Nathaniel Whittemore argues with conviction, and reason, that good ideas are hard to frame. Which makes them more valuable, not less. And that there is a false economy in cleaving execution from concept definition. Especially when one is favored over the other.
The problem comes in the reductionist thinking that translates the recognition that “execution might mean lots of shifts” into the conclusion that “then ideas are worthless.” This is simply not true. There is not a continuum with “idea” on one side and “execution” on the other that demands that if you recognize the importance of execution you all of a sudden have to diminish the importance of ideas.
What is an “idea” for a startup? A startup idea is an assertion about two things; a problem that people have and a way to solve it. Embedded in that “idea” are beliefs and insights about individual and/or collective behavior and psychology. For many problems, this is immensely complicated, and when we assert that “ideas are a dime-a-dozen” (a phrase I’ve heard and read countless times in the last six months), we fail to recognize how much observation and interpretation of behavior goes into good ideas.
Take weight loss. Getting people to change their habits and behaviors when it comes to food and exercise is incredibly difficult. This is not a problem that just demands great execution; it’s a problem that takes a theory of behavior change. What about crowdsourced fundraising? This is one of those “holy grail” problems that tons of platforms try but very few have made work. The successes – companies like Kiva and Kickstarter – are differentiated at least as much by their theories of behavior and incentives as they are by their execution.
The point is that as much as a great idea with poor execution is a sure failure, so too is a bad idea with great execution.
Ultimately, the dichotomy between idea and execution is false. Embedded in every step of execution are ideas, or put differently, assertions of belief about human behaviors. The “pivot” itself only works if the pivot is to a new idea that is good and well executed: pivoting from a bad idea to a new bad idea still leaves you in the same spot. Gmail and Friendfeed creator and new YC partner Bucheit gets a lot closer to the smart middle of this conversation with his concept of “judgement,” or the idea that much of startup “execution” is judgement about which ideas to pursue and how.