I recently read an article by another Inc columnist, Jeff Bercovici, about what former Groupon CEO Andrew Mason learned after leaving the company.
In the article, Mason says, "It turns out you can't have good ideas after you've achieved financial independence--you no longer have real problems that need to be solved. All of my ideas since Groupon have been like, 'How do I press a button and get something to appear before me right now without moving?' So I have to go back to when I had actual problems and work through those remaining ideas, and then, once I work through those, I'll basically have expended my life as a useful entrepreneur."
I found this to be an extremely illuminating perspective, especially in a world where ideas are infinite and what wins is execution.
This got me thinking about big brands, and how all too often these companies set out in search of the next "answer." They issue RFPs asking for marketing strategies, they hire consultants, they bring in better talent to the office and they pour endless finances into market research. They do all these things because they think they already know their challenge and all they have to do is find the answer. But what if that's not the question that needs answering?
Then the right answer to the wrong question is still the wrong answer.
This is what we like to call a BGO--a "Blinding Glimpse of the Obvious." In short: You're missing the right idea because you are focused on the wrong question.
Going back to what Andrew Mason was talking about, whether you are a lonely entrepreneur or a Fortune 500 company, great ideas are not "answers" in themselves. Nobody sits at a desk by themselves and just pulls a great idea out of thin air. Great ideas are answers to the right questions. They are solutions to human problems. This is what Mason means when he says, "So I have to go back to when I had actual problems and work through those remaining ideas."
Another great example of this is when a new music artist pops on the scene with a debut album that is so deeply personal and revealing that they skyrocket to fame. And then a year later, their sophomore album sounds like a conglomerate of record executive's opinions and pop-trend melodies, plasticky synths and dumbed-down lyrics. The struggles and the hardships that created the essence of their first album have vanished, and in their place rests the laziness found in a signing bonus, nine bedroom mansion, and convertible Porsche.
Great ideas aren't born out of comfort. Great ideas come alive through debate and rigorous analysis. They manifest through challenge and opposition.
Whether you are a lonely entrepreneur or a Fortune 500 company, it's not about finding "the answer." It's about taking the time to truly understand what question you are trying to answer.
What Problem Have YOU Experienced?
The project management software, Basecamp, started off as a web design firm. Their biggest problem was that they were juggling a lot of different projects and didn't have a way to organize tasks and deliverables properly--and none of the other software out could do what they wanted. So what did they do? They built Basecamp--which was recently valued at $100B. Yes, B. As in Billion.
The team messenger software, Slack, has a similar story (and as a former pro gamer, I can totally relate). CEO Stewart Butterfield cofounded Flickr back in 2003, as a side feature for the MMO game Never Ending. In 2005, Flickr was bought by Yahoo, and by 2008 Butterfield had moved on and left the company. He went back to gaming and founded Glitch, another nonviolent MMO. Glitch launched in Fall 2011 and shut down a year later in Dec 2012.
Butterfield was coming up with cool ideas, but he hadn't yet found his unicorn--I'd wager because his ideas were not "solutions."
Within the MMO and online gaming communities, the chat platform IRC is a very popular communication tool. During Glitch's development, this is what Butterfield and his team used. But at some point, when they needed something more powerful and organized, instead of trying to find another piece of software, they decided to build their own. Then they added new features that solved their individual communication problems. And then more features. And more features. Until, without even realizing it, they had built a communication platform that wasn't just perfect for them, but perfect for companies everywhere. Slack was born.
These are just two examples, but so many others have followed an identical path:
1. Pinpoint a personal problem
2. Create a personal solution
3. Build it
4. See who else has that problem
5. Market what you've built as the perfect solution to that problem
Instead of continuing down the entrepreneurial, business-marketing, or innovation journey with the hopes of finding the answer, take a step back. Return to your roots when you were hustling with no resources, looking for your first gold-mine opportunity. Get back to looking for the questions that need answering. That's how you'll ultimately find the right answer.