Ideas are like children… most of them are horrible: 5 tips to check you’re not firing blanks

sack race
sack race

sack race

This is the latest guest post from Adam Fletcher and Paul Hawkins, who have 100 stupid new ideas a day – some of which become shambolic products on offer at the Hipstery.

Ideas are a bit like children – some of them are nice, a lot of them are horrible, but either way, they’re bloody everywhere. Running around, making noise, demanding attention, competing with each other, falling over.

While their parents seem to love them all with equal enthusiasm, you’re mostly indifferent. That is, I imagine, until you have one of your own. Then it’ll show up when it wants, demand all of your time and attention, force you to sacrifice other parts of your life for it, and then take everything it can from you.

Yet, somehow, you’ll probably end up loving it. You’ll go so gooey and life-blind for it, then you’ll probably find you’re left with no possible way to evaluate it objectively. But if some ideas are nice, and some ideas are horrible, how could you possibly know which one you’ve given birth to? Here are five questions to ask yourself…

1. Does it already exist? If so, good…

I once googled “freelance comedy writer”, and saw there were very few good results. I concluded that I’d found a gap in the market. “We’ll make a killing!” I said. Yeah, maybe, but then since the internet is basically a decentralised global Ponzi scheme created by search engine optimisers and spam artists.

So, maybe our old friend Occam’s Razor is trying to tell us something here – like, for example, no-one’s trying to rank for freelance comedy writers. Because there’s no point ranking for freelance comedy writers. Because no-one is googling for freelance comedy writers. Because, well, the earth needs more freelance comedy writers like the moon needs more biscuit shops.

Very often what looks like a gap in the market is actually a gap in the needs of the market. As in, they don’t. If you google an idea and find out others are doing it, that’s probably a good sign. Just do it better.

megaphone

2. Can you explain it in a sentence? If so, good…

Unless you want your idea to stay in your head forever, wearing a wedding dress, swinging back and forth on a rocking chair, surrounded by spiders’ webs and old cake, you are going to have to communicate it to somebody.

This is rarely as easy as it sounds. People, despite their best intentions, are a very human mix of busy, lazy and fickle. They mean well, bless them, but you just can’t really rely on them to be as excited about your idea as you are. Only the clearest, more succinct of ideas will find a home in their permanently distracted little heads.

You have to get the idea from your head into theirs, using just the primitive tools of language and miming. If you want have them reach their hands into their pockets, pull out all their money, then throw it directly at your face, best keep it simple. Like, one sentence simple. While your idea might be great, to them it is only as great as you can explain it. Whether it’s your mother, an investor, a customer, a teacher, whoever. In all areas of life, there are gatekeepers. It doesn’t matter which, the same rules will have them reaching for their keys:

  • One sentence to hook them (eg a short little story, or a problem you know that they have): “Girlfriend, I see that as yet, we have no plans for this evening?!?!”
  • Another to reel them in (eg your super effortless, really brilliant way to solve that problem): “I propose to solve this scheduling mishap by allowing you the chance to have sex with me!”
  • Last sentence serves them up on a plate (eg dates, times, prices, and why they have to act right now!!!!!): “If you say yes, right now, not only will you get the “sex with me” experience, but I’ll also do the washing up, and throw in a seven minute massage to be redeemed at a time of your choosing.”

Easy as that.

excitement

3. Does it age like wine? If so, good…

A friend once coined the term “possibilityrush” for that feeling you get when you’re unstoppably high on caffeine and creativity. Those moments when initial ideas just surge outwards, gleefully fuelled by all that initial enthusiasm and joy, to a chorus of “Oh! and we can also do this!” and “Oh! Oh! wouldn’t it be great if?!”

Every idea seems to start an awesome domino effect of more and more ideas, an avalanching tsunami tornado of potential, until, eventually, you’re as close to the edge as you can possibly get, then you hit the orgasmic, ecstatic point of, “YEAH, LET’S DO THIS!!!!”

You run to the laptop, the notepad, the piano, the door. Sometimes you forget to dress. It’s frightening, but exciting. Then you start taking all those first little steps towards getting your idea into the real world. Then the possibilities start collapsing one by one, deflating like sad balloons stabbed with realistic little pins. Time, money, workload, ability, etc.

Of course, while it’s tempting to do so, it’s better not to validate your ideas in the heat of the possibilityrush, when they seem like the best thing since sliced Facebook. But days, week, even months later. Then you can see how they hold up to later scrutiny.

Do they age like milk, or like wine? Mature or curdle? Still excited about working on it after you get in from a hard day at your real job, a quick TV dinner, and just as you get comfy on the couch, but know you should get up, and do something hard. How is the idea then? Still a good one? Still worth all the sacrifices?

4. Are you sure it’s not just for you? If so, good…

Sigmund FreudSigmund Freud is pretty much one of the most wrong people that has ever lived. If you rented a hall, filled it full of climate change deniers, homeopathic feng-shui astrologers, and people without Google, then asked them to fling bad science and wild conjecture at each other until nightfall, the outcome would probably still be less wrong than with Sigmund Freud. Who has since had about 90 per cent of his ideas shitcanned, according to my father penis estimates.

Why was he so wrong? Well, he suffered from projection. Which was an inability to separate his ideas, desires and feelings from the rest of humanities. If he felt it, or believed it, or wanted it, then he believed everybody must. Right? Well, no Siggy, not really. We’re unique little snowflakes, you know? I don’t fancy my mother.

It’s the same for your good idea. It might solve a very real and immediate problem of yours, but don’t assume it does for everybody. The only way to find that out is to get out there and ask them, which is our next point.

5. Can you quickly get validation on the idea? If so, good…

Good ideas are like parking tickets, easy to validate. They’re also like metaphors, easy to make. Bad ideas, however, are the opposite. They take a long time to get from Point A, eg I have this idea and I think it’s good, to Point B, eg humanity saying yeeeeah, thanks, but no thanks.

If you would have to toil away at your idea for months or years, before reaching Point B, that’s bad. This is where the minimal viable product (or, since we’re talking in general terms, minimum viable idea) of the lean startup methodology can help you. If the idea feels too big, or requires too much money thrown at it to get you started, then slice it into smaller and smaller pieces until it is a size you can deal with.

Focus on where you can add the most value, for the lowest investment of time and/or money. Keep that part. Mercilessly cut away everything else until what is left is the smallest, leanest incumbent little idea you can get. It’s a mindset shift from “if I build it, they will come”, to, “where should I build it and what the hell should it look like in order to make them come”.

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Image credit:
sack race: flickr user dullhunk
megaphone: flickr user L.Bö
excitement: flickr user niiicedave
Sigmund Freud: via Wikipedia

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