I often have conversations with people who have a Big Idea.

They have personal experience of something (an industry, a job, a market, a personal problem), have noticed something that needs to be done, and have come up with what they think is a solution.

Then they tell me they’ve been working on the idea for a year or so, and pull out a text document, a presentation, and/or a diagram of how the website needs to look and work.

And they begin going into vast detail about all of the features of the solution. It’s going to do this, and then this, and it also will do this. And because this is a global problem it obviously needs to do this and this and this. And so on. A huge list. They back it up with how they’ve got some interest from someone important, and have had an amazing conversation with someone you’ve never heard of but are meant to know.

Can I stop you there?

I suspect I come across as rude, but I usually start staring into the middle distance and then suddenly cut them off mid-sentence before they’ve finished.

I start asking some difficult questions:

  • How long have you been working on this?
  • What are your assumptions?
  • How do you know that your assumptions are right?
  • What have you done to validate that people will really do what you think they will do rather than telling you they will?

And most importantly: why has it taken you a year to get this far and you’ve still got nothing on a screen?

Usually I get a bit of a blank look, some uncomfortable excuses and then I tell them a version of the following. The effect is often quite dramatic, so I thought I’d share.

The Little Big Idea

Having Big Ideas is wonderful, it’s to be encouraged. I’m inspired, as I’m sure you are, by people who have one and then follow through, and keep following through until they’ve built a company around their idea.

A packet of Sugru

Have a read of Sugru’s story page and you’ll see exactly what it takes to make a Big Idea a reality. Seriously, that’s got to be one of the best pages on the web.

Sugru is what I’d call a “Little, Big Idea”. At its heart it is a very simple proposition – a Little Idea, that has potential to do something pretty Big.

Sugru is a product that lets you fix physical things that are broken, or adapt them to make them better. It’s a type of waterproof putty that hardens at room temperature. It’s just some silicone rubber.

But when you think about what that means – less wastage, reuse before recycling, improving how we use products by adapting them to fit our needs, it’s clear that it’s also a Big Idea.

Just get started

A lot of people, when they have that Big Idea moment, throw themselves into writing it all down, planning it out, and doing things about the thing. Not the thing itself.

My favourite part of the Sugru story is what the founder, Jane ni Dhulchaointigh, says about the first prototype for what would become the product:

The first Sugru prototype – a better knife handle by moulding putty around the existing handle

“If I’m honest, the first version of sugru was pretty horrible — made from smelly silicone caulk and waste wood dust from the wood workshop. But it helped me hack my kitchen sink plug bigger, and make a knife more comfortable.”

That’s the opposite of going for the Big Idea pitch. My usual reaction on hearing such a pitch, is to pull the conversation well away from the “We’re going to scale up across EMEA” stuff and back to the first prototype.

What’s the first thing you could build to test the idea out? What could you learn by making a rough prototype and then getting some people to look at it, use it and react to it? Often you’ll have your assumptions challenged and end up with new realisations about what you’re supposed to be doing.

Just get started. Do the first, tiny thing. The “Little Idea”. Make the equivalent of putting some putty on your knife to make it easier to cut with. Apply that to whatever it is you’re working on and then go from there.

Start, then write the plan

In my last startup we did this, to a degree. If I could go back I’d follow this approach even moreso. “Why is it so hard to find a specific moment in a video?” was the problem.

I sketched up a solution in a browser in an afternoon that let you play through a Youtube video, type in text, and have it appear at that point in the video. You could then search based on that text and find the bit you wanted. We showed it to some people, we wrote a business plan about how you could turn this Little Idea into something bigger – video is a huge market. And we got some investment very quickly to follow through on developing that into a business.

Without that early experiment we wouldn’t have known what it was that we were trying to do, and we learnt very quickly what was, and wasn’t in the plan.

