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Idea versus Execution

The tech entrepreneur world is filled with sayings/aphorisms:

  • Ask for money, get advice, ask for advice, get money (when talking to an advisor/angel/VC):
  • Software is eating the world
  • Fail fast
  • Ideas don’t matter, execution does

I’m fond of the last one. Ideas don’t matter, execution does. It means no matter how great your idea is, if you can’t execute it (build the product, lead a team, provide a great customer experience, make money, etc) your startup wont work.

“The Facebook” was a great idea. But how many others had that idea? MySpace, Friendster, and countless other entreprenuers did. Yet Mark Zuckerberg is viewed in tech startup circles as a brilliant executor, not an “idea person”. He focused on a very specific problem (social network for college students), and “executed” his way to a billion users by raising money, hiring a great team, building a great product, etc.

Uber was another great idea that focused on a specific problem. Push a button and a car arrrives within minutes. Get in, get out, payment is handled by the app. Brilliant idea, but the logistical execution alone (signing up drivers, coordinating drivers, dealing with taxi unions and the US government) is even more impressive.

Although I present two once-in-a-lifetime companies to support the saying (ideas don’t matter, execution does), it tends to hold true for much smaller “everyday” companies. My problem with the saying is it implies that if the idea isn’t great, great execution will be enough for the idea to succeed. Well here is another saying: you can dress up a turd, but underneath it’s still a turd.

In my teens I spent a lot of time practicing playing the guitar. Sometimes 5-6 hours a day. I had the false belief that if I put in the work (execution), results (being a better player and musician) would follow. I didn’t spend much time thinking about how to focus my practice time to become a better player and musician (the idea). The results weren’t wasted hours, but underdeveloped potential. Had my playing been a company, it would have failed.

I believe too much attention is given to execution, and not enough to the idea. Think of all the books written on every topic related to execution. How to hire, how to lead, how to raise money, how to build an app. But how much writing is devoted to the idea? The formulation process. Talking to users. Market research. How to think about the problem you want to solve.

Here is a commonly shared statistic/saying: 80%+ of all new businesses fail within the first year. Do these businesses have great ideas but fail becacuse of poor execution? I believe for each one that fails because of poor execution, another fails because the founder(s) are working on a weak idea.

What constitutes a weak idea? If we knew the answer than the only factor to a startups success would be execution. I believe a weak idea is closely linked to the specific problem the startup is trying to solve. Under Armour was founded by a Lacrosse and Football players who were tired of getting rashses from their protective equipment. Under Armour is now a worldwide phenomenon producing quality athetic wear. It started from a very specific problem that the founders, and thousands of other athletes had. This made for a quality idea.

A strong idea is the precursor for strong execution. If the idea is strong enough (aka you’ve recognized a problem that a market size of customers have) you can blunder the execution a little bit. Optimize to find the best solution to the problem. It doesn’t work the other way around because you’ll be adjusting your execution to a problem that not enough customers have.

Spend more time on the idea. Think it through before you invest months building it. Talk to potential customers and experiment with MVPs. It’s a prerequisite for strong execution.