The title ‘ideas are everything and execution is a cascade of them’ is a tongue in cheek rebuttal of one mantra that is thrown about in the entrepreneurial world. I am prodding and arguing against the downgrading of ideas and thinking. What is the usual argument? It goes like this: “ideas are nothing and execution is everything”. Or “Ideas are dime a dozen”. “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, said Thomas Edison. I think the bridge from Edison’s quote to what is now meant by it is shaky.

I have experienced the pain (and JOY) of starting up so I can tell you that it is the ideas (inspiration) and the reception to them that make the persistence and continuous execution worth while. And the perspiration is where many start-ups and corporate intrapreneurs stumble. Having an idea, being inspired, is not going to make your venture an overnight success. To gain success you need grit.

Ideas vs execution

First I would ask this: “what do you mean by ideas?”. Then I would ask: “what do you mean by execution?”.

The answer regarding ‘just’ an idea seems to be: something on a piece of paper or something someone is talking about, e.g., a dinner conversation among friends fixing the world’s ills, comfortably sitting and just talking. It might even be an idea with a ‘day’ of coding and sitting back hoping for it to ‘go viral’. Yes, I am sure you can come up with an exception that breaks this rule as proof that it isn’t true 🙂

The thinking around execution is: making a business out of it, making money with it or creating the tangible output. (The term execution rubs me the wrong way anyway but that’s for another time.)

Problematic idea of ideas?

But, don’t we live in the knowledge era and doesn’t that mean a rise in value of intangibles and ideas?

We forget that many great things in this world were not about execution in the sense that many think of it. They were the result of an ongoing stream of ideas. Piled up, turned, grouped and regrouped for the benefit of the output and often a great purpose. They were tested along the way and they were discussed some more.

The output may not be a product, a business and may not have ‘traction’ by way of members or paying customers. Think of Einstein. I think he would’ve chuckled about the way in which we view execution or getting it done. We do need to be clear about the meaning of execution if what we want is enabling making a difference.

Where does an idea begin and end?

Ideas and execution combine in various ways. Great ideas are mostly hard to come by (rare), they do NOT need to be complex to begin with and they may or may not be hard to execute.

The ‘easy’ ideas are for example the ones that tweak something existing. Those ideas can have a great beginning in execution but then can be incredibly hard to execute to a successful business.

If out of a 100% business or output only 1% is the one idea(s) and 99% is the perspiration then I guess that means that people make themselves busy on pretty limited ideas – limited by ideas and innovation after the initial idea or limited by lack of imagination to begin with.

I think in the online business world many view that the ideas end and the real stuff begins when the idea goes to code (online biz). There are great examples where this has worked well, e.g., Facebook, Twitter and Google – these poster ‘boys’ had an idea in the head of the founder(s) and then it just got done by those same people – those were the days.

Now we hope to repeat that ‘model’ and thus limit what gets executed. The mentality results in this kind of belief: If it takes longer than six months to deliver don’t bother. Carrying a human baby to full term takes nine months, granted not many ideas are necessary to kick that one off.

I sense that coming up with quick to ship ideas that are worth delivering for serious bottom line difference is getting harder and harder. From an ‘idea’ to ‘code’ let alone to ‘successful business’ there are a number of steps. And many of those are non-technical and all of them require a continuous stream of ideas of make the business happen.

The days of creating a business by quick and easy, pinching and just tweaking other people’s ideas are closing in. However, we don’t all have to be scientists to have valid ideas. Making money out of me-too isn’t easy. I don’t think Facebook will buy all businesses just because they have ten of millions of members.

The traps of ideas vs execution kill start-ups

If you are a firm believer in “Ideas are nothing and execution is everything” and truly believe it as written then you have risked your business in at least two ways: You don’t think enough and you execute on something not very likely to be worth doing for example for the reason that the business as executed is dime a dozen.

Here is an interesting take on founders falling into the trap of execution is everything in the form of ‘I should code this myself” – And I’ve thought those thoughts many times when things got painfully slow in a part-time start-up team. Part-time meaning evenings and weekends as we’ve got to eat too, and not all of us, with valid ideas, are in college.

The other trap non-technical founders fall into is “I’ll just sit back and wait for the coding to get done”, please don’t do this one, this is one trap I have NOT fallen into, thankfully or I would’ve gone mad.

You need to keep your ideas going on all those other aspects of the business continuously to make it happen: Designing, guiding the product, engaging with clientele (potential or existing), wireframing, testing, building the team and minding the coding…

If you are a technical start-up founder who didn’t have the idea, a stream of them in your head, and doesn’t have the business experience do not fall into the trap of thinking that you are “God’s gift to earth”.  Thinking does not stop with the first instance of the product if the business is to have longevity. The rest of the business leg work is not something that can be done if one’s focus in on the coding.

Also, many non-technical founders are not limited by the idea of what the technology ‘can do’ and bring difficult problems to the table. The opposite is also true. Some non-technical founders do not know what the technology can do and thus limit their ideas…

ideas – do

ideas – do

ideas – do

So, ideas as “dime a dozen” could be understood to mean “To make a business happen you need more ideas than a dozen”.

Here is another article that I just found online: slightly different angle but around the same issue.


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