How to Find a Billion Dollar Business Idea

I attended ProductCamp Toronto this past weekend (which was a lot of fun, thanks to everyone who helped organize it) and one of the discussions I participated in was titled “Looking for That Next Billion Dollar Idea.”   Well if that doesn’t get you into the room, I’m not sure what does.  The discussion was kicked off by Chris Herbert who had participated in a year-long innovation contest run by a large technology company.  His group came close to winning the contest and he shared the positives and negatives of the experience.  We talked about how great ideas get formed an developed and then we ended up talking a bit about how to foster and manage innovation inside a larger company.  Yeah, OK, I admit it, I might have given the conversation a nudge in that direction.  I’m a bossy betty, I can’t help it.

Having run marketing for a couple of incubation projects at IBM and working inside an incubator right now – this is a topic close to my heart.  The interesting thing is how our conversation touched on many of the things that I think are critical to fostering innovation inside a large organization.

Here are a few we talked about in the session:

  1. Innovative ideas are nothing without a passionate idea team – In smaller companies or startups the person with an innovative idea naturally becomes the one to drive it through to deployment.  At larger companies, this doesn’t always happen but it should.  A great new idea needs to fight its way past doubters and skeptics.  It needs to not compromise in the face of process and bureaucracy.  This is not a job that can be simply assigned to someone.  Idea owners need to passionately believe in it and be willing to risk their careers to make it happen.  That might sound dramatic but in the projects I have worked on it has literally come down to that.  Without a team with that level of commitment, any idea, no matter how great it is will fail.  Chris’ experiences in participating in the innovation contest were similar.  The passion and excitement of the team mattered as much as the idea itself.
  2. Passionate idea teams still need help – Chances are your passionate team won’t include all of the skills needed to take the idea to market.  Passion alone isn’t going to build a great business plan, figure out a winning go to market strategy or execute a killer launch.  A set of experts in business development, contracts, sales and marketing (if I do say so myself) need to be on hand to give advice and guidance when it is needed.

  3. Even “failing” ideas need to be recognized – Idea teams by definition put a load of effort and guts into driving an idea forward.  Even if the project doesn’t move all the way through to market, idea teams need to be recognized for their efforts if you ever expect them to give it another shot with their next big idea.  Chris shared his surprise and disappointment that after the contest ended, their entry which almost won but didn’t, received no recognition after a year’s worth of effort.

  4. Process and structure need to get out of the way – This is why larger companies need incubation in the first place.  Incubation teams need to be given enough space to get around process and procedure that will only slow them down.  Folks in this discussion were skeptical about the ability to drive innovation inside a large company without getting bogged down in process or politics.  My experience has been that it can work but there needs to be a conscious effort to get the process out of the way.

Some further reading:

  • Paul To over at the Corporate Angels Blog has a great post on how larger companies can help make their incubation programs successful.
  • Paul also pointed me to a great post by Innosight (you need to register but it’s worth it, trust me) called “The Innovators Survival Guide” which offers a great set of practical things you can do to shore up your innovation projects in the short term while the economy stinks.
  • On a similar note Innovation Edge has a post warning that “In Economic Hard Times, Don’t Cut Innovation”
  • Geoffrey Moore wrote one of my all time favorite posts on Innovation called “The Top 10 innovation Myths” This is an oldie but still stands up today.  I particularly like the points around “Great Innovators are Usually Egotistical Maverics” and “We Need to be More Like Google”

9 thoughts on “How to Find a Billion Dollar Business Idea”

  1. I like this April. I think it’s great the Product Camp in Toronto covered it. I think in times of change and slow economies, one of the qualities that makes a winning company will be the innovators. New ideas that did not exist before to help clients save time and make more money. I love want Tom Peters says is his group of posts –
    http://www.tompeters.com/blogs/main/innovation/
    One of the posts has a list of ideas he gleaned from watching the TV show House… The idea is that if your Innovation team does not have these characteristics… is it really an innovation team?
    o Newtonian!!!!! (Experimental method is sacred!!!!!!!)
    o Acknowledge, even revel in what we don’t know
    o Crystalline clarity of reasoning
    o Intuitive leaps (often wrong, but acknowledges that error is the key success driver—e.g., Brilliant Failed experiments)
    Breathtaking speed! (Fast tries. “Fastest ‘O.O.D.A. Loops’ win”—John Boyd)
    o Action! Action! Action!
    0 Test! Test! Test!
    o Failures acknowledged instantly (as important as success; next try starts immediately without fanfare)
    o Carefully controlled experimentation—Hypothesis tests (e.g., stop all drugs, add back one at a time)
    o Problem-centric, not patient-centric (Life = Puzzle-solving)
    In a (life or death) rush, yet orderly about the scientific process
    Aggressive risk taking (What’s the alternative?) (Can appear reckless to others)
    o Exudes inspiring confidence (especially when the success odds are low)
    o Sky high staff standards
    o Doesn’t suffer fools lightly (especially bosses)
    o Hates … routine/paperwork/problems that don’t enhance his medical understanding
    Students as scientific peers (but demands loyalty)
    o Constant, impromptu mini-Brainstorm sessions (Thinking = Cool)
    o Calm though life and death at stake (no matter what, must view-measure results of experiments as cleanly as possible)
    o Egocentric (but allow data to sway—or reverse—opinion)
    o Impatient!
    o Tenacious! Relentless!
    o Curious!
    o Obsessed! (rotten at “work-life balance”)

  2. Great post April. I was also a participant in the same innovation contest as Chris and was left with many of the same feelings. Although I didn’t progress as far as Chris, I was asked to join a team that made the first round cut at least and the overall experience of participating in collaborative innovation is one I am sure will prove to be very valuable. Even though there was little to none in terms of formal follow-up recognition for participants, I still keep in touch with many and would participate in a similar activity again if the opportunity presented it self. There do seem to be a few similar open “contest-like” things popping up and I would imagine more are appearing behind the scenes encouraging internal innovation from beyond the traditional R&D team but staying within corporate walls.
    I think your 4 points are dead on and reminded me a lot of what was said by Drucker in “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”. Even though it was written a while ago, I haven’t found many that cover the topic much better.

  3. Hi Trevor,
    Thanks for your comment. That is a good point about the relationships people forge while working on projects like this. Part of the commitment to the project is a very strong commitment to the team. I have really strong ties with the folks I worked with on incubation projects in the past. It would be great if there was a way to get the same team together to work on another project.
    April

  4. April: Trevor actually brings up a key point – how best to reward innovation? Since one of the key pillars of an innovative environment is that there will be a LOT of failures, there needs to be a motivational reward system that accounts for this. You want people to take chances because that’s where the real breakthroughs come from.
    In my opinion, in order to make sure that the rewards are evenly handed out the identification of who needs to be rewarded has to come from within the teams. They are the only ones who will be able to determine if a failure was really a noble attempt…
    – Dr. Jim Anderson
    http://www.TheAccidentalPM.com
    “Learn How Product Managers Can Be Successful And Get The Respect That They Deserve”

  5. Hi Jim,
    Thanks for the comment. That’s an interesting idea. We have been discussing this at my work right now and I don’t think we’ve got the best answer yet as to how we should reward the efforts that don’t make it all the way though to market. I think it’s really critical to fostering a culture of innovation.
    April

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