You have what you think is a brilliant new idea for a product, company, book, or other project. You've shown it to a bunch of experts, and they've all told you the same thing: It'll never work. Are they smarter than you? Or just too set in their ways to see the big opportunity you do. Wouldn't it be great if you could tell the difference?

You can, says Don Panoz, and he should know. Panoz is like an 81-year-old version of Elon Musk, a serial entrepreneur who has started one successful business after another--usually after being told that what he had in mind would never work. The businesses he's founded, Mylan Pharmaceuticals (he sold out decades before the EpiPen pricing scandal),

​Elan Pharmaceuticals, and Chateau Elan winery/resorts in Georgia and Australia have made him a billionaire. His newest venture, DeltaWing, is a newfangled narrow-fronted race car that can compete with traditional race cars despite having half the horsepower and using half the gas. He plans to use that design as the basis for an electric car that will be lighter than anything currently on the market, and will thus have a much longer range.

How can you tell whether your new idea is insanely great, or just insane? Panoz recommends asking yourself these questions:

1. Is your idea totally new?

If so, you can expect a lot of resistance. Panoz says he's been told throughout his professional life that what he had in mind wouldn't work because he never wanted to follow the beaten path. "My MO is that I think it's not worth your time doing something everyone else is doing," he explains.

That's how he came to leave Mylan. At the time, Panoz wanted to develop a method to allow drugs to be absorbed through the skin, rather than taken by mouth. He believed that would lead to better absorption of many medicines, compared to the standard method of converting them into hydrochloride salt. But Mylan's board balked at this new direction and the difficulty of gaining FDA approval to make the drug was also a huge obstacle. So Panoz sold his stake in Mylan, relocated to Ireland with his wife and children, and founded Elan Pharmaceuticals there, where the regulatory hurdles for developing and testing new drugs were not as difficult.

"Ireland has a population of 3.5 million, a great education system, and four medical schools," Panoz says. "But at the time, most graduates were emigrating out of the country in search of opportunity."

Elan began by creating patches that delivered antibiotics, calcium channel blockers (which treat high blood pressure and heart disease), among other medications. Then it had a huge success with the nicotine patch. Panoz never doubted the new delivery method would work, he says now. "I never thought the technology was a risk," he says. "The big risk was going off and doing it."

2. Are your critics stuck in their comfort zones?

A lot of experts will tell you that something won't work because an unfamiliar idea is inherently uncomfortable, Panoz explains. "It's a very natural part of human personality," he says. "A lot of people who become engineers or technicians who are very comfortable with what they've learned and what they've been taught and they don't want to make the extra commitment of time and effort to look outside their comfort zone."

Exploring a new idea takes a lot of work for these critics, he says. "Engineers are famous for finding all the reasons you can't do something. But if you can find reasons something won't work, why can't you find ways to make it work? Once you've found the problem, that's half the battle."

3. Are the arguments against your idea outdated?

Many new ideas that work in today's world faced opposition based on history that is no longer relevant. For example, while opening a pharmaceutical plant in Georgia, Panoz noted the many vineyards growing sweet "table" grapes. Why not try growing wine grapes there as well? He asked viniculture experts in California to do a study on the possibility. They came back with the results: It wouldn't work.

"When I asked why not, they said no one has ever done it," Panoz recalls. So he did some digging and discovered that, while California had been settled by Spaniards and Italians who drank a lot of wine and knew how to grow grapes for it, Georgia and the Carolinas had been settled by English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants who mostly drank whiskey and beer. It was because of this history that the southeastern states limited themselves to table grapes. So Panoz went ahead with his vineyard plans. Now he says, "We make good wine and we win a lot of medals."

4. Are you prepared to handle failure?

"I tell people you have to take the time to dream about the things you want to do, but realize that if you dream a lot you're going to have a few nightmares," Panoz says. One of his own biggest nightmares came about when he tried to develop some real estate in California into a winery/resort and housing.

"I had 30,000 acres of land," he says. "People started suing us." Panoz faced lawsuits from environmentalists and sport fishermen and changing requirements for things like building a firehouse. "It took us 14 years to build the first house," he says. "Then 2008 came along and we had to sell it all to a Mexican group."

5. Have you done your homework?

This is an important question, because every time Panoz has seen a project turn highly successful, it's been built on solid science that he thoroughly understands. Before he'll bet on a new idea or new venture he checks it out very thoroughly. "There are a lot of things I've looked at and decided not to do," he says.

On the other hand, if you've done your homework and you see real reasons why something should work, then don't let naysayers stop you, he says. Go ahead and make it happen. "It's very rewarding," he says. "And things that aren't a challenge aren't very rewarding."

Published on: Jan 9, 2017
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