Ideas Are Like Sperm

Ideas Are Like Sperm

I talk to entrepreneurs who have ideas, and very often they ask what they should do first.

I've had the conversation enough now that I'm going to write a blog on it to give a much more detailed answer than I can in a 5 minute convo or a quick email.

The first thing I'd say is congrats, you have an idea. Not to be too crass here, but ideas are like sperm. They're required in order to bring your startup to life, but an idea alone isn't worth much. In fact, my first big piece of feedback is that your idea is for all intents and purposes valueless. Unseasoned entrepreneurs want to protect their ideas and not tell anyone about them. What I always say is this: If you really believe your idea is so valuable, then go try to sell it to someone. See how much anyone will pay you for it. Let the market tell you how valuable your idea is. If you can get $1MM for your idea, then you've just won the startup lottery and saved yourself from the really hard part: Executing on that idea. I'd sell ideas all day long if I could, but I've never been able to sell a single one -- not even for 1 cent (literally).

So just like sperm, ideas are bountiful and required for life, but they don't accomplish much on their own, and in fact from this point onward in this post I'm going to substitute the word 'sperm' for 'idea' just to drive my point home. And just like only a few dozen sperm reach their destination from millions initially, that's how it goes with ideas as you start to execute on them.

The second thing I'd suggest is you (life)hack together a prototype of your sperm. This doesn't mean the prototype has to be software based. For example, when I started a tech-based real estate brokerage in 2003, part of my model was to use technology to be more efficient, allowing me to give rebates to home buyers. My entire business model was based on establishing strong SEO, building a lead-gen CRM, getting a data feed of the MLS homes database, and lots of other things that would take tons of dev work.

So what's the first thing I did? I validated my assumptions. There was a Toll Brothers new construction showcase model home for prospective buyers. To get to that home, visitors had to make a left-hand turn from a busy street. I literally stood out on the street corner with a sign saying I'd give them a rebate if they used me to represent them. When the cars were stopped at the red left-hand turn light, I would walk up & down the row of cars, handing flyers to anyone who would roll their window down.

Once I proved there was indeed demand, I found the company that staked new construction home signs and I had them stake my rebate signs right next to them. (Funny enough, I initially met my wife when she called me off of one of those signs, looking to buy a house. We always say 'it must've been a sign'. So not only can you validate your startup sperm this way, but you might also find a life partner in the process!)

Even though my entire business model was based on creating strong tech, the first thing I did was validate that there was market demand for my business model. We ended up doing over 1,000 leads per month with a 300+ nationwide network of rebate agents called RebateReps, but it all started on that street corner.

So before you do anything else, hack a prototype, or even better, lifehack a way to validate demand before you spend your valuable time creating a solution looking for a problem.

The third thing I'd suggest is you go find a luminary in your field, and get him or her excited about your sperm. This will be much easier if you've done a great job with #2 above. Thought leaders in any category are constantly bombarded by people with really great sperm. But rarely -- rarely -- do people come forward with something more than sperm. In fact, the bar to shine in this area is so absurdly low that it's really embarrassing how easy it is to impress a thought leader. All you have to do is do something interesting. By definition, a thought leader will already be one of the most passionate people about a space you're interested in, so you don't have to convince this person that the space matters. All you have to do is make your sperm more interesting than all the other sperm out there.

So get a customer list of 100 people who have given you their credit cards #s because they already want what you're going to build so badly. Or hack together a prototype that does something in a way that nobody has ever done before. But above all just be interesting. Don't rely on your sperm alone. Y Combinator has this nailed -- here, for example, is the video of a prototype my brother Sam made of his sperm when he was applying to Y Combinator for his startup Divvyshot (a business he later sold to Facebook). He writes,

"This is a very early "proof of concept" that we threw together in a week. It was mainly for our YC application."

The fourth thing I'd suggest you do is apply to become part of an accelerator. Ideally Y Combinator, but 500 Startups, TechStars or others help as well. These programs are aptly termed accelerators because they'll help you turn your sperm into a reality much more quickly and with way less friction than you'll be able to on your own. If you get rejected from these programs because your sperm isn't good enough, that's a really good indicator that you have to go back and reevaluate your sperm and/or iterate on your prototypes a bit more.

If you can achieve these four steps, you'll be well on your way to turning your sperm into a startup that has a chance of success. Happy swimming.