Are Ideas Really Worthless?

It’s received wisdom among startup types that: “Ideas are worthless, it’s the execution that counts”. It’s become so much of a cliche that the great pop-sci middle-brow heavy-weight Malcolm Gladwell has just written a New Yorker article about it.

Now obviously there is some truth to this. It’s easy to say – “Let’s build a website exactly like Tumblr, but for recipes!” And then do nothing about it. This happens to me multiple times a day.

However there is a counter argument: without the right idea, any amount of execution is worthless.

I have personally seen it many times. Brilliant technologists and designers who build a startup around an idea that just doesn’t make much sense. It either doesn’t fulfill a need, or it cannot be explained in one sentence, or it is just too similar to ideas many other startups are executing on at the same time.

So yes, the execution is incredibly important – but so is finding the right idea to execute on. Building a technically or aesthetically wonderful product is a waste of time if nobody wants to use it.

The hard part is figuring out which are the good ideas and which are the bad. Doing this requires a combination of intuition, research and general knowledge of the world around you.

Flickr founder Caterina Fake voiced a similar opinion a while ago that resonated with me:

“Much more important than working hard is knowing how to find the right thing to work on. Paying attention to what is going on in the world. Seeing patterns. Being able to read what people want.”

17 Responses

  1. Stefan says:

    A few years ago a mutual friend of ours once explained to me that he had ten ideas; seven good, and three great. He just didn’t know which were which at that point. It was a smart, insightful comment that has always stayed with me. Ideas are essential. Obviously. The trick is to spot and act on the great ones.

    In my own line of business I see the same thing as you describe all the time. But no matter how good the execution, if the core idea is not thoughtful, and thought through, a new project never really gets off the ground (or soon flounders).

  2. mcTeapot says:

    A lot of this is from a black lash of Business types seeing software engineers as nerds to execute their bidding. Their have been countless times where a Business major approached me, calling me a “techie”, and followed by “I need to understand you people to get my awesome next Google made. It is not hard, just do what I say and I will give you some money when I get rich.” Sure some ideas are better than others, but over the years I have grown to mistrust people that call them selves business types.

  3. nicoptere says:


    this is the crucial difference between Applied Arts (AA) and Fine Arts (FA) 🙂

    I started studying AA, they’d give you an exact list of what a product – say a coffepot – should do and wanted you to execute it so well as possible.
    then I left for the FA where they’d ask you “what IS a coffepot? – do something with it”.
    in the first case you keep reproducing or improving things that already exist.
    in the second, there’s a chance you’ll produce nothing, there’s also a chance to change things radically.

    I chose the second option but I believe both are required to keep the world going 🙂

  4. Touché Comm – Are Ideas Really Worthless?

  5. Are Ideas Really Worthless? — Airtight Interactive

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  7. Are Ideas Really Worthless? — Airtight Interactive

  8. “The hard part is figuring out which are the good ideas and which are the bad”

  9. Gino Zahnd says:

    This bit from Sivers is the best articulation I’ve seen:

    “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.

    AWFUL IDEA = -1
    WEAK IDEA = 1
    SO-SO IDEA = 5
    GOOD IDEA = 10
    GREAT IDEA = 15

    WEAK EXECUTION = $1000
    SO-SO- EXECUTION = $10,000
    GOOD EXECUTION = $100,000
    GREAT EXECUTION = $1,000,000
    BRILLIANT EXECUTION = $10,000,000

    To make a business, you need to multiply the two.

    The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20.
    The most brilliant idea takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000.”
    Derek Sivers

  10. Without the right idea, any amount of execution is worthless

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  12. david says:

    Gladwell contradicts himself on this one with his thesis in outliers that being in the right place, at the right time (being born at the right time), at the right place (Silicon Valley or Seattle in the mid 70s) with the right idea, is key to being successful.

    IQ is not enough, execution is not enough … you need some luck (timing) also

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