At least once a week someone with “an idea” approaches me, usually via email or social network. Sometimes it’s a friend or friend of a friend, other times it’s a total stranger who found me online. They just need a few minutes or want to buy me a coffee (which by the way, I don’t drink) to pick my brain.
Sometimes it’s an idea for a product, or a movie, or an app. I believe in karma and giving back so when I can, I say yes. And then I ask if they want my honest opinion. At their own risk (just ask my friend Danielle) because I only know how to provide unfiltered, non-sugar coated feedback. And it’s often brutal, especially if you haven’t done even the tiniest amount of work to validate it.
But at times even before they tell me their idea, they want me to sign a NDA. Seriously? You’re coming to me for advice but you don’t trust me? I get it. There are plenty of stories out there about people stealing ideas. I’ve had it happen to me. But the reality is that 99% of ideas are just that. Case in point, I have notebooks full of ideas sitting in my storage locker. They aren’t real until you take some action and make them come to life.
But before doing that, there are questions to be answered to see if the idea is actually worthy of execution.
What’s the Big Idea? When I ask about the “what” a fountain of information comes out. Because for the most part, the focus is about the “idea” usually coupled with how it came about. There’s often passion there and the exciting feeling that comes with beginnings.
Who Is It For? I follow up this excitement with my no-nonsense (some would say unfeeling) advice that starts out as questions. And every single time the question is: who is it for? After all, you can create a great product or service, write a brilliant book or make a great film but unless you can figure out how to reach potential consumers, readers or audiences, it won’t be commercially successful. And “viral” or “social media” are not a “who” nor is “it’s for everyone.”
I acknowledge that it’s tough to know, especially if it’s something that doesn’t exist or is truly transformative but let’s face it; even a small tribe or club needs a few members (and no, aunts or nephews don’t count).
My advice is often ignored because the “who” is hard. And not as much fun as focusing on the product or idea. But guess what, if you don’t know who you’re creating for then how do you know what to create?
And yes, I’m familiar with the Henry Ford and Steve Jobs quotes but they’re the exception, not the rule. If you’re transforming the world (e.g. building a car to replace horses or a smartphone to replace the camera/cell phone/iPod/computer) please stop reading now.
Otherwise, be an owl. Keep asking WHO, WHO, WHO? That is the beginning of the journey.
How Will You Reach Your Who? Once you can articulate whom it’s for then equally important is how. How will you reach this user or customer to let them know your “idea” is out there? And the answer can’t be “social media” or “viral” because getting attention is harder every day. When everyone is a content creator, when algorithms dictate what people see online, you need to be clear about how hard it will be to get your message out there. From day 1.
When Should You Launch? When you launch anything new is as important as the messaging around it. Getting attention is critical for launching any product or service. Timing matters. When you get attention matters. And yet, many entrepreneurs are so in love with their “baby” that they forget about the old rule: being at the right place at the right time. There is still a lot of emphasis on getting on TV or on a podcast or even in the newspaper. But here’s the thing, there’s no point in getting attention until you are ready. After all, unless you’re building a personal brand, you may want to wait until you have something to sell. Creating awareness is great. Converting that awareness to sales is even better.
So next time someone offers you a launchpad for your new “baby” take a minute to ensure that the timing is right. That you are ready to make a splash. You know what they say: you only get one chance to make a first impression. Make it count!
How Are You Differentiated? Once you believe that there are people out there who have a need for the “idea” you’ve created and that you know where and when to reach them, then it’s time to think about your competition. Who else is out there with a similar idea? And if no one is because it’s so unique, whom are you trying to replace or displace? There are very few original ideas so the key is to find a way to differentiate your “idea” from the plethora of new ideas that are being introduced on a constant basis. The buzz phrase for this is “unique value proposition.” I think of it as a way to describe the value you are adding to your end user or consumer. It could be knowledge or productivity or entertainment but the best ideas make someone’s life better in some way. The very best products and services (IRL or digital) solve problems, sometimes that you didn’t even know you had.
So if you’re planning to pick someone’s brain for your next big idea, I suggest thinking through some of the answers to these (difficult) questions. I’m always shocked when I can easily Google the answers and the advice seeker hasn’t even done the most basic search. You probably won’t come up with answers right away (because execution is HARD) but you will be better prepared for that call or coffee meeting. Having been a scout, I believe that being prepared is always a great idea.