Ideas are cheap, execution is dear

I was listening to an episode of Side Hustle School today, and there was a segment near the end that reminded me of one of my favorite segments of Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview. I'll show the transcripts here, but the idea is, in short: ideas are cheap, execution is dear.

#744 - It's No Joke: Prank Musical Greeting Card Earns $36,000/Month, Side Hustle School (2019-01-14).

[09:50] Also, even though it was originally a pretty silly idea, the way he's been able to create longterm business value from it is through the execution of the idea. So it's not easy to build those relationships with vendors and make decisions about how many tens of thousands of cards to order. And then when disaster strikes, like that crazy experience with the battery's being duds, it's not a simple thing at all to figure out how to respond and recover. So that to me is where the value is, that is just as interesting as coming up with the initial idea. So if you hear this story and you think, "Oh, well, that's pretty cool but, you know, the whole trick was in the idea", I think the whole trick is in the execution of the idea.

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, Magnolia Pictures (2012)

[35:05] One of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease, and that disease—I've seen other people get it, too—it's the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work, and that if you just tell all these other people, "Here is this great idea", then, of course, they can go off and make it happen. And the problem with that is that there is just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it, and you also find there is tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can't make electrons do. There are certain things you can't make plastic do or glass do or factories do or robots do. And as you get into all these things, designing a product is keeping 5,000 things in your brain, these concepts, and fitting them all together and continuing to push to fit them together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day you discover something new, that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently. And it's that process that is the magic.

Surely I'm not the only one who recognizes myself in that description, of thinking that once I have a fantastic idea that it's all downhill from there. I do it all the time—well, maybe not all the time because I don't have great ideas that often, but I feel like a great idea is much more often followed by the great disappointment of underexecution than I want to believe.

Consider three paths forward from a great idea.

  1. The happy ending, where the idea comes to fruition.
  2. The technical failure, described in that passage from Steve Jobs, where an idea is considered to be the large part of the work, and the technical work to figure out the details to manifest the idea is given short shrift.
  3. The persuasion failure, where one assumes very wrongly that the idea itself is enough to convince stakeholders to help.

The technical failure is often arrogance or cluelessness about what it means to create something. If one arrogantly assumes that it won't be that hard, and puts off the work, then there is no way to regain the missed time that should have been spent working out the subtle details that are only found by doing. Experience is not the only thing, but there is no substitute for it.

The persuasion failure is laziness. This is the one that gets me the most. It's hard to avoid the trap of thinking that an idea that is beautiful in my own mind is itself enough to convince other people of the idea's beauty, and that they should invest or buy or assist or whatever in the idea. That's obviously wrong, but there's typically another wrong thought that comes along after that one: frustration that the others don't recognize the special unique specialness of the idea. I call it laziness because when I think that the idea is enough to sell itself, that means that I'm not putting in the work to persuade the others that it's a good idea that's relevant to them, that's something they should help with, that it's going to be worth the trouble, and so on.

Postscript: It seems I'm not the first to say "ideas are cheap, execution is dear".

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