Where do amazing ideas come from?

Imagine this for a moment: all that you see, hear, smell and taste are nothing more than electric impulses in your brain controlled by an enormous machine which needs to keep it engaged even as it powers itself from the bio-chemical energy of your body. These impulses keep you happy. It’s like you are in bliss forever. But, are you really happy?

It’s a fantastic thought — and if it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the premise of the super hit film Matrix. I remember hours spent on discussing the parallels between Matrix and the concept of Maya, and the dangers of artificial intelligence and robotics. That’s what best of ideas do, they make you ask questions. They stimulate thought, challenge status quo, and prod us to push the boundaries of our world.

While I appreciate the power of idea in the realms of science, art or philosophy, my concerns are more immediate — the power of an idea in the realm of entrepreneurship. For a startup, an idea, above all, must solve an immediate problem, and it is better if lot of people need the problem solved. If the idea lends itself to being viral and the business is capital efficient the valuation is more attractive.

Think of an iPhone. Before it became an ubiquitous product, it was an audacious idea: that a phone, a music player and an Internet device can be wrapped into a single product, with an amazing user interface. I remember the exact moment, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in his 2007 keynote. By any measure, iPhone is a beautiful device, and a fantastic idea. People were willing to stand in queue and pay a premium to get their hands on the product .

These thoughts were not far from my mind when I ran the half marathon at Disneyland recently. Disneyland was born out of the idea that there should be a place where both parents and children have fun at the same time. It’s also an amazingly successful business — expanding globally, attracting over 16 million people every year.

Both mark the power of an individual idea. The takeaway is simple. Ideas come from people. And amazing ideas come from amazing people.

What makes people amazing?

Neither Jobs nor Disney were qualified in the traditional sense of the term. Apple turnaround story is probably studied at every top business school in the world, but Jobs himself never went to business school. In fact, he was a college dropout. The most sophisticated customers might put their blind faith on the brand Ralph Lauren when they pick up clothes and accessories, but Ralph Lauren himself didn’t go to design school.

Similarly Walt Disney might have fired up the imagination of millions of children across the world, but before he achieved his fame and wealth, he used to work in a newspaper called Kansas City Star. He got fired because his editor said, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

As a venture capitalist, I meet amazing people almost every day. They need not come from rich families. They don’t have to be from the PhD programs of top universities. They don’t need to have corporate credentials. In fact some of them are iconoclastic — and might not fit into traditional, large organizations’. I am not suggesting that having a PhD or having worked in a large organisation doesn’t preclude success. Some of the brightest people start their career in large organisations before entrepreneurial bug bites them. The larger point is this: when it comes to getting amazing ideas, how much of your background really matters?.

If all these don’t matter, what does? Here are a few attributes that I would place a premium on.

Ability to re imagine. Amazing people have this rare ability to look beyond what they see in front of their eyes. They look at the possibilities. They have the ability to look at one thing, go up the ladder of abstraction, derive an insight, and apply that to a completely new area. Thus, Captain Gopinath noticed the growing number of shining satellite TV receivers, and from that could imagine the demand for cheaper airlines and airports in smaller towns. From that vision, he created virtually a new industry — economy airlines in the country. For entrepreneurs, it’s as if the world is made of Lego blocks. They can dismantle what they see before them, and create something new out of the pieces.

Patience and perseverance: The moment of epiphany — sudden light — is a myth when it comes to amazing ideas. Amazing ideas take a long time to develop with a range of different, and often unconnected experiences. The lessons and insights from these various experiences mix with each other leading to something new. And then, there are iterations and pivots. All these need patience. Getting an amazing idea is just one part of the game. The other is execution. An idea without execution is merely an illusion. And success needs perseverance, the ability to go on, even if it’s boring and soul sapping.

Leadership: “You can invent the world’s greatest things, but if you just invent them it doesn’t accomplish that much. I found it very sad. You can imagine if he were slightly more skilled in business, or with people, he would have gotten a lot more done,” Thus spoke Larry Page of Goggle about his hero Nikola Tesla (Googled by Ken Auletta). To make an amazing idea commercially valuable demands leadership skills — the ability to see how that idea will change the world, the ability to convince others of that vision, the ability to work with a variety of people to convert that vision into reality, the ability to make different parts — finance, marketing, operations — work together to ensure that it’s sustained over a period of time.

Right now, India is at a stage where more and more people want to be entrepreneurs. As a venture capitalist, I see a number of entrepreneurs and ideas in the course of my work. Ideas are not often spontaneous and you can’t make them happen. However you can create the right environment that fosters ideation. For long plane rides, I take a list of topics to think about. I do my best thinking when there are long periods of silence and no distractions. I don’t trust my memory, so I jot down key thoughts in Evernote. I believe in writing down everything. I explore my hunches, I often reorganize them and expand on the details. I keep on refining them till I can explain my idea to someone else cogently. I urge everyone to find the right environment that nurtures your creativity.

Here is my favourite set of talks on amazing ideas.

One thought on “Where do amazing ideas come from?

  1. Vani,

    Your blog covers a nice perspective on- what you do with Idea is more important then an Idea itself. Our vision is tunneled when we study much, but we challenge the fundamentals when we don’t know anything and that’s what gives birth to innovation. Unlearning is more difficult then learning something through ignorance.

    I have been in a corporate job in USA for long, before starting up with YoLokal. We learnt that to succeed we need to be ignorant & that is helping us shape up well.

    I will be at Surge conference and would love to have a brief touchpoint with you, if possible.

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