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Knocking on Opportunity's Door

March 27, 2000
by Pat McClellan

How many times have you heard about someone who created a fabulous product or launched a wildly successful company... and you'd had the same idea a while back? If only you'd had the connections to make it work... if only you'd had the time to invest in it... if only you'd known that it would be worth billions by now. If only.

I've got to admit that since moving from Chicago to the Silicon Valley area I've been exposed to an unmatched entrepreneurial spirit. It's not that people don't have great ideas back in Chicago -- or anywhere else for that matter -- it's just that the venture capitalists around here just love to throw money around; big money. And the press loves to report on the latest 13-year-old who has turned his Nintendo into a fully functional e-commerce system!

Yeah, but... who's got time to pursue such wild ideas? Yeah, but... those people you hear about are all super-geeks. Yeah, but... I already work way too much overtime and I just don't have time to be a billionaire. Yeah, but.

It seems to me that all of those people who succeed in bringing an idea to market (and sometimes score riches) were probably challenged by the same time constraints, job pressures, family commitments and miscellaneous obstacles that we all face. So how did they succeed? I'm sure if you took a poll, you'd find that the idea started small... just a notion. Maybe a wild concept, or perhaps just a novel twist on a commonplace theme. And since most ideas are inspired by environmental inputs (business trends, new technology, media) it's likely that at least a few others who were exposed to the same environment also thought of the same idea. Apparently, it's not the uniqueness of the idea that is responsible for the success. So what is?

I'm no expert on courting venture capital or taking an idea to market. There are other resources for that. But it seems to me that the critical factor, the determining phase of success happens a long time before your first meeting with a VC guy.

Business Entertainment Expenses

Let's take a hypothetical journey back in time, to the moment when Marc Andreesen and I both (independently) hit upon this cool little idea for a thing called a web-browser. It seemed like a good idea because there was nothing else out there like it. Yeah, but I figured there was a limited number of possible users, and I was busy at work and trying to fix up my house on the weekends, so it hardly seemed worth the effort for such a small idea. It was really easy to come up with a list of reasons not to pursue it.

How did he manage to turn that idea into billions? I think the answer is "business entertainment expenses". No, I'm not suggesting that Marc took the right investment bankers out to dinner. Rather, he took a notion, a little idea -- the same one that others probably had -- and he entertained it. He spent some time with it, nurturing it, challenging the assumptions, playing "what-if" with it. He stayed up late one night and built a little prototype that crashed his system. He told a few friends about it and they laughed. Still, he entertained the idea. He started making connections between his idea and some new possibilities. He got better at describing the idea to other people, and they stopped laughing. And pretty soon it wasn't little anymore. It was a big idea; big enough to take priority over other time commitments and financial considerations. The rest is the history of Netscape.

But it's not "the rest" that's important. Instead, it's the process that led up to it -- the process that made it all possible -- that is critical. That process can turn a common idea into something big.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a billionaire. There, I've said it. In fact, I'm not even a millionaire. To be honest, that's not what motivates me -- and I doubt that any of the internet billionaires would say that they were chasing money when they started either. I'm more motivated by ego; the possibility that I might do something really important, or really big... and people would know that I did it. To that end, I've spent a good deal of time chasing any number of notions. So I can't tell you how to make a billion, but I might be able to help you with your "entertaining needs". Here's the sage advice from a "thousand-aire."

Practice creative thinking

The essence of genius is the ability to make abstract connections. This is commonly thought to be a "right brain" function. Unfortunately, most developers tend to be dominated by "left brain" processes which crowd out the other by fighting abstraction. Still, there are times of the day when the right brain dominates. (For me, it's early morning before I've gotten out of bed.) If you can figure out when that time is for you, you can "seed" the process and apply that creative power to a specific idea or problem. For example, if an idea occurs to me in the afternoon, I'll put it "on hold", and then when I wake up the next morning, I'll spend some time thinking about it. You'd be surprised how much different your perspective can be.

Find a sounding board

You need to find a trusted partner to discuss your ideas with; maybe your spouse or family member, maybe a business acquaintance. Make it a habit to discuss ideas with them -- both yours and theirs. When you're selecting this person, you need to find someone who can provide energy to your creativity, someone who can challenge you, someone who will withhold judgement long enough to help you entertain the idea.

Write it down

There's something very affirming about writing something down. Putting it on paper makes it more "concrete", more real... and more possible. It really doesn't matter what format, though this is the "left brain" side of the process, so you'll probably enjoy this part. You simply need to put it on paper. Write a paragraph or bullet point list about what it is, what it does, who would use it, who needs it, how would it work (avoid detail), who is doing something like it, and who would want to pay for it.

Rinse and repeat

After you've bounced the idea around in your right brain, talked it out with a friend, put some preliminary stuff on paper, it's time to do it all again. Don't expect to find all the answers in one sitting. As you go through the process, allow the idea to evolve without ties to particular technologies. Try to look at the idea from different angles. Ask yourself how someone with other resources might attack the situation. Challenge your assumptions by asking: what if Microsoft came out with this tomorrow? Would it still be a good idea? Is there room for two players in the market?

Dealing with a "no-go"

In the past year, I almost launched an e-commerce site with my wife. I almost pursued a patent for an e-commerce shopping process. I almost found a way to challenge the major credit card companies in their dominance of e-commerce transactions. I almost launched four separate special interest web sites. Who knows? Any one of these might have been a huge success, if I had only followed through. Ultimately though, every idea is not a good one. Even some good ideas aren't enough to make me change or risk my way of life. But that's ok.

How many authors come up with a best-seller on their first manuscript? How many screen-writers get their first script produced? Virtually none. There's no reason why this creative process should be any different. You have to practice developing ideas. The ideas you discard are not failures, they're kindling for the creative fire. You have to put yourself into a mindset and a discipline for being "an idea person". You'll find that when opportunity comes along, you'll be the one knocking.

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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