Inventor in a Shed

“Sometimes the people who invent things and the people who find out what things are for are different people”
— Kevin Kelly, Wired co-founder

A natural instinct of an inventor is to hide themselves away from prying eyes, waiting for the opportunity to reveal the completed invention to a wowed audience. The danger with this approach is avoiding the temptation to constantly add just one more feature before telling anybody about it.

It’s easy to spot an inventor, as opposed to an entrepreneur. The inventor will ask you to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they are prepared to tell you anything, whereas the entrepreneur will want to talk to anybody who will listen.

If there is information that you’re reluctant to reveal because it could jeopardise your venture if a competitor got hold of it, that is a good indicator that your idea is not very good. Likewise if you think someone could take your idea and execute it better than you, even with your head start.

So don’t lock yourself in a shed. Talk to everyone you can. Perhaps one of them will suggest an improvement you haven’t thought of or, even better, offer to work on it with you—both great outcomes.

That is easy advice to give, but much harder to do in practice. It takes a lot more courage than you would expect to tell others about your ideas, because chances are they won’t be that impressed.

Inventors have a bias towards creating something innovative and new. But to be successful, your idea doesn’t necessarily need to be original. Amazon wasn’t the first online store, Facebook wasn’t the first social network and Google certainly wasn’t the first search engine, but they have all done okay.

(On the other hand, all three, while not original, had something which was remarkable: Amazon had an extremely deep catalogue and discount pricing, at least initially, Facebook encouraged people to use their real names and was limited to college students only, allowing users to tap into their existing networks, and Google had PageRank. More on the importance of being remarkable later.)

There is even a school of thought that says the idea itself is irrelevant. It doesn’t really matter how original your widget is, instead impress us with your unit economics and business model and repeatable plans for selling (that last bit is what most frequently seems to be really hard).

Inventing something genuinely new is great, but working out what something is for is where things really get interesting. To create value you need to execute a good idea.

You don’t typically win by getting one big thing right, you win by getting thousands of little things right. And to do that, you need to be willing to get lots of things wrong.

This post is part of a series called The Mythical Startup:

  1. One Man Band
  2. Eureka
  3. Inventor In A Shed
  4. The Firehose
  5. Pinch Me!
  6. Mojito Island
  7. All Together Now

This series is cross-posted on the Idealog blog.