Ideas vs Execution

I was doing a little reading today and came across an article by Ron Baker stating that “ideas are more valuable than execution.”  I shook my head in disbelief.

The TL;DR conclusion for Baker’s premise is that all great products and inventions were initially once an idea.   He then claims that bad ideas are impossible to execute by listing examples throughout history e.g. Napoleon invading Russia and socialism.  He then pulls in bits of game theory by differentiating between zero-sum vs mutual beneficial assets, while summing it up singing the old adage of “give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, feed him for a life time.”  Blah, blah, blah, give me a break.

I think this is a problem many people face today, with college students in particular.  To illustrate this, I’ll touch up briefly on why I believe ideas serve as multipliers rather than the baseline of human accomplishment.  I’ll briefly point to some proof cases, as well as relating my own personal experiences of facing this dilemma.

While I agree with Baker that simply bad ideas are impossible to execute, he only paints half the picture in his argument for how ideas trump execution.  I don’t think I need to convince anyone here that there are things as bad ideas.  Baker attempts to illustrates this by pointing to ideas surmounting the use of oil, and how it evolved from a nuance to the worldwide global industry it is today, as well as stating the obvious that people and manpower is what makes an organization run.

That isn’t to say that ideas are not important.  Of course every great business once stemmed from an idea, and of course it’s ultimately people that carry those ideas out.  But we can’t sit around and have everyone spit balling ideas all day.  There comes a time when you need to buckle down, design the product, write the code, and then market and sell the shit out of it.  Brilliant ideas just magnify the extent you can do that.  Refer to the chart below to help illustrate my point.  By multiplying across the table, you can see how ideas influence execution:


Awful Idea -2
Weak Idea 0
Decent Idea  1
Good Idea  5
Great Idea  10
Brilliant Idea 20
Awful Execution $0
Weak Execution $1,000
Decent Execution  $10,000
Good Execution  $100,000
Great Execution  $1,000,000
Brilliant Execution $10,000,000


For example: a good idea (5) with decent execution ($10,000) will yield average results $50,000.  A brilliant idea (20) with awful execution ($0) will yield averages of $0.  No matter how revolutionary or how innovative an idea may be, unless you get out there and do something about it, it’ll remain just thatan idea.  It’s why a basic concept like a hamburger restaurant can range from a multi-million dollar industry (see: McDonald’s) to being just the local joint down the street.  Derek Sivers has some excellent points on this as well.  The idea to sell hamburgers and fries isn’t any different, but the execution makes all the difference in the world.  Let’s look at some of the biggest, most successful companies today and see their origins.

Take Facebook, for example, and the concept of an online social network.  Many of you are reading this article right now via Facebook. Thanks Facebook! but you’re hardly a novel idea.  Friendster, MySpace, Orkurt, and AOL all employed the concept of a social network way before Facebook did.  Facebook just executed it better by creating strong traction among users, building hype before jumping to other Universities, and then opening up their audience to non-college students.

Google, by no means, was the first search engine. Yahoo!, dogpile, and askjeeves all existed at the same time or before Google . Google simply executed the idea of better by declaring that they were going to put in the hard labor and work to see to it that customers were getting exactly what they were looking for.  Once again, execution wins.  The original idea serves as a multiplier for those potential gains, and now Google’s paid handsomely for all their work.

Finally, let’s relate this back to college students, and what you can do now to not fall victim to this trap. I’ve meet far too many brilliant people who sit around all day with awesome ideas, yet fail to carry any of them out.  Too often I hear, “I had the same idea!”, or “this idea would be huuuge.”  Well then get off your ass and do it!  There is no better time to attempt projects than college.  You are granted a huge safety net to fall back on that you will never again see post-grad. Try, try, try again and fail.  Fail as many times as you can.  We stigmatize failures as “bad” things, when really they just be labeled as “learning opportunities.”  Persistence and execution.   These aren’t some innate skills that you’re either born with or you’re not.  Rather they’re perfected and refined through execution and experience.

I personally experienced this my senior year when I tried to launch a project dubbed “Project Streetcar.”  I still maintain to this day that it was a brilliant idea (all credit goes to my siblings), yet I executed it very poorly.  I spent too much time locked up in the library trying to develop the concept and and idea and not enough time physically getting out there and marketing to the right people and getting the right ‘pushers’ behind to make it happen.  Now, and non-surprisingly so, it’s a non-existent and unknown great idea.

Ideas and creative brainstorming will do great things.  With the scale-ability of the internet, they can carry your projects to new heights–the stratosphere is the limit!  But an idea is only a small part of the equation.  So please, don’t be one of those kids who sits around all day yabbering on about how you thought of that million dollar idea a long time ago, or how you have an awesome idea if only someone else or some company would come carry it out for you.  There is no better time to “fail” then now.