Don’t fall in love with your ideas!

May 31, 2016 Sean Paley

A few years ago, I led a team that came up with an idea to help college students transition to the workforce. It was a noble problem and we felt like we could change the world. We even came up with a killer name and I fell in love with idea.

Over the next year we built a solid product and an awesome brand. Tens of thousands of students signed up for the service. We got tons of positive feedback from others in the organization and prospective customers were happy to hear about the product.

But something was wrong — we couldn’t get anyone to pay for it. I pushed the team to keep going, to fix the technical issues, change the pricing model, partner with other business units to hold education sessions — everything we could think of. Overriding those who thought we should give up and move on, I got approval from above to keep it going for another year.

It was a tough year for those who stayed on the team. There was a palpable sense of the inevitable as we kept trying different tactics. Eventually, more than two years in and having spent more money than I’d care to admit, I was forced to throw in the towel.

While the list of mistakes we made filled the whiteboard during our team retrospective, to me there is one big takeaway: don’t fall in love with your ideas. To fall in love is lose the rational sense of perspective so critical to facing an idea’s flaws head on. Only by identifying and addressing those flaws can you hope to succeed.

As I’ve begun to frame out the mission and processes for innovating in my new role, I’ve settled on the following principles to avoid the love trap:

  1. Get validation as soon as possible from the people who will use your product and heed their objections or lack of excitement.
  2. Pursue multiple ideas at once instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.
  3. Don’t brand your products until you have strong signals from users and customers.
  4. Put real effort into tools like the Business Model Canvas — don’t just fill them out to check a box.

We love the archetypal story about the entrepreneur who believed in his vision when nobody else would; who lost in all in pursuit of his dream, and who, just before giving up, pivoted and struck gold. Unfortunately, those aren’t the best role models for the corporate intrapreneur looking to build some early successes and gain credibility.

Be passionate about your ideas, but stay rational — don’t fall in love.