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Are Smart People Wasting Time on Bad Ideas?

About 2-3 times per year I’ll happen upon a conversation thread that makes me uncomfortable. If I hear it from one person whose opinion I respect, I tend to file it away. If I hear it from two people whose opinion I respect, I make note of it. If I hear it from 3 people or more than I know it’s starting to seep into the collective consciousness of the folks I know. In the last month I’ve stumbled on just such a thread. The nature of this thread is whether smart people (where smart = business smarts) are wasting their time and talent on bad ideas. What’s a bad idea? In this context, a “bad idea” is a company, business, or commercial endeavor that has no real chance at success and where the best case outcome is not really that interesting.

Lately, I have heard this theme / concern expressed by a few people who I know. Among my friends, there is a growing concern that a lot of smart, talented people are spending their time working on ideas that just aren’t good. This is particularly (or perhaps exclusively) true of smart people I know working on consumer internet companies.

I’m of the mind that people choose ideas or business ideas for a variety of reasons, with ultimate commercial success being but one of them. Sometimes it’s about a bigger title, a bigger part of the financial action, being part of the process of creating something new, or simply to escape an otherwise boring job. But I have to say that I do see some ray of truth in this assertion that many smart people are working on ideas that are not ultimately going to be big. I think this has more to do with the fact that many smart, young people I know are restless and don’t see anything established that’s interesting and hence feel the need to strike out and do things that are riskier.

What do you think? Is it fair to assert that smart people are wasting their time these days? What can you add to the conversation?

Comments (17) on "Are Smart People Wasting Time on Bad Ideas?"

  1. I think okay ideas that aren't well executed are a tougher call. There's probably more to learn there. I had an IM exchange with someone earlier today who pointed out that part of the problem at the moment is that the feedback loop is a bit broken at the moment – you get some signals about whether your idea is sticking (monthly uniques, traffic, etc) but not the real signals (revenue, profits, etc) that build big businesses in the long term.

  2. Hi Charles. I hope all is well. The product introduction that made me think about this topic last summer was for the Palm Folio. In my opinion, that product would have been a perfect example of the phenomenon you mention. At least Palm developed the insight to kill the project before it launched.

  3. Craig, I agree – I think the Palm Folio was a bad idea and I'm glad it got pulled before it really saw the light of day. Based on what I've seen about the Amazon Kindle, I feel the same way about that product as well. One of the challenges for talented people is the problem of choice – how do you choose what to do with your time?

  4. You're right Charles. Consumer internet is a waste of time. And big companies are really boring (too slow and too much foolishness around process). There are so many other meaningful things going on right now that have way more potential for "importance" (however you want to measure that). Clean tech, medical devices, developing world services, designer pre-fab homes, and bio-products are all extremely exciting. Let's say nothing of actually being, say, a civil servant in our rapidly developing global context. I think the main reason why consumer internet start-ups usually are a waste of time is because in Silicon Valley, they're still considered respectable workplaces if they're funded by the right company. I mean really, we even put who funded our start-ups in our resumes to lend credibility as though the name or mission doesn't speak for itself. I always liken Silicon Valley to Hollywood. Everyone wants to be a big fish (CEO, VC versus Producer, Director). But in Hollywood, "B" movies don't add credibility (in fact it can hurt). But in Silicon Valley, any crazy start-up that gets funding is given credibility. And somewhere in there is the problem. If you're a CEO of any random company that gets funded by a respectable company, then you're golden – no matter how badly it goes. This is the only place I've ever heard of where that kind of dynamic is celebrated – not even just tolerated.

  5. Two reasons imo. First is that the tech blog community provides a level of instant feedback and positive reinforcement for bad ideas that in the past never would have gotten any traction in the real world, making people think some of these bad ideas are much better than they actually are. The hype that can build super quickly around really dumb ideas is pretty staggering. Second thing is the awareness that small acquisitions have gotten. In the past these $10-30M acquisitions largely flew under the radar. Now they give a lot of (often false) hope to people about having an exit with companies that are really just features of very specific point solutions. This leads people to build companies that from the get-go have pretty much no chance at becoming a significant company. And when you start something without even the chance at that huge upside, the startup gamble is often a bad one.

  6. Deva, Very insightful comment. I agree that the blogosphere can create an echo chamber effect that makes some marginal ideas seem much more compelling than they actually are. Glad to hear that I'm not alone on this – keep up the good work on your blog!

