Why Big Ideas Don’t Make Big Companies

Sometimes, however, big ideas aren’t the answer - at least not right away


Many startups spend hundreds of hours in brainstorming sessions in an effort to come up with the next breakout app or service. If an idea doesn’t look like the seed of a $1 billion business, it goes straight into the trash. Unfortunately, for these companies, they would actually be better served working on several small ideas, getting a firm grasp on what works and what doesn’t before trying to hit a home run on the first try.

Why Big Isn’t Better

Grand aspirations and long-term plans are fine, as long as they don’t come at the expense of effective growth.

The longer you spend fine-tuning an idea before you start to execute, the more likely you are to let emotions get in the way of honest feedback. If the customer’s impression is that your idea stinks, the customer is probably right - no matter how married you are to the concept or how long you spent cultivating it.

Endlessly delaying execution can be extremely costly. The trick to lowering the cost of innovation is to spend less time validating the idea and devote more time to creating a primitive working model for demonstration. This serves the dual purpose of bringing customer feedback into the fold right away while allowing you to work out the fastest, most effective method of deployment.

Many of the biggest startup successes come from people working around limitations. If you give yourself an artificial constraint, such as a time limit or strict budget, you force yourself to strip away the unnecessary 'what ifs' and get straight to the heart of what works.

Plenty of companies have come up with a lot of good ideas just a few months before they went out of business. There’s no inspiration quite like panic, and if you can manufacture your own internal pressure, you won’t have to deal with the much scarier pressures of limited cash flow or unhappy investors.

The Smallest Seeds Grow the Biggest Trees

Some of the today’s biggest tech giants pivoted from their initial 'big ideas', focusing instead on smaller ones that actually resonated with customers.

Flickr, for instance, began as an online role-playing game. It never quite took off with its player base, but the founders noticed the in-game photo-sharing tool was popular. Stripping away the rest of the game to focus on the one thing customers seemed to like, allowed Flickr to flourish into one of the world’s premier photo-sharing sites.

Twitter, too, got its start in a roundabout way. Beginning as Odeo, a network for podcast subscriptions, Twitter feared Apple’s dominance in the podcast realm and solicited smaller ideas from its employees. A few weeks later, the podcast aggregator transformed into the bite-sized blogging tool that grew into the social giant we know so well today.

Remember, just because something seems basic, doesn’t mean it has no chance of success. Indeed, the simplest ideas resonate the most with users.

Production Above All

Don’t get bogged down by ideas that go nowhere. Strategize and execute to find the idea that works best for you.

1. Innovate on purpose. Innovation isn’t about midnight lightbulbs and 'aha!' moments. It’s a deliberate process. Set up brainstorming sessions, create a process for testing theories, and allow multiple ideas to clash with one another in practice.

2. Test what you can. Every idea comes with a lot of questions. Rather than sit in a room and project what could go right or wrong, identify what you can test right now. Build something - anything - and get it in front of customers to get a better idea of where you should go next.

3. Establish expectations early. Set a concrete budget and production window ahead of time, before you start testing ideas. If you run out of money or time, the project is over. Figure out why it failed, and use what you’ve learned to fund the next idea. Keep churning until you pinpoint something that you can execute effectively.

Too many companies think that more resources and time correlate with a higher chance of success. In reality, much of the startup world is based on small beginnings finding big niches. Dream big, but plan small, and produce consistently to give your ideas the best chance to flourish. No idea will ever succeed if it never sees the light of day. So get out there, and get started!

Partnership small

Read next:

Strategy Innovation Through Partnership