Ideas and Hard Work

I was contacted by a stranger recently via this blog’s contact form. The question I’m assuming he or she is really asking (though pretty vague) is one I often hear, and I thought I’d share my answer. I’ve removed this person’s identifying information since I haven’t asked him or her whether it’s OK to post this here.

Hey Josh,

I was looking through the internet to try to find the best way to submit an idea for an iPhone/iPod accessory that has not yet been available and I stumbled upon your blog. A little about me: My name is [redacted] and I am currently attending (an American university) and I am a double major in Accounting and Finance. It’s a long-shot but I was just curious if you had any ideas or recommendations, advice, contacts, etc. that could help me in finding a way to get this idea to the right people in order for me to make some money to be able to pay off college. Thank you for your help and any further help would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

[Redacted]

Here’s my response:

[Redacted],

Since I don’t know you and I’ve only got one paragraph of (kinda vague) information here, I’m going to make some assumptions, and they might be wrong assumptions. Please forgive me if that’s the case.

Turning an idea into money is extremely hard. In this industry, people don’t pay for ideas. Even good ones. They might pay when all the details (and I mean all the tiny, tiny details) are fleshed out, and they’re holding something in their hand. But there are thousands of people who are out there saying “I’ve got this great idea. Let me just find some people to work for free and make it reality and I’ll just take 10% of the profits and leave the rest to them as payment for their work.” Those folks go nowhere.

If you want to go that route, I’m not sure what to tell you. Ask for help on Craigslist or on a local university message board and see if someone will have coffee with you, I suppose. If money is the final goal, you’ll learn a lot less, have little to be proud of and little to build from.

The category you want to be in is the group of people who are passionate (obsessed?) enough about their idea to build a team, get into the details, learn a lot, work extremely hard, and probably even build a prototype. Or a hundred iterations of a prototype. It turns out you have to put your own life into the thing to make it really worth something. And when you work hard, get into the details and learn a lot, even if your whole project ends up failing, you come out the other side wiser and more able to succeed next time. That’s something no one can take away from you. If you can find a team of people who see it the same way, no one will be able to stop you. You don’t need any of my connections, you just need to find those people.

If you want to go the better, harder route, it might look a lot like the shorter, weaker one in the very beginning, but after a lot of hard work it’ll eventually lead to places like Kickstarter. You can check out the Elevation Dock for an example of a well-done idea (where the details really mattered and the hard work was easily evident) that actually led to a real working product and clearly quite a lot of money. (Almost $1.5M in that case.) Another such case is the Recoil Winder. You can tell when you listen to the video that David Alden spent a lot of time working on the idea before he ever went to Kickstarter.

I hope that’s helpful, [Redacted]. Good luck pursuing your idea!

Josh