  7. relative to what? staying in a cushy consulting job for several years to pay off your student loan, buy a nice car, and hopefully ultimately parachute into a fabulously senior position within a fabulously successful, hot company? bad ideas exist in many forms, and they always have. human capacity for creativity is not market-driven, it doesn't ever change. regarding start-ups, it's deceptively easy to monday-morning-quarterback any idea and pigeonhole it as apparently good or bad. i'm suspicious of anyone who thinks they can always tell the difference. ideas are malleable and like art are subject to interpretation and execution. the only dynamic in this whole equation is perception of risk. we happen to be in a time where risk appetite is extremely high. sometimes this appetite is unintentional, and that's a problem. those who appreciate the inherent risks and jump head-first into pursuing any idea with eyes wide open are not wasting their time at all. and those who lack the appropriate perspective are probably headed for a bad hangover. as you intimate, regardless of which bad idea we may choose to pursue, it is best to sign up for the experience, not the outcome.

  8. I have new ideas all the time. 95% of them end up interesting me and IMHO, could create some value for somebody. A much smaller percent (~10%?) are actually worth my own time given opportunity cost. Why do I then sometimes spend time on the projects located in delta between those two benchmarks? I think it's mostly psychic satisfaction – sometimes there are just interesting explorations or goofy things that i want to pursue. I want them to exist so i'm willing to take a lower ROI on my time (or capital) invested. Rational? Perhaps not.

  9. Hunter, I think it's actually rational to spend some cycles on those ideas where it's not clear that the payoff will be high, but where your hunch is that there's more to it than the average idea. All it takes is one of those to work out to make the others worth your time.

  10. At the group level it goes back to the Jim Collins refrain "Built to Last" vs "Built to Flip" but the focus I think should be on good ideas that fail rather than bad ideas (that may succeed!) and that comes to supporting long term thinking and the relationship between what is sown and what is ultimately harvested. At an individual level the value of playing with a bad idea is that you get to learn what a good idea is and sometimes we don't know what we don't know, and until we engage an idea that we consequently find out that it is bad, but coming back to the "Built to Flip" mindset – the dotcom crash accelerated development of the internet, the phoenix that arose from bad ideas is faster acceleration. Instead of focusing solely on what a "bad idea" is, we need to constitute what a good idea is and recognize quality alongside speed and potential. What counts IMHO is if we are learning from mistakes or watching history repeat itself – for instance those in orderly environments recognize that agile development is a bad idea, but those in arena's where flexibility and iterative processes are a natural advantage, requires people to adjust to that way of approaching work. How open and adaptive we are to systems thinking or environmental maturity is as important IMHO as how our minds work and how we relate to creativity. That makes me think also that I may be discounting or personally underestimating myself how adaptive it is that I actually am. M.

  11. This is a very thoughtful comment – thanks for adding it. I certainly think that many times it's as much about the journey as it is about the outcome. That being said, some paths offer better learning opportunities than others.

  12. danny, wow, sounds like you have some strong opinions about this! i think the process of taking a raw idea and turning it into something is a great learning process and can be really rewarding, both personally and professionally. i just wonder if perhaps the risk meter hasn't gone a little bit too far. it's really tempting to make ex-post judgments about whether something was a good or bad idea. many times there simply wasn't any way to know a priori. but, that being said, there are some ideas that do have higher odds of success from the start than others. thanks for contributing to this post!

  13. When it comes to learning opportunities, bad ideas are the mistakes which are the learning opportunities. I do think that smart people can have bad ideas, but it is dumb people that implement bad ideas – for how can anyone be "smart" if they are conscious that they are pursuing a bad idea. If bad ideas are a part of trial and error then learning from mistakes is crucial, and if I am truly smart I will get better at figuring out what bad ideas are. I do go online to make the mistakes I hopefully won't repeat in the real world. That isn't to devalue the virtual world, but like Michael Schrage depicted in his book Serious Play, prototyping may begin with a bad idea but through successive iteration – a good idea may emerge. In terms of going online to start a business, the startup failure rate is pretty high and so our conception of a bad idea needs to extend beyond the product or service level, all the way cashflow is managed. The first year of our business was nearly disastrous but we are still in business ten years later because it was the ability to turn bad ideas into good ones and examining our thinking. We refer to that as becoming speedboats that compete with tankers. I am not here to promote our business, but I am here to try new things online that others may classify as a horrendously bad idea – but that the difference between those that follow the conventional root is that I think that emergent behaviour is worth its innovation potential, but this has to be in the form of a process, a "serious play". M.

  14. he nature of this thread is whether smart people (where smart = business smarts) are wasting their time and talent on bad ideas. What’s a bad idea? In this context, a “bad idea” is a company, business, or commercial endeavor that has no real chance at success and where the best case outcome is not really that interesting. ——— good idea

  15. Smart people knows how to spend their time right… but your right… some smart people do not know how to spend there time right… thank you for blogging this.. it really teach us a lot.. a good blog.. congrats..

  16. Smart people knows how to spend their time right… but your right… some smart people do not know how to spend there time right… thank you for blogging this.. it really teach us a lot.. a good blog.. congrats.. rn

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