The thing I admire most about founders

People often ask me, given my job, whether I ever have any ideas for a new brand myself.

It’s a fair question.  After all, I’ve seen inside a lot of different companies, at various stages of growth, so you’d think I’d have developed a pretty decent sense of what works and what doesn’t.  And of course when you’re doing strategic projects you regularly come up with hypothetical ideas which may not work for the client at hand, but which would work under other circumstances.

So the answer is yes, I often have such ideas.  But no, I’ve never pursued any of them.  Not beyond the most superficial consideration and dismissal.

You see although I felt plenty of these ideas were pretty decent, and had an OK chance of succeeding, none of them struck me as being a total slam dunk.  None of them were so irresistible that I felt I “had” to do them.  None had the power to get me to put my money where my mouth is.  No, to my mind they were just “fine”.  And fine isn’t good enough for me to upend my life in their service.

In the past I would have thought “that’s OK, you just haven’t come up with a good enough idea yet”, but over time I’ve come to see that this isn’t actually true.

The truth is that there are no good ideas.  Not on paper at least.  There are no hypothetical company ideas out there that are so strong on their merits that they would stir me, or most other people, to go out and do them.  Almost all ideas, at their inception are either:

  • Generic
  • Muddled
  • Or downright stupid

…and could be shredded to pieces by a “smart” person within minutes.

And that is precisely why “smart” people don’t tend to become great founders.

You see the superpower founders have, which I’ve come to recognise and greatly respect, is not that they have “good ideas”.  They don’t.  Not any more than anyone else.  No, their superpower is that they are willing to commit to a bad idea.  Or at least an idea that other people wouldn’t have bothered with.

Behind every billion dollar brand, behind every hit product, and behind every flying scale up is, at the core, a pretty weak idea.  All of these things began with a concept which most people would have considered pretty banal or ill-judged.  And they wouldn’t have been wrong either.  The ideas were banal and ill-judged.  But the thing is, that doesn’t matter.  An idea doesn’t have to be great, or even good, in order to succeed.

As readers of this newsletter know, ideas change instantly when they make contact with the market; when they’re released into the wild.  They always become something different (and greater) than their founder intended.

So initial specifics don’t really matter all that much.  What matters instead is the presence of an individual who is willing to back the idea despite its mediocrity.

Now sure, I suppose there is probably the odd idea that most people would recognise as brilliant from its inception.  I always thought that the idea for Tinder was sheer genius from the ground up.  But then again how much of this is hindsight bias?  How many people had the idea for Tinder before the people who actually made it happen?  And how many of their friends questioned them?  And how many investors rejected them?  I’m guessing more than a few – and that’s for the best raw concept I can think of.

By comparison the average company idea is sheer dirt – but people make successes of them anyway.

It is for this reason that I think founders possess a rare quality, far more valuable and impressive than everyday stuff like “creativity” or “intelligence”.  They possess the quality of committed action.  Of bravery.  Of being prepared to press forwards with something that has no reasonable prospects of success.

I guess sometimes this is courage, and sometimes it’s delusion, but either way it doesn’t matter.  The fact is they are prepared to do something 99% of people would have considered a colossal waste of time and money.  And that’s what make them a founder, and earns them the (potential) big bucks.

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