I’ve heard thousands of ideas. Each one was worthless without these three things.

what makes an idea good

Imagine you just woke up on an ice cold Monday morning in January.

I know you didn’t want to.

Nothing short of thinking about taking a hot shower would motivate you enough to bravely cast your covers away.

After hitting the snooze button twice, you cave, barrel to your bathroom, grab the shower handle, and redline it.

Moments later, safely enveloped by steam pluming around you, you’re hit by it…

A game-changing idea.

It’s as if your mind was quietly panning through muddied thoughts before it suddenly uncovered a fat golden nugget.

Your mind picks up pace as you consider what to name the venture, how slick its logo will look, and how filthy rich you’ll be.

You might even imagine your next visit to the bathroom looking less like this…

crying in the shower

And more like this…

scrooge mcduck swimming in money

And – to state the obvious – you’re also thinking about how your revolutionary idea will, “Make the world a better place.

make the world a better place silicon valley

No doubt, this is an exciting moment in your life.

There’s only one problem: all you have is an idea.

Ideas, our mind’s trigger

Ideas are interesting, wild things.

ideas are like triggers

image via geissele.com

I think of them as being like triggers.

By itself, with no ammunition or a finger to act on it, a trigger is as worthless as the steel it’s made of.

Alone, a trigger sits, posing no risk to anyone or anything nearby.

Similarly, a naked idea is as worthless as the time it took to form and the hot air used to share it.

But in particular circumstances and when set in motion, triggers and ideas are the conduits that propel things forward that can result in actions with consequences worth far more than money can buy.

I once read an article by James Altucher. In it he shared, “I had ideas first, wealth second. It ONLY worked in that direction.”

Although I’m far from wealthy, I’ve found this to be true.

It’s only after forming a clear idea, like how a website will look and function, that I’ve been able to motivate myself and others to take action that ultimately led to success.

It’s an idea that motivated me to invest my time to craft posts like the one you’re reading now.

So, what is an idea worth?

powerball logoSome ideas are just cheap fun.

This is where most ideas live and die – somewhere between being formed and being shared, oftentimes while having a few too many drinks with friends.

And that’s okay. Humans are curious and ideas allow us to explore worlds we’ve never experienced before.

My family would rarely buy Powerball tickets, but when we did, we’d always spend dinnertime imagining what we’d do with our winnings. That idea was always fun to explore even though it was fleeting and unlikely to come true.

Some ideas can cost us.

Ideas have the power to distract us from more important things in life, like our friends and family. They can intoxicate us, making us take unreasonable financial and personal risks.

I’ve been intoxicated by ideas before. A couple years ago, I quickly became infatuated with minimalist running, a rather new trend catching on in the Western world. I was so keen on capitalizing on the trend and my newfound passion that I invested a week building a website (MinimalistRunningShoesHQ.com) where I planned to review minimalist running shoes and share relevant articles with fellow runners.

This venture was a total distraction. Once I sobered up from the idea, I realized I didn’t have enough time or expertise to move the project forward longterm. This idea cost me. It hurt the progress I could have made on other ventures and the time I could have spent making memories with friends. I keep the website up to this day to remind myself to always vet ideas first so I avoid drunkenly stumbling into taking action on them.

martin luther king jr giving a speechSome ideas are potentially invaluable.

When we first have an idea – whether it’s in that steamy shower or not – we normally inflate their value. Yes, at its inception, ideas are worth something. And they could be worth billions. But the truth is that an idea is infinitely closer to being worth nothing than being worth even a handful of McDuck’s prized gold coins.

Martin Luther King Jr. had an incredible idea. That idea went on to change perspectives, laws and behaviors across the world. It has made the world a far better place. When King first came up with his idea, it was worth something. But millions of people surely shared his idea for as long as racial injustice persisted, yet little changed. Some might say their ideas were worthless, even harmful, when thought about but not acted on.

It wasn’t King’s idea that changed the world. It was what followed the formation of it.

I’ve found that soon after an idea is formed, whether it starts out seeming solid or suspect, its value nosedives or escalates soon thereafter depending on three things.

What’s really important

Let’s get one thing straight: your idea isn’t new or unique. It likely exists. What’s far more important than your idea is how you execute it.

It’s why there are hundreds of social networks, yet only one of them, Facebook, blows the others out of the water in terms of traffic. A whopping 70% of online adults visit the site every single day. The next closest competitor is Linkedin at 28%. 1

It’s why there are countless fast food chains and hamburger restaurants, yet only one of them, McDonalds, has an estimated brand value of $90.3 billion. 2

fast food chain brand value chart

Assuming you have a good idea, what dictates the trajectory of it is the existence of three things: an actor, action, and target. If you lack any of them, an idea is doomed to fail. If you have them all, you might succeed.

1. Actor

Just like how a trigger needs someone to load, hold, aim and fire a gun, an idea needs someone – ideally a team.

Pet RockMany venture capitalists invest in people first and ideas second. They recognize that a sharp team can mold crappy ideas into good ones or spin them in such a way that they generate demand.

Dumb ideas can end up doing very well under smart management. It’s why Alex Tew was able to make a million dollars selling pixels on his heinous website, Million Dollar Homepage.

It’s why Gary Dahl made millions selling Pet Rocks.

It’s why Johann Verheem profited handsomely on the ridiculousness that is the Shake Weight (Google Image search at your own risk).

2. Action

Even the most novel idea formed by the most intelligent leader is doomed to fail if it’s not executed or poorly executed.

Color, an app that raised $41 million in its first round, failed miserably despite having an interesting idea and a well-appointed team.

I’ve heard a lot of software, website and app ideas over the years. Most have been poor. Some were excellent. A select few were incredible and even championed by sharp, successful people.

Yet the overwhelming majority of them failed because

  1. No action followed the idea (and I’m realizing how this is really related to fear)
  2. The execution of the design was atrocious, and/or
  3. The technology was too difficult to develop given the skills/budget available

The first reason is easy to rationale but normally bullshit when you’re honest with yourself. The second reasons are challenging but possible to overcome.

3. Target

It doesn’t matter if you have one of America’s most skilled snipers firing a loaded gun if he’s shooting at an empty sky in South Dakota.

But if you put that sniper in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, his value escalates precipitously.

Similarly, an idea that targets the wrong market will fail or underperform at best.

Warren Buffett once said, “If you have the greatest management team in the world running an airline, it’s still an airline.”

The point here is that the target you select can limit the amount of success you can expect to achieve.

A lot of things change when it comes to business – the team, branding, product designs, pricing – but the fundamental market you’re serving (your target) tends to be fairly stagnant.

If you want your idea to succeed, you have to know who you’re targeting and you must be able to reach them. This second point is almost more important than the first. A mediocre product with great distribution will almost always outperform phenomenal products that few people know exist.


Ideas are exciting, likely because their future outlook is so unpredictable.

However, if the idea is sound and it’s packaged with these three key factors – an Actor, Action and Target – its chances of succeeding are far greater and more predictable.

In an upcoming post, I’ll share with you whether I think your ideas should target crowded niches or uncrowded niches.

I’ll also unveil and evaluate a few ideas I’ve recently had and how I think they could be brought to market.

If you’d like me to let you know when I release this content, please click here to join my private list of email subscribers.

I’m curious, what else do you think is important for an idea to succeed? Please share in the comments section below.

References   [ + ]

Matt Langan is the Founder of Heine Ventures, a user interface/experience design and digital marketing firm.
  • Jamison Shelton

    Great article Matt. The ideas are the easy part, it’s the execution and the vision to see the idea through to completion that is the true measure of success.