Great Ideas All Start As Dumb Ideas

"I'm banging my head against the wall trying to come up with a brilliant idea for my next startup! How did all of these other great Founders come up with the world-changing companies while I can't even figure out a basic concept? Am I just approaching this all wrong?"

September 1st, 2021   |    By: Wil Schroter

Great companies are born from dumb ideas.

That's now how we think about them, though. We all have this fantasy that great companies start with a clear, genius vision for the world, and the rest of our time is spent just realizing that vision. That sounds awesome, but that's not at all the way ideas work, and that fundamental misunderstanding by Founders prevents a lot of great companies from ever forming.

No Shame in Dumb Ideas

The reason as Founders we prevent ourselves from finding great ideas is that we're ashamed of pursuing dumb ideas. Facebook was a dumb yearbook app long before it became the most powerful social media tool in history. In fact, before I go listing a ton of examples of every major company you've heard of that was a dumb idea let me just stop there — they are almost all dumb ideas. Pick one, find the origin story, and guess what — it was probably a dumb idea!

That's because ideas are a process, not an endpoint. That process starts with this amorphous, typically dumb idea, and gets shaped over time through lots and lots of iterations until it finds its footing as a good idea.

Of course, sometimes dumb ideas go through a really intense process to just become more complex dumb ideas. It happens. Not every caterpillar turns into a butterfly. But unless we commit to starting with an idea, which is typically dumb and that's OK, we never get to where we ultimately want to go.

The Process is far from Linear

If we've never pursued a startup idea before, we also don't have a great understanding of how the discovery process unfolds. We often assume it's linear — that the initial idea was close, and we just refine it until it's a great, market-making idea. That's not exactly how it works.

What's more likely is that we start with our dumb idea, and as we test it, pitch it, and refine it, we have a bunch of totally unexpected "A-ha!" moments that we couldn't have possibly predicted. For example, we launched Startups.com under the Fundable.com brand to help people raise money. But after talking to enough Founders we realized that raising money wasn't really the core problem — it was the fact that people didn't know how to become Founders, to begin with. We took a hard right turn and became the company we are today. We could have never predicted any of that.

What ends up happening is every experiment we do, every customer we talk to opens up another door. Sometimes those doors are a small step from where we are today, but other times those doors lead to an entirely different galaxy altogether. When we're just starting off, we simply don't know the difference. We've got to just start walking through doors!

Dumb Ideas are a Brilliant Catalyst

The great thing about starting with a dumb idea is that we're not married to it. We're perfectly willing to reshape it as needed because we know it's just the catalyst to getting us started. When we try to start off with the "perfect idea" we do the opposite — we keep trying to make every experiment fit back into our original thesis which prevents us from having that critical discovery.

Dumb ideas also give us the latitude we need to experiment more. From the very onset, we're trying to run from the original concept because we already think it's a dumb idea! That propels us to undertake even bolder experiments or listen more closely to harsh feedback because we expect it. Dumb ideas condition us to be better Founders by positioning us to listen more closely.

As Founders, we don't need grand visions — we need a path that eventually leads to grand visions. The only way to build that path is to get out of our own heads and just take a step in that direction. The right path will reveal itself over time, but unless we're actively trying to construct it, we'll never get there.

In Case You Missed It

Focus On What You Don’t Want To Do. What happens when instead of worrying about the things we want to do, we focus on the things we never, ever want to do again? How can that start to take huge steps in reducing our overall stress?

Build Your Startup Around Your Passion. Not every passion pays well. However, instead of starting with, "what will make the most money?" and hoping we like it, let’s start with what we’re most passionate about and figure out how to do that profitably.

Is Doing Non-Startup Stuff Good For My Startup? (podcast). What if we knew that time away from our startup was the key to actually making it grow faster?

About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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