In my experience with entrepreneurs, there seems to a wealth of self-proclaimed “idea people” who aspire to start businesses, but only a few who are willing and able to dig in and get the job done. All the great ideas in the world won’t make a business, if the ideas never get implemented. Only rare great entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, have proven to be both.
I worked with Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft and the IBM PC, while I was with IBM. Bill was relentless in his focus on getting the software PC DOS project delivered, while continually challenging us with new business models. Elon Musk is known for his focus on implementation, often working 80-100 hours a week, while still able to offer an endless supply of innovative ideas.
If you or your team sees you as an idea person, your first task as an entrepreneur should be to find a co-founder who can deliver. Finding a co-founder is rarely a bad thing, since two heads are always better than one in meeting all the startup challenges. Let me be a bit more specific on how follow-up trumps ideas for success in the key challenges of a startup, or any small business:
Networking with investors, partners, and customers. Meeting people and talking about your ideas won’t get you very far. First you have to listen carefully to what the other party is looking for, and then you have to follow-up to meet their connections, do personal dinner invitations for relationship building, and demonstrate traction.
Tailor investor proposals and term-sheets. Professional investors expect far more than an idea pitch – they are looking for a documented opportunity analysis and realistic financial projections. They watch for formal follow-up to questions, demonstration of real product, and revenue results. Passionate reiteration of the idea won’t close funding.
Detailed product specifications and prototypes. With great idea people, an initial product is rarely fully defined, as features are added and subtracted to meet the audience of the day. Milestones are not met because there is no implementation discipline. Products from idea entrepreneurs often try to be everything to everyone.
Productivity and time management challenges. Idea entrepreneurs are largely driven by the “crisis of the moment” or the next event on their schedule. They are too busy to follow-up on a major partner opportunity, customer inquiry, or a critical internal process that simply isn’t working. Communication to the team suffers, and productivity is low.
Managing marketing metrics and the sales pipeline. Effective marketing requires converting ideas to real content, creating programs to educate channels, and managing metrics to see what works and what needs to change. Follow-up is required for every sales lead, a pipeline built, and a sales process documented, with training for new reps.
Customer acquisition, retention, and support. Ideas don’t generate customer loyalty – they want to see specifics for their case. Most experts agree that acquisition of a new customer costs six times retaining existing customers. Lack of follow-up after a sale can cost you more customers than poor service or poor quality.
Maintaining professional relationships. No business associate will be impressed with ideas for long, if they experience unpredictable follow-up delays in email, phone calls, or delivery commitments. Disciplined execution is as critical to communication and relationships as it is to the bottom line of your business.
For business professionals, I would suggest that if you don’t do follow-up well, you should never aspire to be a manager or an executive. That’s what they have to do most of the time, so you won’t enjoy the job, and probably won’t be seen as doing it well. Most executives will tell you that their idea time is while sleeping, or while working out in the gym.
Of course, every small business needs to be built around a great idea, and every entrepreneur needs to find innovative new ideas regularly to stay ahead of the crowd. But the bulk of the real work and time to make a startup or small business successful is in the execution and follow-up.
In my view, idea people will be more at home and more appreciated in the design, marketing, or planning department of a larger and more mature organization, with an implementation team behind them. Successful entrepreneurs need to enjoy the journey, perhaps more than the destination.