Ideas are overrated: 5 Realities from a HBS Entrepreneur  

By Apurv Bansal
By Apurv Bansal

I often hear people talking about how they really want to start a business, but don’t feel ready because they don’t have “the right idea”. They claim that as soon as the find the idea, they would take the plunge.

Most successful entrepreneurs don’t wait for an idea to strike. They just start. Facebook started out as a website asking people to vote on which of the two pictures they saw was ‘hotter’, Nokia began as a wood pulp mill and Android was supposed to be an operating system for cameras.

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Facemash – Version 1 of Facebook

Reality #1. The misconception – Every entrepreneur has a eureka moment

Some businesses are built on ideas that the entrepreneur chanced upon. These ideas are primarily of two types:

The spontaneous ideas

One gets them in the shower, while driving or perhaps on the treadmill. These are usually a result of problems faced by people in their personal lives. Rent The Runway, for example, was created because the founder noticed that her sister wanted to wear designer clothes on important occasions without wanting to spend exorbitant amounts.

The insider ideas

They are born out of inefficiencies observed in an industry where the entrepreneur worked for a long time. For example, during my consulting job, I found filing expenses to be very painful and time-consuming. I thought that it would be great to build an app where I could just click a picture of the receipt, and voila – the expense was filed.

We are never told this though. Instead, the stories we read in the media tend to portray every successful venture as an epiphany that the entrepreneur had because of a problem faced in their lives. “I couldn’t find a solution, so I decided to build it”, they claim in interviews. And why not? It makes for fantastic reading. “Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, were complaining about the many crappy things we all have to deal with in life, including finding a cab when we’re packed with luggage under the rain. They decided to build an app, using which one could hail a cab at the tap of a button”. That makes for a great story about how Uber started. Unfortunately, that’s all it is – a great ‘story’!
Hacking your Eureka moment – Reading and Talking

Reality #2: Hacking your Eureka moment – Reading & Talking

Finding an idea to pursue can be a very scientific process. Anyone can do it. You can hack your Eureka moment. Here is how.

Paint a faint picture

Gain some clarity on the type of venture you want to start. Identify characteristics of a business type that appeals to you. Think about the Industry, business and target customer. This will help you clear the clutter in your head.

Industry

Do you want to be in Tech, Clean Energy, Retail, Sports, Entertainment, Manufacturing?

Business

B2B or B2C? Tech first or tech enabled? Part time or full time? Cash flow positive from the beginning or cash burn intensive? Build to sell or build for good? Think of other parameters that are important to you.

Target customer

Expats, Working professionals, College students, Middle-aged women, etc.

Find white spaces

All you need to do to this end is ‘Read and Talk’.

Read news, industry reports, literature, interviews and any other material you have access to. Get yourself up to speed on the industry and identify potential problems to be solved. Talk to target consumers (go to a shopping mall, travel to remote towns, call up your mom’s friend), industry experts (colleagues, friends from undergrad, LinkedIn connections), VCs and anyone else who can provide you with more context. Speaking to people is the fastest and most efficient way of gaining knowledge on a subject.

After spending enough time doing the above, you will have identified multiple problems that you could potentially go after with your business. Unsurprisingly, each one of them will have flaws, barriers, execution difficulties etc. But then, if an idea with potential didn’t have roadblocks, someone would most likely have already executed it.

Reality #3: The matching process – Team, Money and Motivation

There are three resources you have at your disposal. You have to play to your strength and identify which of the ideas on your shortlist can be best attacked by these resources.

Team: Does your team have the relevant expertise needed to build the business? The biggest mistake one can make is outsourcing a core aspect of the business to a third party. Think about how difficult it would have been for Mark Zuckerberg to start Facebook if he couldn’t code.

Money: How much capital does each of your shortlisted businesses need? Do you have access to this capital or can you potentially raise it from VCs?

Motivation: This is, by far, the most underrated resource. Which of the ideas gives you a kick? Thinking about which of them stops you from sleeping at night? There might be huge potential in building a software for schools. But if the thought of pitching to school principals every day puts you to sleep, chances are you won’t succeed at building this software.

Reality #4: Start doing – Plan A almost never works out

No matter how much time you put in shortlisting the right idea, you will never be fully convinced about any of them. The longer you spend contemplating whether or not to pursue an opportunity, the less time you have to actually go after it. It is only once you get your hands dirty and start executing that you understand your customers better and realize the complexities associated.

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Building a successful business will most likely take longer than what you originally planned. The majority of entrepreneurs pivot after a few months of starting their venture. You may have to pivot once, or maybe five times. Youtube started out as a video dating website, Instagram began as a check in app (similar to Foursquare) and Nintendo was originally a playing cards manufacturer. They all pivoted multiple times. As long as you have the team, money and motivation, you’re in the game.

Reality #5: The world will always have enough problems to solve

The more we evolve, the more complexities we add, thereby creating more opportunities for entrepreneurs to add value. There will never be a paucity of ideas. An entrepreneur will go all in, and execute. Everyone else will keep waiting for the right idea.

Apurv Bansal (HBS ’17) was an internet entrepreneur in India prior to HBS. He pursued his Bachelors at IIT Delhi and then sold his company to Snapdeal, India’s e-commerce unicorn. He is passionate about startups and loves to have conversations about entrepreneurship.

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