In 1993, I had a seventh grade English class essay assignment to “Invent a New Product.” The product I invented was Netflix.
My teacher didn’t think this was brilliant. She gave me a ‘B’ because what I’d invented “was a good idea, but not a product.” Without the proper encouragement, I diligently completed the rest of the year’s worth of assignments in the Mead notebook, wrote some sophomore’s name in hearts on the teal front cover, and never thought about it again until twenty years later when I was working as a marketing manager for a tech startup and I happened upon it when cleaning my apartment.
Holy shit, I thought. I invented Netflix.
I did what any person would do in this situation: I took a picture of the notebook entry with my phone and posted it to Facebook. “Well, I guess I invented Netflix for a 7th grade English assignment. GENIUS!”
It was funny, people laughed, people commented that it was eerie and epic, and then everyone went back to what they were doing and I was left thinking, “What do you do with this information?” Was this a reminder to act on my ideas, no matter how far-fetched and misunderstood?
No. The reason I invented Netflix in seventh grade wasn’t because I was the mid-pubescent female version of Jeff Bezos, able to predict how the internet might change the media landscape and cunningly constructing capitalist inroads to exploit those changes. I invented Netflix to solve my own 13-year-old problem: I didn’t want to ask my mom to drive me to the video store so I could rent movies with cute boys in them. If I could read the encyclopedia on Prodigy, send flowers or book plane tickets apparently, why couldn’t I watch Newsies there, too? It made sense that I would have that idea because, although it was too early-stage yet for Netflix to actually exist (we were still using dial-up modems and not actually connecting to the world wide web), I was Netflix’s target audience. I was in no position, however, to actually invent Netflix.
I still work in tech, so I sometimes get asked for advice about building “websites” by friends of friends who, unfortunately for them, don’t know anyone who works in tech but me. Usually their idea for a website is an idea for an app or a tech company they have no idea how to execute. While I used to have these same ideas before working for a startup myself and would never have listened to someone telling me that what I was trying to build was over my head, I mostly end up telling these people that what they’re trying to build is over their head. “This idea would require a team of developers,” I tell them. “Not someone who built a Shopify site once.”
My notebooks, especially since college are a graveyard of un(der)executed ideas. From Upholsteriffic (Uber for upholstery), to Verka (the coffee shop slash co-working space), to Snack Czar (mini bars for Airbnb), my favorite part of creating is the idea stage. I’m always light on the execution.
It’s great to have ideas, but it’s terrible when someone comes along and starts doing your idea better than you, because they’re actually, well, doing your idea.
I’ve had to come to terms recently that I am a person who runs around coming up with ideas for businesses all the time. Netflix isn’t the only business I invented only to have another idea-haver overtake me in the execution stage. But there are two things I’ve realized lately about having ideas.
Sometimes the idea isn’t yours to execute
Inventing Netflix in seventh grade has helped me realize, is that there’s some ideas that you’ve tapped into that aren’t yours to execute. Several years ago, around the same time I found the Netflix invention entry in my notebook, I had an idea to create a product that would let companies connect directly with social media influencers who made up the tipping point media in their space. It was a platform where influencers could register and open themselves to pitches, then pick the ones that applied to them. This was, essentially, Klout Perks, and I was, essentially, a 32-year-old with $411 in the bank. It wasn’t my time to build that product. It may never be my time to build that product.
If you’re equipped to execute it, put it in the tickler file
I’ve made several resolutions in the past few years to help curb the stream of half-assedry that goes into dreaming up and then only partially doing anything. Here are a few that may be useful to you:
- Don’t email anyone about the idea within a week of having the idea.
- Unless I explicitly planned to do so, don’t tell anyone about the idea while drinking.
- Don’t buy any domain names. Not until you really, really need the domain name.
- Put it in the idea file where it belongs, not at the top of your to-do list.
Number four is really critical. I’ve recently started a Trello board called Big Ideas. Whenever I think of a new idea, or recall an old one I’m still kicking around, I file it in the Big Ideas folder. From there, I can begin to assess whether there’s anything actually actionable about that idea at all. And if there is, I can begin to create a to-do list. The to-do list might be as short as, “Email Drew and ask to get his feedback about this idea.” But creating that as an action item and then crossing it off a list helps see ideas as part of a plan rather than things you immediately have to execute on as soon as they pop into your head. Because once I’ve emailed Drew about it, it’s like I’ve half committed to doing it already.
I am better for having the idea, though. It’s better that I had the idea — and that you had your brilliant, awesome, unexecutable idea! — than if I had binge-watched a season of Orange is the New Black and not thought of anything original. Maybe I feel shitty because I invented Klout Perks, or Netflix, and someone else was able to bring it to market. But I would argue that in the idea space, owner of a broken heart is actually better than owner of a lonely heart.
And if you’re interested in turning your massive list of projects into something actionable, stay tuned.