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Startup Ideas: Are Bad Ones Better Than Good Ones?

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Many people in the entrepreneurial world (including me) have lots of ideas.  The question is what do you do with all of these ideas?  I wrote an article about filtering startup ideas some time ago, but it’s been a while and I’ve done some additional thinking since then and would like to dig a little deeper into the issue.
 
So, let me try to answer the question presented in the title of this article:  Are bad ideas are better than good ones?
 
Bad ideas are those that obviously suck.  These are the ones that you really don’t know what to do with and are simply not “good enough” for you to do anything about them (including exploring them further).  As such, you throw these out within minutes of actually having had them.  This is great news.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with having lots and lots of really bad ideas.  As long as it’s obvious that they’re bad and as long as you don’t waste time and energy on them or bang your head against the wall trying to convince yourself that they might be good.  For purposes of our discussion, a bad idea is one that is clearly not going to generate a “positive return” on time and energy for you.  For example, you might have an idea that would be a good “feature” (but not a full-fledged product or business).  In this case, the idea is likely bad for you.  However, it could still be good for someone else that has a product that might benefit from this new feature.  So, though they can create a positive return on your idea – you can’t, because people don’t often buy features, they buy products.  So, for you, it’s still a bad idea.    [Note:  As it stands, there’s no efficient market for ideas, so finding someone else that might be able to use your idea is non-trivial]
 
Now, unlike bad ideas, good ideas are not so easy and are hence more dangerous.  These are ideas that could possibly create return on investment of time/energy/money.  Basically, they have some value – or, stated more accurately, have the potential to have some value.  Now, here’s what makes these dangerous.  Good ideas take a lot of work -- just to figure out whether you should even pursue them.  Good ideas are expensive because even figuring out what their potential might be (or what I’d call an “appraisal” process) is expensive.  You can’t easily dismiss a good idea like you can a bad one.  Good ideas take effort, even to discard. 
 
What you really want are great ideas (not good ones), but these are very hard to come by.  If you can’t have great ideas, then you’re likely better off with lots and lots of bad ideas and only one or two good ones.  That’s because having too many good ideas is one of the surest paths to startup frustrations and failure.  If you have too many good ideas, you spread your limited resources across too many of them (to figure out which one could become great), and as fate would have it, it’s almost impossible to win at this game.  Good ideas take so much time and energy to make them into successes that you can only afford to do one of them, and even then, the odds are against you.  This is a tangential argument in favor of making sure you have focus.  Without focus, you end up pursuing several good ideas.  In my experience, when you do this, you never have enough energy to really figure out if any of them can be successful.  The net result is that you don’t get anything out of them.  Ironically, your entrepreneurial stubbornness (which is a good thing) will have you convinced that there’s a good idea in there somewhere – and you’re right.  There was a good idea in there somewhere, but you just didn’t have sufficient resources to pursue all of them, and hence could not capitalize on any of them.
 
Candidly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a great idea.  I try to make up for this lack of brilliance and insight with execution.  I’ve learned (over time) that selecting the best of several good ideas and then pursuing one of them with passion and perseverance has a decent probability of success (much better than other alternatives).  Also, I’ll have to admit that in reality bad ideas are not better than good ones.  If possible, you want several good ideas so that you can pick one from them.  Often, if you have just one good idea, you tend to distort its value (you become “married” to it), and this is sub-optimal.  Your chances are better if you have several good ideas and pick what you think is the best one.
 
Summary of my point:  You will save yourself a lot of frustration if you can learn to separate bad ideas from good ones.  And, if you have more than one good one at the same time, pick what you think is the best one and focus on it.  Even if you end up picking the wrong best one, your odds of success are likely higher than if you tried to hedge your bets and pick multiple good ideas to pursue at the same time.