Looks Like Rain

More Than an Idea

Whether you spend $2 million or two bucks on an idea, that doesn't mean you can make it work, or that you will want to spend the rest of your life with it. Just as you probably wouldn't get married after the first date, you're going to have to court your idea for a good period of time and start asking the crucial getting-to-know-you questions.

For Wolf, she began asking herself, "What's the worst that can happen?" She went through various worst-case scenarios to see how long her business would last if people simply weren't buying. She finally deduced she would need to sell 30 CDs per day to stay afloat, "which was probably wrong," says Wolf, "but that's what I thought, so I started the business. I was the one who was going to be working behind the counter, and I thought I could sell 30 CDs in a day." Today, Wolf's business sells 3,000 to 4,000 per day, among other things, like portable stereos and computer games.

Thinking about your business--planning, plotting, daydreaming--can help you avoid problems with it later. "The hardest thing about inventing is selling and marketing," says Sol Aisenberg, a physicist and member of Invent Resources, a Lexington, Massachusetts, group of scientists that develops prototypes of inventions based on their clients' ideas.

There are several questions you should ask yourself, Aisenberg says, after you've come up with an incredible, surefire idea for a business, product or service:

1. Will it work?
2. Do you own the idea?
3. Is it practical?
4. Is there a need for it?

Once you answer those questions, you're one step closer to starting your dream business.

Just don't neglect that step where you assess the idea. "The dumbest reason to start a business is because you like the idea," warns Seth Godin. That sounds like strange talk coming from somebody who wrote Unleashing the Ideavirus (Hyperion), but what he means is that it's more important to have entrepreneurial skills than to simply have a clever notion for a business. "Plenty of entrepreneurs with boring ideas do very well," says Godin.

He's right. An idea is just an idea until you do something with it. But you have to find that idea first. And it's out there, perhaps lurking in a dendrite in the back of your mind. Maybe it will make itself known when you're sitting on the bus, looking up at the advertising or at the scowling passenger next to you, and a connection in your brain ignites.

The right idea for you exists, and looking for it is as applicable as Wolf's dating advice. Says Wolf, who met her husband at age 24 and married him five years later, "You have to try finding some common interests, and if the relationship works without it feeling like a lot of work, then it's a signal for success."

When Good Ideas Go Bad
The Bermuda Triangle. Roswell. Michael Jackson. Good business ideas gone bad. There are many mysteries out there, but some think they know the reason for that last one. Richard Pavelle and his team of scientists invent the ideas brought to them by companies around the country. Not surprisingly, seemingly good ideas go bad because they weren't well-thought-out to begin with, says Pavelle, president of Invent Resources. "More than 90 percent of the ideas and inventions listed at the patent office are worthless," he adds.

Invent Resources physicist Sol Aisenberg says ideas often cost more than an entrepreneur is willing to invest. And George Freedman, an MIT-trained engineer, blames it on the lack of a customer base--it may be an interesting idea, but nobody will buy it.

Then there's the possibility that the idea was good, suggests business author Rick Maurer, who wrote Why Don't You Want What I Want? How to Win Support for Your Ideas Without Hard Sell, Manipulation or Power Plays (Bard Press). If investors and business partners don't support your idea, especially if their reasons are vague, "they [may not] like it at an emotional level--deeper than they'll tell you," says Maurer. That means you shouldn't push the idea, but "go into the eye of the hurricane" and work on fixing the real problems behind the resistance.

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the September 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Looks Like Rain.

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