An Idea Is Not a Business



I get up and go to bed thinking about startups.

I have dozens and dozens of ideas that I keep writing down. They range from ambitious projects in personal computing to very silly web games. I wake up and imagine a better interface for LinkedIn, a modern wine store and a diet app that makes it easier to track calories.

Some of my ideas have already been done and some have not. Some of these ideas could be fundable and could one day become big businesses.

But the thing is, my ideas are NOT businesses.

I often hear founders talk about ideas as if they are actual companies. Startup founders get quite upset: “A competitor stole my idea? I actually thought of this first!”

It does not really matter whose idea it was.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. You can’t patent an idea. You can’t protect an idea in today’s world. Any business idea, no matter how profound, is just a beautiful but fragile construct in our heads.

If you ever took a math class, you know about mathematical proofs. A proof is a sequence of steps that takes you from a set of assumptions to a conclusion. We know that the Pythagorean theorem is true because there is a proof. We know that the sum of all numbers from 1 to N is N*(N-1)/2 because there is an inductive proof. And you’ve probably heard that there is now a proof for Fermat’s last theorem too.

You can think of a successful startup as a proof that your idea is not only a good idea, but also it has a right to exist and is actually a good business. A real business is a proof that your idea was great.

And the proof is this: you start with the idea, and then you add talented people, lines of code, meetings, financings, users, marketing, and years and years of hard work, then in a tiny fraction of cases you create a business. That resulting business is the proof that your idea was great.

The actual business is never exactly the same as your original idea. Instead, it is one possible path, one successful implementation. And the most important thing that you can realize as an entrepreneur is that ideas can be stolen, but not the implementations.

No one can build your business in the same the way you can build it.

No one can execute it in full breadth the way you can. Only you embody the way it should be done. A great business is so much more than just an idea. It is a living, breathing entity, so much more beautiful and complex than the original idea.

And because I know this to be true, I liberally share my ideas with people. I see great benefit in openly talking about personal computing, getting feedback on my modern wine store idea and thinking through the pixels of better LinkedIn app with my friends.

I do that because I believe that this is the best way to turn some of these ideas into actual businesses.


Reprinted by permission.

Image credit: CC by Tsahi Levent-Levi

About the author: Alex Iskold

Alex Iskold is the Managing Director of Techstars in New York City.

Previously Alex was Founder/CEO of GetGlue (acquired by i.tv),  founder/CEO of Information Laboratory (acquired by IBM), and Chief Architect DataSynapse (acquired by TIBCO).

Alex routinely writes about entrepreneurship and startups at Alex Iskold.

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