Mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “Ideas won’t keep; something must be done about them.”
But there’s a problem. Ideas are a lot easier to have than they are to implement. Our capacity to conceive is far greater than our capacity to bring ideas to fruition.
History is littered with examples of inventors who were great at conceptualising but lousy at realising their dreams.
Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, was a great starter but a lousy finisher. It’s often touted that he invented the helicopter; he didn’t, although he did draw a machine with a screw-like blade that demonstrated he had thought of the principle of vertical take off.
But no matter how much conceptual prescience he demonstrated in his sketch, his machine would never have flown – it needed the invention of an engine with an appropriate power-to-weight ratio to realise the principle. Even then, it’s unlikely the contraption would have taken off (I don’t think da Vinci understood the physics of ‘lift’) – it’s more likely to have corkscrewed its pilot into oblivion.
Similarly, Charles Babbage, with his ‘analytical machine’, was too far ahead of the discovery of electricity to have developed a practical computer. They say if you’re 10 years ahead of the market you’re a philosopher, two years ahead you’re a visionary, but six months ahead you’re a millionaire.
Creativity is a basic human instinct and our genetic drive to procreate is its most evident manifestation. It’s just that some of us are builders and some are architects. Some of us have original thoughts and others lay brick after brick on the foundations laid by others. Both skills are equally valuable.
We can all develop our own personal sense of innovation and enrich our lives in doing so, but we shouldn’t pretend it’s easy. Getting ideas off the ground takes effort and commitment.
In commercial terms there are 12 steps, requiring 12 different disciplines to get a product to market – from the initial thought to the consumer’s cupboard.
The first four or five steps I call the hunch phase, the next four are the proving phase and the last few comprise the reality phase.
1. Concept. Firstly we come up with an idea – the figurative ‘back of the envelope’ notion. It can arrive in a flash of insight or drift slowly out of the mist. Whichever, it needs to provide an answer to a need.
2. Research. We need to scope the size of the opportunity, identify key targets and try and understand how our prospective buyers think and behave.
3. Legal. Is there any intellectual property that needs protecting? Does a company need to be formed? What will the ownership structure be? It requires serious thought, because 10 years down the track, when it comes time to sell, decisions made casually can prove to be costly.
4. Money. What is the break-even point and expected return on investment? What capital will be needed? Will capital be raised through debt or equity? What are the revenue and cashflow budgets?
5. Marketing. What will be the name of the product or service? Does it have scalability? What is the positioning strategy, timing and pricing model? Volume projections? Is there a brand development programme?
6. Design/graphics. What does the product and packaging (if any) look like? What is the logo and livery? Will it appeal to startup stakeholders and whet their appetites? Will it be polished enough to get their support long before consumers get to see it?
7. Procurement. What does the supply chain look like? Where will materials or skills be sourced? Can continuity of supply be assured?
8. Production. Will manufacturing or production be contracted out or done in house? What plant or equipment will be needed? How will quality control be managed?
9. Distribution. Who will do it and why, where, when and how?
10. Sales. Is it a retail, online or direct-selling opportunity? What is the promotion/ merchandising plan? What is the pricing policy?
11. People. Who’s going to manage and run the business? Does it need a board for governance as well as a management and staffing structure? Who is best to provide both? Will the structure vary from startup to maturity?
12. Promotion. What is the communications plan? What is the strategy? What media channels? Timing? Budget?
Many of the skills required to answer all these questions are taught as separate disciplines and don’t reside with any one organisation, but it’s only after we’ve answered them all that we will know if we have an idea worth keeping.
It’s not easy and that’s why there are more starters than finishers in this world.