I’ll admit, it shocked me.
Years ago I found myself in a lecture hall on a Tuesday evening at the University of Wisconsin with 50 other students for the info session of 3 Day Startup UW Madison. My cofounder had seen signs for 3 Day Startup and immediately declared, “we have to do this.”
The purpose of the info session was to explain 3DS and answer questions. I remember being impressed by the amount of money raised by 3DS companies and surprised that there were no winners. But what I remember most clearly was a slide that declared, “No one is going to steal your stupid idea.”
I was a bit stunned and found myself thinking that with all due respect, this Joel Hestness guy, one of the cofounders of 3 Day Startup, had no clue what my idea was. My grad school advisor in the school of business had told me to keep a folder filled with non-disclosure agreements ready in case I needed to tell someone about my startup. He told me that my idea was incredible and that people would try to steal it.
Years later, I can say unequivocally that, with all due respect to my advisor, that Joel Hestness guy was right.
Since then I have facilitated nearly 3 dozen 3DS programs on four continents. I have heard countless startup ideas and none of them are worth stealing for a simple reason: there is no such thing as a good startup idea.
We tend to think of good ideas as though they are gifts from the gods. Good ideas are clever, daring things that have never been attempted. In Back to the Future, Doc Brown invents time travel after slipping on his toilet while trying to hang a framed picture to the wall. He hits his head and time travel is invented. The Flux Capacitor was a daring, one of a kind idea. It was also fiction.
On the flip side, we tend to think of bad ideas as silly and hopeless. We share them with our roommates for a good chuckle. “Yeah, the guy is trying to market a lawn mower with a desk on it so you can write a paper while mowing the lawn. I know, world class stupid idea, right?”
While there might be no such thing as a good or bad idea, there are strong concepts and weak concepts.
What makes a strong concept? A cofounder with a strong concept has a pain she wants to solve. She has talked to countless users or customers and dug several levels deep on the problem she is trying to solve. She removes all emotional connection to her solution while doing this research. She takes nothing for granted, and nothing is “known”.
She and her cofounder have taken what they learned and wireframed a solution to solve a customer’s problem. Her team then does extensive testing of the user experience. They find redundancies and correct them. They weed out confusing steps in the process. They immerse themselves in the customer’s experience so fully that they lay aside any personal motives or desires for the startup to succeed.
When she is ready to launch, her idea might not be clever or original, and it probably looks quite a bit different from where it started. But it solves a single problem with a single solution and does so elegantly.
A weak concept, on the other hand, is fragile. It is fragile for one simple reason; it is untested. The founder with a weak concept might keep the idea close to the vest out of fear that no one can be trusted. Or perhaps it is fragile because the founder is sure that he is smarter than his customers, and they don’t even know they want it yet, so there is no point in asking them.
The weak concept flounders under the entrepreneur’s conviction that the idea is a clever, unique, one in a million concoction that has never been done before. The weak concept is fragile because its raison d’être is its cleverness, not its ability to solve a problem or customer pain.
The irony is that “good ideas” often become weak concepts because entrepreneurs are unwilling to share the idea, depriving them of essential feedback.
In the end, a startup idea is only as good as its users or customers. At 3 Day Start, we are often asked if something is a “good idea.” I always say the same thing: I have no idea. Only your customers can tell you that.