Ideas vs Execution vs the Founder

You know why some startups that are working on some of the great ideas/products fail? You would think that they have a great idea, have a great team, and have a backing of the leading VC firms in the industry, but often times they end up in the dead pool after a few years.

There are of course many reasons for their failure, but to drive the idea of this post, ceteris paribus – mostly it’s because of the person, the leader, the entrepreneur behind the idea. Yes, I think, one of the most important requirements for a startup to succeed is to have a founder who is absolutely obsessed with his/her idea (provided that product/market fit has been achieved), very passionate about it and driven by it on daily basis. And most importantly, he/she is involved in all the important decisions about the product; from marketing to design to product features to User Interfaces… etc, basically end-to-end involvement. This is necessary. It’s a pre-requisite. Especially in the early years of a startup.

It’s when founder decides to heavily delegate (or even outsource) the product development to someone else, that the problem arises. Unfortunately, this is what happens in some startups; the founder would be too focused on the business development part of the startup and have little involvement in the product development part. Or some entrepreneurs who have money would setup a company and hire someone else to run their startup for him/her. Or some entrepreneurs would decide to outsource the most important part of the startup (i.e product development part) to third party companies.

It’s also why big corporations have struggled to churn out great ideas into successful products and services. Because, in big companies, new ideas would come from top management as a directive and passed to relevant divisions and subsequently to Product Managers or “Product Owners” for execution. This kind of delegation, especially for the new and innovative ideas can be disastrous. On top of that, big corporations would have layers and layers of red tape and processes that hinder the efficient execution of an idea. Inter-department collaboration on launching new ideas can be a real pain too.

So, it’s no surprise why Amazon allowed hugely successful Zappos to run independently after its acquisition in 2009. Or why Walt Disney kept Pixar as a separate entity after its acquisition in 2006. It’s precisely for the reason to keep the company culture alive and untainted, to keep the acquired company lean and efficient. And most importantly, to let the passionate people behind these companies to run them.

Steve Jobs have said on this topic spot on in his 1995 interview called “The Lost Interview“;

You know, one of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left John Sculley got a very serious disease. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And if you just tell all these other people “here’s this great idea,” then of course they can go off and make it happen.

And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. And you also find there are tremendous trade-offs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do. Or glass do. Or factories do. Or robots do.

Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently.

And it’s that process that is the magic.

And because of this, you can’t outsource your idea to someone else to make it successful for you!