in time, we’d see someone giving the Google co-founders the “ideas are worthless” speech. But their idea was pretty damn good (and it was an idea relating to the method of execution, which they also nailed).

    Track any invention back to its conception as an idea and you might find the inventor getting similar flak. I would just hate for an idea like that to get squashed today just because this “ideas are worthless” trend has gotten out of control.

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