Making Ideas Work

I hear great ideas for new companies all the time. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these ideas never mature into startups, and even fewer become lasting companies. This is ironic because most people think building a startup is all about having a great idea. (I believe the phrase goes “if only I had thought of Facebook, I’d be rich!”) The truth is that while a good idea is essential, it’s only the first step in creating a viable startup.

I see three problems that prevent an entrepreneur from following through on an idea: a person doesn’t recognize when the idea is viable, ideas aren’t given enough time to evolve, and there is a lack of commitment to turning the idea into a real-world success.

1. Viable Ideas

There are tons of viable startup ideas that get stopped before they get a chance to start. These ideas get left un-executed for a multitude of reasons including fear, money, and time. But, the most common roadblock I see is overestimation of the competition. The process goes like this: come up with an idea, google to see if it’s been done, find someone doing something similar, and give up.

As it turns out, this is the exact process we went through when trying to start Wistia. We’d think we were onto something exciting because our idea was so unique, then we’d find a company doing something similar and we’d give up on that particular approach. We continued this vicious cycle for 4 months until we realized that absolutely no one else had heard of the ‘competition’ we’d found. It turns out that it’s actually really, really hard to get people to pay attention or use anything. After this epiphany it was easy to forge ahead.

2. Evolving Ideas

One of the first questions that I’m always asked when discussing Wistia is “How’d you come up with this idea?” To which I answer: I didn’t come up with the idea for Wistia. I could never have imagined where we’d end up today and I have no idea where we’ll be in four more years. 

Our initial “great” idea was hosting filmmaking competitions. We started on this path and began building product. It became clear within a month after launching, that our approach would not work. We couldn’t come up with any good models for attracting new users or making money. Let’s just say, we had problems.

We took what we had, a platform for sharing and managing videos, and started seeing how else we could apply our technology. As luck would have it, a medical device company reached out to us. They were looking for a way to privately share videos in clinical trials. This was a completely unexpected use of what were building from a completely unexpected type of company. We pitched them on paying a monthly fee. They bought. A week of building later and we delivered the first version of what we now know of as Wistia. The light bulb went on. Help companies who don’t regularly use video.

3. Seeing Ideas Through

Now in startupland, we like to say “it’s not the idea, it’s the execution” which is definitely true.  But execution isn’t enough. If you execute well for a month you’re not going to get anywhere. You need to be committed if you want to make it through. You need to be obsessed with surviving, obsessed with thriving, and obsessed with doing your idea justice by giving yourself enough time to execute.

Brendan and I started Wistia in June of 2006. We quit our jobs and went in fulltime. It took us almost one year to the day to get our first customer. It took us another year to get to 6 customers. It took us another year to reach 60 customers. This past summer, 1460 days after starting Wistia we crossed 350 customers.

It takes time to build companies. It takes time to learn from customers. It takes time to be lucky. Without commitment, you have no time and with no time your ideas won’t matter at all.

The question is: Do you have what it takes to commit 365, 730, or over 1460 days of your life to your idea? If you do, you may just make it.