Ideas are easy. It’s the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats.
—Sue Grafton, author
And when your idea becomes a solid business generating lots of revenue, you can be sure that someone is just waiting to capitalize on your idea, too. In Silicon Valley, copycat companies are called “me-too” companies. You know them. For instance, once Groupon became popular, all sorts of me-too companies sprang up. According to a recent MSNBC.com report, over six hundred companies have the same business model as Groupon or a variation on it.
Despite the fact that your idea is not unique and thus for the taking, you can still boost your probability of success over your competitors. How? Focus on the execution of your idea and make it work better than anyone else on the planet.
When I was in college, everyone had my idea: Create a web-based community for the consortium of colleges and universities in Atlanta. Even after my website became hugely popular, some students would belittle my accomplishments when they met me. They would say things like, “I had that idea.” Or they would comment matter-of-factly, “I wanted to do that.” I didn’t take their snubs to heart, because I knew that the implication of their comments was true: My idea wasn’t special. In fact, I considered their comments to be a sincere compliment, because I knew that I actually had the determination to make the idea a reality. They didn’t.
A gap the size of the Grand Canyon separates idea and execution. Most people, when they see the huge abyss before them and ponder the work needed to traverse it, never make a move. They are paralyzed for a myriad of reasons. It could be the enormity of the task, the lack of skills needed to get to the other side, or fear of the unknown. Whatever the reason, those who execute their idea and get to the other side of the canyon will be winners.
In order to go from idea to execution and thus secure a major advantage over your competition, pay close attention to three things that were largely responsible for my early success: speed, team, and frugality.
First, the speed of your organization, especially in our fast-paced, technology-driven, I-want-it-now world, is most important. You must focus on shortening your time to market. When you do this, you stake your claim in the marketplace first and are able to sell to customers before others. It’s a delicate balance, though, between speed and quality. Your goal should be to release immediately a functional and a somewhat quality product or service that customers value. Founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, said, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” Well said. In college, my team and I were never fully satisfied with the software we produced, but we understood the need to get the customer using it quickly. We’d have plenty of time later for upgrades and improvements.
Second, your team must be a well-oiled machine that works harder than any other team. The advice is trite but cannot be emphasized enough. Team dynamics can make or break you. Only recruit the best and most dedicated talent that is vested in your idea. Likewise, avoid debilitating deputes over equity and the company’s direction. In his book The Founder’s Dilemma, Harvard professor Noam Wasserman explores common problems that founders go through when starting their companies. Wasserman provides scholarly research on team dynamics and equity splits among team members. As his extensive research proved, if you don’t get your team right, the probability of your success drops drastically.
Third, a frugal start-up is a wise start-up. Expenses frequently hinder a company’s ability to execute an idea. The company that can conserve and best use its resources gives itself a considerable advantage. As young entrepreneurs, my team and I decided to take a grassroots approach to everything we did. For example, we used free, open-source technologies to develop our products. Likewise, we leveraged our campus contacts to print thousands of signs that advertised our website. The expenses we incurred to make our idea a reality were as close to zero as a company could get. Even when we had money coming in, we continued to operate with a frugal mentality. As a result, when we absolutely needed to spend money to generate growth, we had it and could move fast.
A common perception of an entrepreneur is the idea-generating, dream-chasing idealist. This one-sided view overlooks the equally important part of the entrepreneur that is an unyielding executioner. Facebook’s cofounder Mark Zuckerberg had a big vision to “dominate” communication on the Internet, and he could communicate his perspective better than anyone. He also knew how to make that vision happen—and he made it happen. If you are banking on the merit of your idea and not the efficiency of its execution, you are headed for trouble. You will probably end up like the people who begrudged my success in college, saying, “I had that idea.”