Lesson Three

Idea vs. Execution

One of the great things about building your own company is you can do whatever you want. The possibilities are endless. And you have no shortage of ideas.

This however creates one of your biggest challenges because deciding what to do will ultimately be a determining factor for your success.

CD Baby was founded in 1998 by Derek Sivers. It became the largest seller of independent music online with $100 million in sales before Sivers sold the company for $22 million ten years later. Reflecting on the worth of ideas and execution, Sivers wrote:

“Ideas are just a multiplier of execution”

Sivers went on to illustrate that an idea is almost worthless without execution.

An idea is almost worthless without an execution

“The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20. The most brilliant idea takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000.”

You might have hundreds of good ideas but how you make those ideas happen is exponentially more important.

If you’re a clothing store and you’re building a new website with the goal of selling more clothes, there’s thousands of things you could build to try and sell more clothes. You could allow people to share product photos on Facebook and Instagram, create built-in promotional codes, or design a login system to help your customers remember their favorite pieces of clothing.

These are all nice things to have but they are likely not the core elements that make your online store work at first.

When you’re just starting out, it’s more important that your store allows people to browse products and pay for things. Without these core store functions being built right, sharing images of products on Facebook and Instagram would be useless.

Grasshopper

Grasshopper is a virtual phone system for entrepreneurs that was started in 2003. Grasshopper was created by two college classmates who wanted to solve a problem they experienced firsthand at previous ventures they had been apart of. The founders decided not to take any outside investment so they used personal and family savings, and credit cards to fund the business at the beginning.

Not taking outside investment at the start had its advantages and disadvantages Founder David Hauser reflected:

“Starting with almost nothing and no backing was challenging for sure… We only purchased what was required, hired for exactly what was needed and could be paid for and always made decisions that helped us grow organically.”

Ten years later, Grasshopper reported $20 million in yearly revenue and over 150,000 customers served.

Grasshopper didn’t become what it is overnight. It took years of constantly figuring out what things they could do that would have the biggest impact.

Here’s a look at what the Grasshopper homepage started out as:

An early version of Grasshopper's website
Early version of Grasshopper’s website (2009)

It wasn’t the most beautiful thing in the world but there were likely many other important aspects of Grasshopper’s business that needed to be focused on. When the team was just starting out, these things likely took priority over spending more time perfecting the homepage.

Eventually, it made sense for Grasshopper to re-prioritize and spend more time on their homepage to turn it into what it looks like today:

Today’s version of Grasshopper’s website
Today’s version of Grasshopper’s website (2014)

It may seem like improving things like Grasshopper’s homepage design could have been done sooner. But the Grasshopper team likely had many other competing priorities that took precedence over redesigning the homepage.

Rather than spending time and money on the wrong things at the wrong time, they needed to constantly prioritize what they were working on so they could get the most value through out the life cycle of their business.

This is brilliant execution.

It’s not always clear what you should build when. This is part of the challenge of building something new – you won’t have all the answers.

But when you have ideas of what you want to build, think:

  • “What could we make right now that would be the most valuable for our customers?”
  • “What could we build that might prove one of the most important parts of our business concept at this time?”

Having these questions as a constant part of your decision-making process can help guide you in the right direction for what to do.

When you start a company, you might feel like you need to build so many things to make it work. But to build a business, you can’t do everything at once. To execute well you must prioritize your ideas for value.