Exploring your own ideas

Most business ideas start as a vague notion of an opportunity in your subconscious. Here I outline a framework for various ways to tease an idea out, transforming it from an undefined thought into a living and breathing business.

Nurturing Your Ideas

Organically grown ideas tend to go through several stages, beginning as a subconscious notion, entering conscious thought as a semi-formed hunch, then being brought into the real world, initially either in conversation or direct testing. The process can last years, or it can last days: there are deliberate approaches to idea generation which attempt to speed up this process through structured sparring with others.

You’ll encounter many opportunities where other people have mentally incubated an idea and you can adopt it from as early as day 0 and help bring it into being in the real world. This is very much a creative challenge, and can be just as satisfying as building your own idea.

However, at some point you may find yourself being repeatedly drawn towards an idea of your own; even something as vague as the notion that there seems to be some form of opportunity possible in a certain broad space. Ideas that you can’t shake need to be explored further; for peace of mind, but also to allow room for other ideas to grow: you need to determine an idea’s viability and attractiveness so you can make a decision whether you kill it – so you can move on – or build it. 

In exploring an idea, there is a balancing act between giving an idea room to grow in the safety of your mind vs. forcing it to stand on its own two feet in the real world.

During the earliest stages of an idea, it’s often little more than a fleeting thought. You may have an idea and be excited about it, but when you try putting pen to paper it doesn’t materialise. You forget about it for several months (exploring other opportunities is a good way to test an idea’s staying power) before getting a flash of inspiration. Any progress is certainly not linear. 

The important thing at this point is to pay the right amount of attention: too little and you’ll feel uneasy, too much and you’ll be trying too hard. Foster the idea and help it grow: play with it, think it out, write it out, talk it out, explore the different directions it could go. Finding a good sparring partner can be a massive catalyst here: the right person can potentially cut this incubation period from years to days, even hours.

But you can’t force a concrete solution if your brain has yet to discover or join all the dots. You need to learn to get comfortable with the uncertainty and unknown of your idea, rather than trying to force it to reveal itself too soon.

The poet John Keat’s spoke of “negative capability”, a writer’s ability, “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

As soon as an idea is taking up enough of your brain space – which it will begin to do the more concrete its contours and your resulting conviction become – you need to push it out of the nest to see if it can fly.

The faster you can make a decision and plan to test it and get it tested, the better. Entrepreneurship is all about speed of learning. 

Most likely you will test your idea and hit a wall: how can you know whether you’re giving up for a reasonable reason (dead end) vs. unreasonable (lacking perseverance)?

Your level of conviction around your idea will likely depend on your personality. Some people believe a thought must be true just because they themselves have thought it… While others are more open to self-doubt. Ultimately, it’s your call.

Two reasonable approaches are a) to define timelines and milestones for testing in advance b) to talk out the roadblocked idea with an entrepreneur you trust to help you understand if you’ve covered all angles.

Perhaps, you can make a decision to focus on another project for some time: inspiration often comes indirectly

I always test multiple businesses in parallel: when I hit a roadblock in one I often discover a new path in another. This way I’m also able to compare traction and invest more in the more promising opportunities.

Q: In what ways could you better nurture your own ideas?

The Exploration Process for Your Own Ideas

1. Talking it out

Talking it out is exactly as it sounds: finding someone to talk to about your idea, so that you have the space to get your thoughts straight.

Just talking out loud to any person will help, but if you can find a suitable sparring partner who can ask the right probing and challenging questions then you can make extremely rapid progress in this iterative process of idea exploration.

Beware of the limited perspective of any sparring partner you work with. Entrepreneurs and business operators make the best sparring partners. Prospective customers with a good knowledge of the problem can be useful too. Investors, friends and family will all have a biased perspective.

Beware of people who don’t get it. Beware that no one is going to care as much as you. Beware of talking it to death: the benefits of talking quickly diminish with time. You need to act and iterate in parallel!

2. Customer Development (Customer Discovery)

Customer development is the process of testing business hypotheses directly with customers. I’ll write about this in detail at a later date, but for now I strongly recommend you familiarize yourself with the core concepts of customer development if you haven’t already done so.

3. Testing (Customer Validation)

This depends on the idea, but the gist is to get something live in the market ASAP.

  • Try and build an MVP and see what happens: you’ll encounter many unknown unknowns
  • Try and launch an MVP and see what happens: you’ll encounter many more! This is where the real learning starts

Principles for exploration:

  • Develop a bias for (inter)action – maximise exposure to unknown unknowns:
    • Action in this context means doing things that stimulate a response from others: talking to people, customer development and testing ideas live in the market (not reading or thinking)
    • There is always a balance between thinking and doing: at the beginning, with so many unknowns, you will learn orders of magnitudes more from doing than from thinking
  • Stay humble & curious – there are more unknown unknowns than you think: 
    • This is especially true for new entrepreneurs, who tend to overestimate what they know, having not yet been burned by this hubris*
    • Get it clear in your head: you don’t know what you don’t know – and you don’t know a lot!
    • With that clarity comes humility: the realisation that there is a lot that you can learn from others
    • Humility enables your natural curiosity: what can you learn from others? Following where that curiosity leads is how you will find an exciting opportunity
  • You will learn more from speaking to people (especially founders) than you expect
    • In the environment of uncertainty in which early stage entrepreneurs operate, you can often learn more in a 10 minute phone call than in a week of reading and thinking: remember your goal is to maximise exposure to unknown unknowns
    • Other founders have been live in the market and learning
    • Tangential learnings: learn about their business, what’s interesting about it, what’s not, what did you expect, what didn’t you expect, what are the biggest risks, what’s key to this company’s success, what would you do if that was your business

Q: How can you better embody these principles in your exploration work?

The Added Difficulties of Nurturing Your Own Ideas

  • Creation is not linear: Bringing your own idea to life is an act of creation (rather than simply execution). You’ll hit roadblocks where it won’t be clear what to do, and you can’t just force a solution
  • There is more at stake when it’s personally meaningful: the ups and downs of getting an idea out there take much more out of you when it’s an idea close to your heart
  • Ideas take time to evolve: Perhaps the initial tests didn’t work out as you’d planned. Perhaps you’re emotionally drained from creating. But you don’t want to give up… It is a time-consuming and demanding process to continue iterating
  • Maintaining sustainable progress: It’s a balancing act between giving an idea enough time (to make progress) vs. too much time (during which there is not always a clear next step “to do”)
  • Commitment: these ups and downs will cause you to repeatedly question your commitment – not just to this particular idea, but to your entire entrepreneurial quest…

*But it’s also true of experienced entrepreneurs. In his article “No Business Plan Survives First Contact With A Customer”, Steve Blank outlines the $5.2B mistake of the company that “thought it knew the customer problem to solve, and therefore it knew what solution to build”

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