Image from BabyLab in London UK.

Ideas are babies

It’s a common metaphor often heard, that your idea — for a business, for a project, for changing the world — is like your baby. Operating in startup world, it’s rare to attend a panel or talk and not hear someone say it. Full disclosure — I do not have a baby (I do, however, own a business). But as a young woman thinking about having one someday, and watching with interest as my friends have babies, I have some thoughts on this overused metaphor.

It’s pretty accurate.

I would love nothing more then to list all the reasons why this metaphor sucks and disrespects the actual challenges of giving birth and raising children… but I actually think its pretty accurate. If I have any complaints, it’s that people don’t take it far enough.

Generally people refer to your idea as your baby because of the deep personal and emotional connection you have to it. You become naturally protective and defensive of your idea, wanting to tuck it under your wing, take care of it and raise it to succeed in this crazy mixed up world.

Like babies, your idea will consume you. Your best laid plans for maintaining balance in your life will be tested, as your idea will creep into your brain and distract you in all of life’s moments. Ideas, like babies, become 24/7 and you will most certainly drive your friends crazy with your incessant idea talk. Get a life.

But there’s more.

Everyone will tell you how to raise it. Anyone who’s ever had an idea before thinks they know your idea, is an expert in ideas and you should feel lucky to get their advice. People who are parents of other ideas and have successfully raised those ideas will be the most annoying about this. Especially those who could afford to hire help or to stay at home to raise their ideas and don’t understand why you wouldn’t do the same. You can identify these people because they say things like:

  • “you’re not a real entrepreneur if you have a part-time job”
  • “we raised our first $100,000 through friends and family — it wasn’t that hard”
  • “if you’re not willing to risk throwing away everything you have, you’ll never succeed”

These words are generally spoken by people who talk about risk more often than they experience it.

The judgement keeps rolling.

After telling you how to raise it, they might start asking questions about your baby — and be shocked by how little you know about it. People assume that because it came from you, because it’s your idea, you must know every little detail about it. The conversation generally goes something like this:

You: “Hey, let me tell you about this new app I’m working on”

Them: “Cool — will it do this? And this? And have this feature?”

You: “Ummmmm…”

Them: “Are you going to sell it to x? or y? what about z, are you talking to them?”

You: “Uh, I, well…”

Them: “How do you not know? How long have you been working on this?”

You: *gets swallowed up by the earth and moves into a cave*

But imagine this conversation actually happening with a new parent. How would that go down…

You: “Hey, check out my new baby, only four weeks old!”

Them: “Cute — what’s her favourite colour? Does she like sports?”

You: “Ummmm…”

Them: “Is she right-handed or left-handed? What does she want to be when she grows up?”

You: “She’s four weeks old. Yesterday she figured out she has a nose.”

Ridiculous, right? But we ask early-stage entrepreneurs the same questions about their businesses and judge them as being unprepared when they struggle to find an answer. Developing an idea is all about getting to know it — and it getting to know you. Sometimes the big discoveries are finding the perfect product-market fit — but sometimes it’s just realizing it has a nose.

And oh, god — the experts.

Finally… the experts. All the experts. So many experts. As I mentioned above, there are the informal experts — the older parents, grandparents, nosy people at the grocery store. But what about the people who are the actual so-called experts? This is where it gets a little tricky because experts — mentors, advisors, coaches — have really key roles to play in the healthy development of an idea. But not every expert — and their expertise — is appropriate to every stage of the development of an idea.

Here’s what I mean. Every incubator and entrepreneurship program has a network of experts to help — often these are established entrepreneurs, experienced executives, and others from the business world. They all bring knowledge and insights that can be beneficial. But far too often I see mismatches in the expertise provided and the support needed. Just because someone is an experienced CEO who has managed companies with hundreds of employees doesn’t necessarily qualify them to help an early-stage entrepreneur in figuring out how to launch their idea. I wouldn’t tap a kindergarten teacher to act as a midwife in the delivery room. That doesn’t take away from the teacher’s expertise — it just means their expertise is better suited for raising a kid than giving birth to it.

This isn’t a knock on experts so much as a plea for self-awareness when holding yourself out as an expert to aspiring entrepreneurs. Ask yourself — if this were a child, would you belong in the delivery room? Or in the classroom? Or are you not interested in kids at all and will wait until they turn 19, then take them out for a beer? Any answer is fine, but it informs what stage of idea development you should be holding out your expertise to support.

Any mother will tell you — as my friends will most certainly tell me after they read this — that ideas are not babies, not even a little. But for an entrepreneur who hasn’t slept in weeks, can barely concentrate on anything else, is second guessing whether they’re qualified to do this, whether they’ve just taken on way more responsibility then they can handle, and wondering whether they’ll ever feel like they know what they’re doing…. it can feel pretty damn close.

AJ Tibando is the Co-Founder and CEO of SoJo, a project-based learning platform that helps aspiring social entrepreneurs turn their ideas into action. Visit us at www.mysojo.co