A Startup Is A Continuum of Ideas

Chris Dixon had an important post over the weekend title The Idea MazeHe starts off with a very strong juxtaposition of thoughts around the importance of “the idea” to a startup.

Ideas_Matter: The pop culture view of startups is that they’re all about coming up with a great product idea.

~Ideas_Matter: In response to this pop culture misconception, it has become popular in the startup community to say things like “execution is everything” and “ideas don’t matter”.

Ideas_Matter’: But the reality is that ideas do matter, just not in the narrow sense in which startup ideas are popularly defined. 

He explains this clearly in the rest of the post using the construct of the Idea Maze which is explained in the Coursera Startup Engineering course which I’ve been taking.

The argument around whether or not the idea matters in a startup is getting tedious and I think Chris does a nice job of dropping a bomb in the middle of it. But I don’t think the puzzle pieces get put together quite right.

I don’t agree with Chris’ assertion in Ideas_Matter’. My view is that a startup is a continuum of ideas. The initial idea may bear some resemblance to the idea at any future time, but the actual instantiation of the idea can vary dramatically over time based on the learning that happens along the way. The notion of the Idea Maze captures this construct, as does the work of Steve Blank and Eric Ries.

But that doesn’t mean that “the idea matters.” I believe that it means a different construct is needed other than “idea.” I accept that the answer isn’t just the “execution of the idea” since that misses the point also. As a result, I think we need to blow up the construct of “ideas vs. execution” since it’s both and neither.

Chris does a nice job of laying out how to navigate the Idea Maze using history, analogies, theory, and direct experience. That’s how I approach investing, and how Foundry Group uses our themes to guide what we invest in. If you think hard about what Chris is suggesting, it’s the path through the idea maze for most entrepreneurs that is the important thing.

Here’s a specific example from my own experience. I’ve always loved books. About ten years ago I started thinking harder about being a writer as part of what I do. I’ve used history, analogies, theory, and direct experience to help me figure out how I think about the publishing and content industry. I self published some content (my blog) and contributed to traditional print and online media. But rather than self publishing a book to start, I decided I needed to understand how the publishing industry has worked for the last 100 years by participating in it. I had a theory that over the next decade there would be a radical change in how the publishing industry worked, but in the absence of being a content provider (known as an “author”), I wouldn’t really understand the process. So I wrote several (now four) books with a publisher (Wiley). Hence – direct experience. I’ve also studied the history of the publishing industry and talked to many other authors about their experiences. And I’ve got many analogies about how other information based industries have been massively disrupted by technology. And now I have a very clear set of ideas about how the publishing – and content – industry is going to change and how I’m going to participate in that change as a writer.

My important idea wasn’t “disrupt the publishing industry.” Nor does that particular idea matter. But the continuum of ideas I’ve had over the last decade that emerged from this thought is incredibly powerful. And the emergence of that continuum in a startup has the potential to be very powerful. Or fail. Which is, of course, the nature of a startup.

  • Ryan Smith

    Brad, I like this post a lot, especially the part where you say “I think we need to blow up the construct of ‘ideas vs. execution’ since it’s both and neither.” There are a pair of European philosophers named Deleuze and Guattari, whose body of work is applicable to this discussion. Two books in particular come to mind if anyone is interested: “A Thousand Plateaus” and “What is Philosophy?”. A Thousand Plateaus has been the most influential non-business book that I have ever read and guides a lot of how I think about any endeavor in life. They argue that there are many “territories” created by different forces in our life that try to define and categorize events/ideas. For example, the state, religion, philosophy, capitalism, etc can all try and claim an idea and assign a particular value to it (define it in a certain way). Deleuze and Guattari’s argument, however, is that if we try and deterritorialize an idea and explore the relationships between all those territorializing forces and how they affect the idea then we can maintain the creative potential of the idea and allow it to evolve throughout time. This is very similar to your description of the idea matrix and how ideas constantly evolve.

    So how does this apply to startup theory surrounding ideas? First, Deleuze and Guattari believe heavily in the experimentation of life. Similarly, startups should have a culture of experimentation that they apply to their ideas and business processes, validating their learning and evolving their idea to open up the most potential for creative energy (in startups, this means growth). Second, the idea vs. execution binary, as well producers vs. non-producers, which stems from this binary is flawed. Startups should recognize that there are going to be a lot of forces that affect their idea. These forces include pressures to come up with a good idea, pressures to execute correctly, financial considerations, competitors, customer feedback, product development, marketing, etc. Successful founders are ones that can harness the positive pressures from each of these forces and evolve the idea throughout the startup process to achieve growth. Each of these forces can be positive catalysts for change/growth or debilitating forces. This means that a startup is a daily battle to manage this creative process and the development of an idea. I think this plays really well with your idea matrix discussion above. Lastly, Deleuze and Guattari say that the creative energy that is the relationship between territorializing forces and that allows one to navigate between all these pressures is desire. I think this is extremely important for entrepreneurs because having a sense of passion for the whole wonderful mess that is a startup is critical to having the energy and attitude to handle how your idea is going to evolve over time and how you need to keep executing-learning-and re-executing over and over.

  • Brad..that was an utterly brilliant articulation of a perspective I struggle to communicate every day! This continuum of ideas that one has been through and the specific, or hazy, vision one has for the product or the future is not often distillable into a single catch phrase.

