How To Judge Big Ideas

Don’t fixate on flaws

Powerful ideas and disruptive startups are often mocked early in life. Salesforce and Facebook, for instance, encountered heavy skepticism during their founding days. Even electricity, an indispensable technology people take for granted, once faced opposition: it was originally feared as too dangerous for normal people to manage inside of homes.

Pessimism is natural since every idea, no matter how extraordinary, will contain flaws. Intelligent people identify these defects and conclude the idea will never gain traction, moving on with their busy lives and never analyzing the topic again in much depth.

The failure with critics is usually not that they are wrong, but that they are right about the wrong things. In short, they fail to envision how ideas and products evolve — they fail to envision the future. Much like a human, bad ideas and big ideas both generally begin life with noticeable issues, and some of these may never fully go away. The difference between a big idea and a bad idea, however, is the massive benefits more than compensate for the problems and/or a big idea evolves to address its issues.

Instead of enumerating flaws then stopping, critics should engage in at least two more steps:

  1. Are shortcomings temporary or permanent, i.e., will the market size grow from trivial to substantial if the technology becomes cheaper, faster, more powerful, or otherwise better?
  2. What new benefits are enabled by the idea? Do these benefits outweigh the costs (e.g., the number of deaths caused by home electricity is far surpassed by its innumerable benefits)?

Step two is the central challenge, demanding courage and creativity, and what distinguishes legendary venture capitalists like John Doerr and Michael Moritz from ordinary investors.