You know when you think you’ve come up with a great idea, something completely original that has never been done before? Then you visualise putting your idea into action, how the immediate and exponential uptake will change the world as we know it and you’ll be set up for life?
Too many times I have gotten to that point, and then the next thing you know, it pops up in an advertisement or on Dragons Den, or worse still, as a living breathing internet craze…
To date, here are the ideas (that I know of) that have been ruthlessly stolen from me, and been put into action before I lifted a finger.
I’ve always taken lots of photo’s and travelled a fair bit too. As mobile phones with camera’s became widely available around 2001-2002, I dreamed (note the operative word here) of creating a website with all my pictures on, details of my hobbies, interests, links to sites I found, and also a really cool interactive map that allowed you to see where I’d been and browse my photo’s by location. To whit, I used a free hosting and web wizard service (Blogspot) to create a couple of pages, which I decided to call ‘You looking silly on the internet‘. Genius. Upon showing my brief tinkerings (the photo’s don’t even display in the intended order) to a friend or five, they pretty much all concluded; ‘that’s cool, you’ll have to show me how to do that’. At this point I very much realised I would at no point sit down to tediously walk someone else through the basics of what I managed myself by following simple instructions, and I ALSO realised at no point would they bother to work it out themselves. And therein lay the answer – the key was not going to be to try to teach other people to use a free web service, it was going to be in Enabling them to do it more effortlessly. And then obviously Zoldemort stole my idea, and created the eponymous Farcebook.
Obviously, a timeline is not a new invention, but my use of them was going to be original. Basically, I got sick of trying to use my ‘interesting’ (as it was often described) CV to represent me in any way other than inadequately. Their requirement for transmitting basic information about a person is not the best available considering current technologies, being almost literally archaic. I also find it ridiculous trying to justify my entire existence in easily pigeon-holed terms to someone I am meeting for the first time, when they could not give a toss and do not have the power to hire me. So my idea was to create a visually aesthetic summary of my time spent since age 18 (for example) to show that I have actually spent my time doing worthwhile things, often several at once for long periods of my life, that was easier to understand than my CV and also showed initiative and other buzz words that may land me a godforsaken job. I was thinking of calling it a Curricula Linea or another latin equivalent, until He Who’s Name Shall Not Be Zpoken reared his ugly head and stole this bright idea too. Ok, FB Timelines is nothing like my idea, but try telling someone now that you have had this idea for using timelines and watch what happens. They will frown a little, tilt their head to one side and then, in much the same way you would reveal the non-existence of Santa to a child, they will explain to you that it has already been done. Who knows, maybe someone will try applying for a job using facebook soon…
3. World Book Night
My idea was to give away a few books (highly thought of, well established ones) and the intention was for them to be passed on once they had been read. Then a companion website would track the locations they had travelled about the globe and create an interesting literary/travel amalgam. Then I heard about World Book Night – already in existence, and having a very close format. That was annoying to say the least, as I don’t think I can muster a million books every year in a hurry.
4. Ideas Man
Having lots of timely ideas, one route of employing them I had considered was popping them all down on paper to be turned into a book. After occasionally mulling this over for a few years (an unreasonable mulling period?) I was greatly disappointed to see that someone else had pretty much done just that, namely Shed Simove. Not only had he called it what I would have called it, he also included ideas that range from trivial nonsense (sweets shaped/named like genitalia spring to mind) to more large scale game-changing ideas of megalithic proportions, the mix of good ideas with ‘fillers’ I had also envisaged. I haven’t read it but that’s what the PR told me. Anyway, he is also added to my list of intellectual property thieves.
5. Innocent smoothies
I don’t really need to fill you in on who these guys are, other than pointing out that they are also most definitely idea stealers. Back in 1995, myself and a business partner (school friend…) got a load of fruit, some milk, syrups and ‘borrowed’ some alcohol from my parents to also add to the mix. We made alcoholic smoothies in two flavours, bottled them, labelled them (with seperate names) and sold them to our school mates under the unlikely story that we had bought them from a contact in a nearby town. Despite it being a perfect business (having zero costs, including tax, as all costs were born by my.. erm, parent company), we managed a total of two runs, before amicably agreeing it was easier to just buy beer, each taking one recipe and associated rights for our future entrepreneurial endeavours. Before you know it (10 years later), Innocent smoothies have obviously got wind of it and barged into the marketplace, the vultures.
6. Design your own Tshirts
I don’t know why but I am fanatical about Tshirts, especially ones that make a point, whether it be funny, political, or other (despite having just decided I am getting too old for the louder ones). In the early days of the internet it didn’t take long for printing companies to use the net to sell pre-designed Tshirts and to advertise being able to bulk print what you wanted on a Tshirt. Their services were basically being able to put fonts and clipart together. I (again) grandly envisaged a website where you could create your own designs on the site! Where you could upload a photo that would then be digitised, and edit it pixel by pixel if necessary, all for a reasonable cost and on your choice of coloured material. Once again, a few years later (about 5 years this time I reckon) and what do we have but the start of Zazzle, CafePress, Spreadshirt, Society6 and a million others, nevermind all the highstreet places that have also expanded into print-your-own. So the whole custom printing industry can also be labelled as robbing my intellectual property too, and I won’t listen to reason.
What Have We Learnt?
You may have noticed that most of this post was tongue-in-cheek, and that a couple of times I placed emphasis on my lack of action. I haven’t made any of it up, I really did have the idea’s before they were widely popular (Ok, not facebook, we’ll get to that). But that is part of the point I am trying to make. Creating a successful business is not about having a good idea. Successful businesses are about good execution, not just good idea’s. My idea’s were all fine, and they were also timely. If I had actually tried to start any one of those businesses and executed it well, I could be running that business now, instead of writing this. The people who did start to run with these ideas didn’t have to be the first to have them, and in the case of facebook they were far from the first social networking site (think MySpace or Bebo, and FriendsReunited had been around since the late 90’s!!). The key to business success is in the executing of your business idea (or strategy) effectively. It doesn’t have to be even remotely a new idea, AND even a terrible idea or a copycat business can be very successful if it is well executed.
Some good examples of old ideas being well executed by new businesses; the King of Shaves brand, Shortlist magazine, PrezzyBox, and Firebox before it, both just niche versions of amazon.com or play.com, and you may even be noticing the fresh clean-looking Fish n Chip shops all over the UK quickly replacing the mucky downbeat old-school affairs of yesteryear? Also worth a mention; Betamax was beaten by VHS despite being the better technology, VHS was made successful by the Japanese but was actually a discarded British idea (if I remember correctly), and the fax machine only became popular almost 20 years after it’s invention, earning the original inventor a pittance.
You don’t have to have ‘a big idea’ to run a profitable business. A few times I have offered to give someone an idea of mine, if they thought that was going to be all it took! You have to use good business sense, by planning properly and sticking to the plan, and put in a lot of elbow grease. So my advice is don’t focus all your effort on trying to reinvent the wheel. If you still think all you need is a good idea…. you really can have one of mine.