Are there stupid questions?

In a recent blog post, Patrick Lor (founder of iStockPhoto, amongst his many accomplishments) suggests that entrepreneurs stop asking what he calls “stupid questions”. Are there really stupid questions? We’ve always been taught that there are no “stupid questions”. But practical experience suggests that perhaps there are. One of the “stupid questions” in Patrick’s post is about “which is more important”. Unfortunately, the phrasing of the title might cause some to lose what he is really talking about.

First, A Specific Question

One specific question that Patrick starts with as an example is “which is more important, the idea or the entrepreneur?”. While I will discuss the wider issue Patrick raises shortly, let’s deal with this specific question. Is one or the other more important? Some people put a lot of faith in ideas, and tend to discount the execution, and that can cause some to overvalue the idea.

An idea without execution is worth exactly nothing. While execution requires an idea, it doesn’t necessarily have to start with a good one. As it is, a lot of ideas don’t survive first contact with the reality. Virtually every product or business idea I’ve worked with morphs from the original concept. Sometimes the changes may appear small and subtle. Often, though, they are pretty substantial. Why? Because ideas are often born in some degree of a vacuum, initially protected by the untidy and irrational environment of The Real World. Reality is messy, inconsistent and prone to bouts of insanity. Seriously, who thought that cloth toys shaped like animals and stuffed with plastic beads would somehow be an enduring “investment”? Apparently, a lot of people who spent thousands of dollars on Beanie Babies that are now worth pennies at a local garage sale.

What happens to an idea is that, in the hands of a skilled team, it will adapt and evolve and change as new experiences are gained. Today we have a nice, tidy, pithy word for that: pivot. We learn from the mistakes, the missteps and near-misses, and modify the idea. Sometimes the modification can be small. Sometimes it is radical. On some occasions, the original idea is discarded completely.

“But”, some will say, “without the idea, there would be nothing to execute”. I will grant that. The idea is certainly a necessary component for a business or product. But, by itself, it isn’t sufficient. Let’s explore an analogy: which is more important, the wood or the woodcarver? Certainly, without the wood, the woodcarver would have nothing to do. The wood is necessary. Most pieces of wood, regardless of quality, in the hands of a master carver have a chance at becoming a masterpiece. A really, really good piece of wood may become nothing but scrap in the hands of poorly skilled carver. The outcome is partly dependent on the quality of the wood, but is far more dependent on the skill of the craftsman working the material. Again, the wood is necessary, but even a poor piece of wood can still turn out nicely in the hands of the right person.

Ideas are very much like that. A good idea in the hands of a skilled team (and note I say team, not entrepreneur singular) can have a chance at resulting in a successful business. But even average or mediocre ideas can succeed, again in the hands of the right team. A team needs ideas to succeed, but the team is a more important element. I’ll bet on the team more than the idea any day, and so do most investors.

But What About The Either/Or Implication?

It’s easy to get lost in the whole “idea vs. entrepreneur” specifics, and lose the main point Patrick is trying to make. What is that point? It is a theme that runs through the entire post, and that there is this myth that there is One Important Thing that has to happen or needs to exist for a business or product to succeed. Many new entrepreneurs (or ones that weren’t paying attention on previous attempts, whether successful or not) are under the impression that If I Do This One Thing I Am Guaranteed To Succeed. There are certainly plenty of business books (and now entire blogs) devoted to The One Important Thing, as if success in any endeavour is the result of doing one thing right.

Success at any time is about doing many things right, and avoiding the mistakes as much as possible. You don’t win the Stanley Cup just through goal scoring. You also need defence, net minding, special teams, coaching, trainers and an entire team of players. One player scoring goals won’t do it. Sure, hypothetically a single, ultra-talented player could score enough goals to offset the weak parts of their team’s game. It might work within a single 20-minute period, and perhaps even a single game. But it isn’t a recipe for success when you need consistent results over the long-haul (through 82 games in the regular season and up to 28 games in the playoffs).

While running any business involves trade-offs, it typically isn’t about deciding between fundamentals. To succeed, you need both a good entrepreneur and at least a feasible idea. You also need a team of people, with breadth and depth in skill. You need sufficient resources to do the job. You need outside support from time to time. You have to keep the team together, and probably grow that team over time. You need to handle the day-to-day details, like bookkeeping and paying bills on time. You also need to have the “right” idea, built in the “right” way, at the “right” time, and with a willing and available base of customers. Too late, and you might miss out. Too early, and you might not have enough to survive until the idea is “right”.

Use whatever metaphor you want, the reality is that success is about a combination of things. It isn’t about one or two things, either, but a multitude of elements that are necessary. Don’t go forward assuming “all I need is this one thing”. It will blind you to the reality that building a successful business needs many different pieces and parts. Certainly, some parts can be viewed as more important that others.  But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture, and live with the fact that it takes a multitude of elements to have a chance at success.

So Is It A Stupid Question?

To put it harshly, asking an “either/or” question is rather stupid. To put it more delicately, it is misinformed and naive. It implies that success for a product or business is simple, and there are some that would have you believe it. “Apple is a success because of fanbois”. “Microsoft was a success because of good marketing”.  “IBM succeeded because they had a monopoly”. It is statements like these that mislead people into believing the One Important Thing myth. It also discounts the hard work, the good decisions and luck that all contribute to success. Apple has succeeded because of a combination of factors. Microsoft dominated in their day became of many different things. IBM was on top for a while because of a variety of different reasons.

Patrick’s advice (I won’t re-iterate the details here, read the blog post) makes sense. It is about trying to get into the mind of the questioner, and trying to start a real conversation.

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