Saturday, April 14, 2012

What Comes First, the Team or the Idea?

In the context of entrepreneurship, an idea is a set of assumptions that appear to have the potential to be turned into a successful business. Recently, several colleagues and I were discussing whether coming up with a great idea or assembling a great team is the first step in starting a company. Personally, I believe deeply in the power of teamwork and the concept of getting the right people on the bus first (and making sure they're sitting in the right seats). And yet, the question of whether the idea or the team comes first presents something of a catch-22. If we start with an idea, it's incredibly difficult to find the perfect team for that idea. In fact, we might not even have a place on the perfect team. But if we don't have an idea, it can be incredibly difficult to recruit teammates.

The various popular sayings about the (lack of) value of business ideas hold some merit even though they aren't axiomatic truths. For example: ideas are a dime-a-dozen and don't fall in love with your idea. Although there may be some cases of people who change the world through stubborn resolve, I think they are rare. I believe it is much more effective and productive to seek feedback and apply it to your situation in an intelligent way. We might analogize putting all of our energy into a single, immutable idea with putting all of our money on a single horse in a race with a million horses. If the rules of the race allowed us to change our bet as the race progresses, why wouldn't we take advantage of that?

There are also varying opinions about keeping our ideas locked up so no one steals them. Annecdotally, the general recommendation from those with experience seems to be to share our idea with as many people as we can. That's how we get feedback and identify issues we might otherwise miss as individuals. There is a saying about keeping equity to one's self that I think applies very well to the concept of ideas: "Equity is (ideas are) like shit. Hoard it and you'll end up with a great big pile of shit. Spread it around and amazing things happen."

This brings us to consideration of the relationships between ideas. How do we define the boundaries between ideas? There are numerous elements of a business idea, which from a high level are well-captured in the business model canvas, and there are innumerable details. Clearly, any two ideas are connected by an infinite number of paths paved with consecutive tweaks to the details of the ideas. Defining the distinction between ideas, then, is like the old philosophical question that asks, "at what point does a boat become a different boat if we gradually replace each plank, one-by-one?" This brings us back to the cautionary note on not falling in love with our idea. If one of the planks is rotting, we have to be willing to replace it or risk sinking the entire boat. Sometimes this happens repeatedly until the boat is quite different from what we started with.

So how does the team fit into all of this? Teammates contribute to making prudent judgments about when to bet on which horse, keeping the boat in good repair, and making sure we don't end up with a pile of shit. The question remains of how we assemble the team.

Given that change is a certainty, it's important to keep our destination in mind. Focusing only on the immediate path causes us to get stuck when we hit a road block. Having a team with an eye on the goal is having a team that will adapt to change, while continuing to move in the right direction. It means having a team that will not fall apart when we inevitably hit rough patches.

What all of this leads up to is that we need to change the way we think. Let's stop focusing on "killer ideas" and instead start talking about our goals and how we're going to change the world. When we tell someone about our vision for the future, they're likely to offer up ideas about how to make it a reality. If they do, that's great - we've found a potential partner. Of course, we need to make sure that our team's values are aligned and that our personalities mesh, but focusing on goals is good way to find one another in the first place.

Now back to ideas. Ideas are hypotheses. They are just assumptions about how we might achieve our goals. They are meant to be tested and modified as we learn. A solid team with strong leadership will generate good ideas and go through the necessary steps to test and refine them. In the end, I suppose the question of whether the team or the idea comes first is misgiving. The answer is that goals come first, then, if possible, the team, then numerous iterations of ideas.

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