More close to home, my wife Emily had a Little, Big Idea recently. Subscription boxes are a big deal in the States, but not yet in the UK or Europe. She thought it would be interesting to see if she could get a craft subscription box off the ground. I spent a couple of hours making her a logo, she wrote one blog post, no website, no big plan required, and now she has a little business, the Crafty Fox Box, growing. She’s had to learn as she’s gone along, but rather than taking months to get the idea perfect, she just started it. It’s a liberating way of doing things, and she’s already started her second, a stationery subscription box: paper.do.

Be immediate

When you’ve got a Big Idea, you’re always thinking about it, and if you focus on just making that first step, you’re maximising on that passion and energy. It’s pointless trying to do a Big Idea when you’re not passionate about it, and the main problem I see with the “write it all down, spend a year getting lots of documents together” model is that your passion isn’t going to be in it. It’s a formula for making sure that you’re tired of it before you’ve even spoken to any users.

I often scare myself when I’ve had an idea by putting it out almost immediately on the web. I tweet something like “Hey guys! I’m looking for some people who know about x to help beta test an idea. Let me know”. It’s exciting, and you get great feedback. We’re doing this at Makeshift, where we come up with a product idea, do a two week hack, put it in front of people and try to find out if there’s anything in it. We only do hacks on things that are easily achieved with our skills as a team, yet that point towards a large market. We’re trying to get to the point where everything we make is a Little, Big Idea.

Use the feature knife

I do most of my hacks in one or two days. I’ve learnt that if I can’t do something in that time, then I’ve probably overthought it, and it’s too complicated. And the things that are successful on the web are the simple things. Sure – after those few days it’s into iterate, iterate, iterate, but I try in my hacks to make sure that I’ve successfully demonstrated the bare minimum of the idea in that time.

To work this way you have to choose what constitutes the absolute bare bones, minimal version of the idea you’re going to go for. Then focus, say no to every feature that doesn’t help validate that idea. No, no, no. I call it the feature knife. This. Not that. This. Not that. Trim it down to it’s basic components, then set aside a fixed period of time and build it.

Obviously I’m lucky in that I can make a thing in a day – like Attending, a simple event-page maker I made last Friday out of frustration with Eventbrite. I had a good reaction, then asked Jase to give it some design attention. We did a few tweaks together, so as it stands today, that’s about 7 days of person-time. And now we try to get feedback about whether there’s anything in the idea.

Optimise for demonstrability over time

The classic hack-day demonstrability graph

The joyful thing about the make-something-quickly spirit that I refer to as hacking, for want of a better word, is that if you get it right you are optimising for visible productivity early on.

If you attend a hack day, or you’re building a rapid prototype (like the Sugru knife handle), you’ll get a graph that looks a little like this.

In the first 10% of time you’ll probably be able to demonstrate 90% of what the idea will be about. The remaining 90% of the time will be refinement, but it will still only add 10% of the perceived “done-ness” of the idea you’re demonstrating. It’s the shlep – the long, hard, graft that’s required to take a product idea to market and get it right.

But given that by hacking on an idea you can get to that 10% point very quickly, I’d argue that that is a very good idea indeed for a certain class of Big Ideas. Clearly, you can’t build a bridge this way. Or come up with a cure for a serious disease. But if your idea is digital in nature, then I’d argue that there is much to be done by optimising for that early part of the demonstrability-over-time curve.

Build something small

There is a prevailing wisdom that in order to make something successful you should write an extensive business plan before you start. It’s the MBA school of thought. Whilst I am sure that this is relevant in many situations, I would argue that this stage comes later than when you’ve had your initial, unproven idea. At that stage I think that a one-pager will suffice. If you can’t explain what the business model is in a one-pager then you’ve got bigger problems!

So, I suspect if you’ve read this far, you’re someone who has one of these Big Ideas. Are you writing the business plan without any validation? Have you done a prototoype? Have you done a hack to really see, with real people if you’ve got something worth investing your time in?

Set aside the business planning and the idea-flood for a moment, and get back to the simple, basic, core idea of what your idea is about and go and test that out. Good luck!


With thanks to #sundaypost (write a blog post on a Sunday with others) and everyone who supported me to write this idea on Help Me Write. What should I write next?