They’ve taken my idea! My business is ruined before it started! Wrong.

In our teaching at different London universities, we are often asked ‘How do I get an original idea for my business? Every time I check, my latest idea has already been done!’.

A fundamental principle of entrepreneurship is that everything starts with you – who you are, who you know and what you know.

Think Apple were the first to think of the iPhone? Check out GO, a US firm from 1992! What Apple did was started with what they could do already – the iPod and iTunes. They added a phone to it.

So the place to start is with you. Start with a skill that you have, and think of a business that you can build around it.

Your idea is an opportunity unique to you

A new business idea is closely tied to the skills and the passions of the entrepreneur. In workshops we have conducted for several years, we have never found two people with the same idea. In a thought experiment we conduct with the participants, we ask people to swap ideas and ask if they would like to pursue someone else’s idea. The answer is an overwhelming no. Why?

The idea is only a true opportunity when an individual backs it. Is the opportunity uniquely mine? Do I have the skills around it? Can I build a team around the concept? Is the timing right? Do I have the skills, passions and connections to pursue it? You can see that it is highly unlikely that two individuals feel exactly the same way about an idea.

The world is teeming with entrepreneurial ideas, most of which die because they are not validated, improved and executed.

If an idea was easy to copy, it wasn’t great in the first place

In this talk by James Caan, he answers a question raised by a participant on whether she should share her idea with others. As a successful entrepreneur, Caan has always discussed his idea with others. He doesn’t ask if it was a good idea, as he knows that all you will get from people are responses to make you feel good. What he wants is to find flaws. What would make this idea fail? What must he do by way of experiments, conversations and validation activities to make the idea a really robust opportunity?

Extract from James Caan talk at the LSE

It’s all in the execution and hitting milestones

Entrepreneurial businesses that just have an idea are the highest risk, lowest value ventures. As you move through the journey of developing the concept, validating with your target customers, building a proof of concept, a minimum viable product, proof of market and revenue and proof of growth potential, you increase the value of the idea and the venture step by step. This diagram explains the journey.

We do this exercise as part of our entrepreneurship teaching. For example, imagine you have a really good ability to coordinate and organise. Whenever you walk into a room, you end up putting the books in order! What could your business be? There are loads of possible answers, from wedding organiser to virtual PA. You could certainly do a better job than PwC did of the Oscars. And believe me, they got well paid for that.

So where do you get good ideas? Links at the end of this article will show what is the basis of great ideas.

Getting to Plan B, C….

Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face – Tyson

No matter how strongly you feel about your idea, it is likely to change the moment you talk to your customers. Rarely have successful business been based on the same idea that they started out with. Don’t believe it? Did you know that PayPal was the sixth iteration of an idea that originally started as encryption software for the Palm handheld PDA? A wonderful book “Getting to Plan B: Breaking Through to a Better Business Model by John Mullins and Randy Komisar shows this evolution beautifully. It discusses the concepts of analogs and antilogs, of how the best ideas are rarely unique, but instrad are borrowed from other industries and geographies. Analogs are useful because it’s likely that whatever it is you are doing has been done before, at least to some extent, so you can use what other people have learned to make your own plan, saving you time and resources.

When Jobs launched the iPod, the analog he used was the Sony Walkman. The Walkman had already proved that people would walk around with personal stereos and have songs in their pocket. The antilog, or what he needed to prove, was whether people would buy songs at 99c a track or not?

It is what you don’t know that makes you fail. Even Starbucks used the concept of analogs and antilogs when it set out. If the founders of Google, Starbucks or PayPal had stuck to their original business plans, we’d likely never have heard of them. Instead, they made radical changes to their initial models, became household names and delivered huge returns for themselves and their investors.

This is covered in detail in their Spring 2010 article on MIT Sloan review, the conclusion is

“The typical start-up process, whether in nascent entrepreneurial ventures or in the innovation units of established businesses, is largely driven by poorly conceived business plans based on untested assumptions. This process is seriously flawed. Most new ventures, even those with venture capital or corporate backing, share one common characteristic: They fail. There is a better way to launch new ideas — without wasting years of time and loads of investors’ money. This better way is about discovering a business model that really works: a Plan B, like those of Google Inc. and Starbucks Corp., which grows out of the original idea, builds on it and once it’s in place, helps the business grow rapidly and prosper.”

In summary, your idea is going to change. Many times. So don’t worry too much about the original idea – just get on with it.


But shouldn’t I protect my idea?

In fact, unless your idea is a based on a unique invention, spending money and effort on patenting is counterproductive and just a distraction from getting started and building your market. It will rob you of valuable focus and resources that should be put towards building your company. The video above by James Caan covers this topic beautifully.

Getting started is the key

The point is, you start with you and you start somewhere. Because then you have something to talk to customers about. Customers then buy or don’t buy. You learn more about what they need or want, and you change what you do to win more customers and build a business. Whatever your business ends up looking like, one thing it won’t be is the same as when you started.

There are hundreds if not thousands of great books on entrepreneurship, “Getting to Plan B…” by Mullins and Komisar is a great one to look at look at economic models and sustainability. Komisar’s book “The monk and riddle” is an interesting narrative on why a purpose is important behind building a better faster cheaper alternative and Mullins’ previous book “The new business road test” is a must read on what you need to do before writing a business plan.

Take it to the next level

If you want to learn more about how to start a business

You will find evidence based, research backed, strategies that successful startups use to launch products, enter new markets and develop customers

If you want to know where to get help

You will find researched options on what support you may need at each stage of your business to help you avoid the most critical mistakes that that cause business failures

Read the next article: Where do I get good ideas

Held in London, the 1-day bootcamp and 8-week workshop have been designed for working professionals, and delivered by faculty who have not only helped grow businesses at King’s College London, London Business School, UCL, LSBU (Entrepreneurial University of the Year, 2016) in the UK and also a number of universities, institutions, and governments abroad.

- Neil Marshall