    The elevator pitch approach to distilling what your startup is aiming at either ends up sounding too bombastic or too similar to what is already out there. Striking a balance while keeping this “continuum of ideas” is a challenge. For me it is about enabling “collaborative insight discovery from unstructured data”. But to one who has not traversed problems/situations similar to mine the phrase is opaque or just marketing buzzwords strung together!

    So am curious to hear how do you see a startup to strike this balance between speaking to the continuum of ideas and not coming across as pretentious?

  • Jeffrey Hartmann

    I really like this perspective. I firmly believe that ideas, the journey through their evolution and the execution all matter but individually I don’t think any of them can explain success or failure. They really build upon each other, and how your idea, business and technology evolve over time is really deeply affected by all of them. As nearly anything in life, not very much can be explained by just a single cause. Several events have to come together in the right configuration for something as complex as a successful business to be created.

  • Brad – Again I really like this

    I am no dancer, but I sing a little, I ski and swim recreationally but I do not play baseball.

    I am neither sportsman nor entertainer !

    But in my domain I am one of a handful globally. In this domain, I can dance, can pivot, can run round the bases and will eventually “knock the ball out of the park”.

    The word is experience. A thorough polymath knowledge within a field is known as an expert domain. Execution in this domain feels natural and instinctive, and is not forced or shallow though it can be simple and elegant.

    So your “idea continuum” shared by founders resides in or defines their domains of expertise.

    Implications – if I pitch an idea about stage shows, or sporting goods stand well-clear, but if its (my field) then jump on board.

    This continuum is where ideas, are fertilized, gestate and spark into life.

    They are tested, rejected, played with and manically explored to soon be rejected or modified but always deeply loved.

    This maybe where the idea of a passionate entrepreneur comes from – it works for me.

    Some days I just love what I do – and I guess that says a lot.

  • Ryan Frazier

    I always saw the “ideas are worthless, execution is everything” mantra as an oversimplification to make sure entrepreneurs don’t over-focus on a specific vision before ever shipping product and talking to customers. I suppose it can also be a good way to get sidelined entrepreneurs with an idea into the game. Ideas are important, even if only to prove you can have good ones, but they should be adaptable over the life of the company as most variables tend to change over time: competitive landscape, technical feasibility, customer needs, ect.

  • ObjectMethodology.com

    Brad, I remember you used to say “Ideas aren’t worth anything.” I was so frustrated trying to explain to you how wrong you were! I think you owe me a cup of coffee for all the sleep I’ve missed over it. Oh wait… A cup of coffee will only make me lose more sleep. Just forget it. 🙂

  • I’ve always loved the word “continuum.” But, it applies to startups’ strategic evolutions ONLY when viewed from afar. Closer in, lessons learned, wisdom won and hypotheses tested result in jarring step-function changes to startups’ strategies.

    There’s nothing smooth (smoothness = continuum) about the day-to-day strategic course corrections I’ve made as an entrepreneur. Perhaps, if I was a better strategist, things would look more like your idealized vision of a smooth evolutionary curve toward greatness!

    I agree the “ideas vs. execution” discussion not helpful. What would be useful is to bring the discussion back to the kernel of what business strategies really are and how one ought to go about building one. Perhaps this isn’t sexy to blog about, but it’s where the rubber meets the road.

    Evocative language and creative imagery (“maze,” a “continuum,” “evolution,” “pivoting,” whatever) obscure the important work we do in creating and optimizing our strategies.

    The best strategic framework I’ve seen is from 2001 and offers important advantages vs. Porter’s 1979 work:


    I think it’s time to call “strategy” “strategy.”

  • a startup basically boils down to connecting the dots looking forward. “in the general direction” – that is the key point.


  • Bernardo

    Brad, kudos from a Brazilian Entepteneur and a big fan!

    You are both talking about the same thing. But the name is neither Idea Maze, nor Continuum of Ideas.

    It is simply “Learning”. Get Idea x Execution. It equals “Learning”. Sucessfull companies are the ones that learn the truth and the fastests (probably faster than they spend their funding!). It is iterative, learning will bring new ideas, new execution and further learning. Therefore, the greeks were right, knowledge is power! This is probably the same thing that Steve Blank lectures.

  • Alex

    I like the concept of a continuum Brad and the contributions to the conversation you and @cdixon are making. And you’re right about the importance of the path. I’d love your thoughts on Idea Modeling as an approach to helping people navigate that path in the early stages, e.g.: http://t.co/VQ9uYnBj7j and http://theinnographer.com/toolkit/idea-modeling – it’s not about ideas vs. execution. It’s about deliberate evolution along the path.

    • Alex

      And to the notion of the construct, you’re right that idea is not enough. I view hunches, ideas, business models and business plans as snapshots or “prototypes of the opportunity” at different stages of its evolution, as sketched in the video I posted above.

  • Alex

    Hi again. My thoughts, hopefully more succinctly put, about changing the channel on the debate. Hope it contributes to the conversation: http://theinnographer.com/change-the-channel-on-the-idea-vs-execution-debate/

  • I like your disagreement with Chris.

    I’ve been reading “managing humans” by rands ..and in there he mentions something about avoiding getting addicted to thinking. Maybe detecting certain kinds of addiction can help us make sure we’re on a continuum of building stuff, learning and coming up with new stuff.

    PS. rands touches on the same in this post : http://www.randsinrepose.com/archives/2005/08/30/taking_time_to_think.html