The Right Idea?

If I believe everything I read: ideas are cheap; it's all about execution. Developers are sitting on dozens of great ideas for products or services, if they only had enough time and funding. It wouldn’t matter which idea they chose, as long as the execution was right.

Although there's plenty of truth in the "execution is everything" school of thought, it’s important not to completely devalue the idea, a good idea will imply and steer you towards the right execution.

A couple of blog posts on MyMicroISV caught my eye this week.

In Picking your micro ISV niche, Bob Walsh talked about how important it is to choose the right idea and market. He summarized hype-cycles and the long tail, and suggested not developing a product for other programmers. There’s very little mention of execution, and there doesn’t need to be. This is about making sure you have an idea for something that someone will want.

Then, in There’s a business in your pocket, Karl Traunmüller talked about his experiences developing his first and second products. The first time around he thought he had an idea for a product, but in the cold hard light of hindsight it was just an idea for a coding project. The second product arose directly out of his pain, so right from the start it was focused on solving a real problem. The post ends with a great summary of the lessons he learned along the way.

Bob's statement about not targeting programmers is good advice, and he gives good reasons why. Similarly, one of the nice things about Karl's second product idea was that it wasn't specifically for programmers, but it was still something he needed and that he could "dogfood".

If you have an idea for something you really need, that you think non-programmers would use too, you're probably off to a good start. However, don’t think it’s the end of the world if you don’t need it yourself. Don’t write off an idea just because you can’t "dogfood" it, but if you are going to go ahead, you will need some help keeping the idea and the execution on the right track. You have to start building relationships with the people who do need it, and you should get as much input as you can, as often as you can.

I'm not one of those developers who have dozens of new ideas each day before breakfast, if I was, I would never get anything done. On those rare occasions that I have what I think might be a great idea, it tends to become like an obsession, and I find it horribly distracting and disruptive. If possible, I like to get a reality check as soon as possible, so I can get back to something important. Whether you have one idea or dozens, sorting the good from the bad is vital.

So what's the best way to shake a bad obsession, or to trim down your list of ideas to just the great ones? I doubt there’s an easy answer, but here are a few questions and steps that could either bring you down to earth or get you really fired up. Feel free to stop at any stage if you’re ready to relegate the idea to your someday/maybe folder, or the trash. I think in terms of downloadable trialware, so some of the suggestions might need tweaking for web services or products with a different business model.

Do you need it? If it existed, would you pay for it?
Do you know anyone else who needs it? If so, would they buy it and how much would they pay?
What else is out there, and what’s wrong with it?
How will your solution be better?
Do you think there will be a lot of other people who feel the same pain?
Where do they hang out online, and will you be able to get this idea in front of them?
How long is it going to take you (realistically) to get something like this out of the door?
What else would suffer if you chose to do it? What sacrifices will you have to make? Think about personal life, relationships, finances, and the impact on existing projects.
What’s the best that could happen?
What’s the worst that could happen?
Which seems more likely?
Is this going to be the best use of your time, or do you already have another idea or project that is more promising?
Do you really want to work on this product?

Still convinced? Take it a little bit further.

Find and talk to at least one potential customer. Are they as excited as you about the idea? If you had the product in a box on the table would they want to buy it? Are they the type of customer you want to spend your time trying to please?
Repeat if necessary.
Build a website or some basic product literature. Do you still think you can build it as quickly as you thought? Do you still think you can sell it? Is it still something you want to work on?

If you made it this far, you’re probably onto something good. I'd maybe add one more step, but it’s not ideal, and it’s not for every situation. Try posting up a website for a while and try to get some visitors. Building traffic is a more organic process, various things will improve your page rank and drive people to your site... but, you would at least be able to find out how many visitors you could get from Adwords, and how much they are going to cost you. If you have a mailing list sign-up on the site, you might be able to measure some kind of conversion or get more information about your target market. As I said, that’s not going to be for everyone, but if you have an idea you’re open to being persuaded against, it might be a good way to simulate the feeling of a disappointing launch. Or, it might surprise you.

If that sounds like a lot of steps and a lot of work, it is, but it’s a lot easier and less painful than building a product that nobody wants. Or, than building something and then trying to figure out who wants it and how you’re going to get it in front of them.

If you’re trying to decide whether to go ahead with an idea, or trying to choose which idea to go for, I hope some of these suggestions are helpful. Most importantly, I hope your right idea makes it through all the steps and becomes your great product.