Your Best Ideas Are the Ones No One Else Believes in
As you consider new ideas for your next project or business, give extra credence to the things you believe to be true that others doubt. The most exciting products are created by people with tons of conviction for something that strikes most others as odd. I've heard from Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, that when he and his co-founder Brian Chesky pitched the idea of having strangers sleeping in your home when you weren't there, many investors shifted uncomfortably in their seats. One investor shared that he had never had such a visceral negative reaction to a business idea, ever. Jenn Hyman and Jenny Fleiss, co-founders of Rent the Runway, told me they encountered similar doubts when they pitched the idea of renting dresses rather than owning them.
For both teams, first reactions from people were often strongly negative. I cringe to think what focus groups would have done with these ideas. But, Chesky and Gebbia, and Hyman and Fleiss, were undeterred. To these founders, their ideas were obvious and they set out to find investors and employees who got the vision when most everyone else did not.
While he is an outspoken and notoriously controversial contrarian, Peter Thiel has had undeniable success starting and investing in highly disruptive businesses that were, without a doubt, venture worthy. PayPal, Palantir and Facebook to name a few. In order to gauge whether something he is persuing is venture-worthy, there is one question he asks everyone he interviews or invests in: "What important truth do very few people agree with you on?"
In his book Zero To One, Thiel goes on to explain why he asks the question and what he looks for: "This is a question that sounds easy because it's straightforward. Actually, it's very hard to answer. It's intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is, by definition, agreed upon. And it's psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius."
He goes on to share some examples: "Most commonly, I hear answers like the following: Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed; America is exceptional; there is no God. These are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: 'Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.'"
Chesky and Gebbia believed that most people thought hotels were the only option for travelers, but the truth was that renting someone's extra room was cheaper with an added dose of personalized hospitality -- and likely a higher margin business as well. Hyman and Fleiss believed that most people thought they needed to buy the dress they wanted to wear, but the truth was that you didn't need to own a dress that you only wear a few times. Both teams set out to challenge old customer preferences with modern technology and logic.
If you can discern a truth early on and start it before anyone else, then you can front-run the future.
As a manager, this may take the form of believing that people with less experience but lots of initiative tend to outperform experts. It may mean looking past the traditional resume. As an entrepreneur, this may be a conviction that some social stigma, like sleeping in someone else's home (Airbnb), wearing someone else's dress (Rent the Runway) or persistently sharing your location with all your friends (FourSquare), will lessen over time and eventually disappear.
Over the past five years, as I have chronicled the lessons learned by great founders and leaders traversing what I've come to call "the messy middle," I have noticed a few recurring themes that I cover in my new book by the same name. Chief among them is the need for us to learn to value conviction over consensus. While our natural human tendency is to seek validation from others and avoid disagreement when possible, the business of innovation is different. You need to develop tactics to recognize and double down on the deep conviction you have in your gut that nobody else understands. Stop looking for consensus or opportunities that seem obvious and compelling at first glance. Great opportunities never have "great opportunity" in the subject line. Honing your gut instincts and acting upon conviction is a theme of every successful journey.