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The Business of Ideas

By Michael Cohen, General Manager, Zero Gravity Labs

Having ideas is amazing. Ideas are what lead us to invention, innovation and what makes us as humans such interesting and inquisitive people. However, having ideas is not enough. Everybody has ideas. It is the people who are able to put their ideas into action that end up changing the world.

Ideas are unformed nuggets and should be treated like early stage businesses. You need to nurture them, get feedback on them and know when to double down and when to walk away like you would with any business. The most important aspect of innovative, exciting new ideas is what to do with them next.

I often get asked how to bridge ideas into action and while I don’t claim any special skills, I am happy to share some of the things that have worked for me.

Ideas Need Backing

As an intrapreneur, I’m all for being a contrarian and bringing forward ideas that make most people in the room uncomfortable. However, I also recognize that if I want to turn that idea into action, as important (if not more) as my good idea is, it is the moment when someone else recognizes it and says “yes, I’ll back that” or puts their political, social or monetary capital behind it. It is that moment that really matters and makes the shift from idea to action

Regardless of the size and scope of your idea, at multiple points you are probably going to need others to be involved in some way, shape or form. In the startup world,we generally think about the need to get a co-founder bought in, how to explain and sell through the idea to friends and family for a round of financing, how we might pitch it to the VC world and, ultimately, how to build awareness and engage with your preferred user base and customers.

For Intrapreneurs this is often the first reality check that while having a great idea is key, you now need to figure out where (if anywhere) there will be receptivity and understanding of your idea within a big corporate machine. It can seem daunting but it is the start of an amazing opportunity if you pursue it.

So if getting buy-in for your idea is ultimately as important as the idea itself, how can you go from a bunch of thoughts rattling around your head to articulating your idea(s) in a way that allows others (your executive team, your investors, your spouse) to easily put their name and capital (political, monetary, social) behind it?

I spend a lot of my time doing road-shows (internally or with clients) for ideas and have been able to build a track record of getting some good ones off the bench. Along the way, I’ve picked up some things that have really helped me which hopefully can do the same for you.

Write It Down

I consider myself an ideas person. I have thoughts on invention, how to improve this or why I’d make that different, but ultimately I know I’m just rambling until I take the time to make my idea more concrete. Many musicians will tell you that they often make voice notes of ideas, melodies or riffs and this is definitely better than nothing but it works much better for music than it does for business ideas. The problem with voice notes for business ideas is that they are not tangible enough, they don’t look you in the face and mock you for not having worked on them – but Post-It Notes are excellent for that.

Smarter people than I have actually put the time and effort into studying how goal setting is not enough, you need to actually commit yourself by writing it down and ideally, continuing to report on progress to someone other than yourself.

So take the first step, get yourself the intrapreneurs toolkit, consisting of a sharpie and Post-It Notes (if you want to go crazy buy a whole whiteboard) and take an idea that you can’t get out of your head (but have not taken forward) and write it on a Post-It. Keep it really simple, such as “ Facial recognition as payment method ” and put it up on your bathroom mirror (so you see it every day) or on your laptop (right next to a Zero Gravity Labs sticker) and within one week, it will either be giving you anxiety because you haven’t touched it or it will be all you want to work on when you have 5 free minutes. Either way, your level of commitment to take the next step is much stronger than had you just left it as an idea swirling in your head.

Put It In A Framework

When ideas are plentiful it’s an amazing feeling but it can also be overwhelming. Which ideas are the right ones? How do I put them together? What questions or holes will others try to poke in my idea? How can I make it seem more real for my investors, stakeholders etc?

These are the right questions to ask and they are the ones that every good intrapreneur or entrepreneur asks themselves at some point. So how can you corral your ideas and put them into a document that makes them easy for you to articulate and for others to understand and digest?

There are lots of great pitch decks available and you may be tempted to go that route right away, but there are a ton of steps before that and at this point, you’re just trying to get your idea into a shape that makes it easy to share within a trusted circle.

There are many business frameworks for ideation, for presentation and for business planning but I have found (opinion of 1) that the Lean Canvas is one that has worked really well for me. It may only be a single page (that’s the point) but it really forces you to package your thoughts in

the right way to help you both spot holes and opportunities with your idea. It also happens to be a document that a lot of product and investment folks will recognize which is helpful.

It is not the be all and end all but if you’re trying to go from Post-It Note to another level of depth, I recommend spending some time reading and learning about how to use the Lean Canvas.

Tangibility & Validity

Whether you are pitching your idea in a big company or trying to raise seed money, you are generally going to need to have more than a Lean Canvas and a slick presentation. You need to make your idea tangible and even better if you can give it tangibility and get some points of validation at the same time.

So how can you do that? Depending on where you work and what resources you are able to draw on, you might be able to get some time with a visual designer or a UX person. If so, count yourself lucky because they are going to help you bring your idea to life. For argument’s sake, assuming your idea comes to life on mobile (social, etc.) with just a few visual screens designed, you can use a program like Invision to create a clickable demo that will instantly make your idea feel much more real to your stakeholders. It can be the difference between starting with a question like “help me understand how someone would use this” to one where you are talking about the type of users who would use the product. The difference in the question is nuanced but you’re starting at a place where the product itself has been brought to life and is not a nebulous idea that can’t be imagined. It seems subtle but it’s an important difference.

Not everyone has access to a designer though so what can you do? Can you wrangle a few dollars? If you’re willing to spend just a little bit of money then I would suggest you check out UpWork where you can find tons of freelancers who can deliver the visuals you need.

Without going down the path of visuals you can still, however, try to find some validation points for your idea. For example, if your idea assumes customers will be willing to take a picture of the UPC code on a beverage in exchange for X (e.g. points/prizes) then find some friendlies with whom you could set up a test of this nature.

Reach out to that group of friends/family/colleagues and tell them if they take pictures of the UPC code on beverages they drink you will give them X in return. Assuming X is representative of the value you would actually provide to real users, you’ve got yourself a pretty easy and early test and learn sample. Set up a mini marketing campaign and run your experiment in a fashion that mirrors how you would do it at scale (e.g. send out an email weekly with a new set of offers if that’s what you would do at scale) and that will allow you to gauge week-over-week audience participation/interest.

This “$100 test” is not going to completely validate your idea nor will it sink your idea but if nobody is willing to participate in your campaign then you have one set of data points and if you

do get participants and they hardly drop off throughout the campaign test period, you can use that traction when you present your idea.

Thought this is all done on a small scale it can still be quite noteworthy because you have real people interacting with your product/idea in a pretty real fashion. The feedback and data points you get from them are invaluable.

Have A Clear Ask & Have A Plan For The Yes Moment

Getting buy-in for your idea can only happen if you actually ask for something. It may sound cheesy but I recommend starting the conversation like they do on the entrepreneur and small business investor pitch program, Shark Tank – “ I am here today to ask for X in return for Y ”. This then sets the context for everything else to come. You may only be asking for permission or a handful of resources but if you save that ask until the very end of your presentation it is impossible for the decision makers to know whether you are giving them enough detail or not. If you are asking for $1M that’s quite different than asking for some Amazon cloud space and in order to help your decision makers you need to level-set upfront.

The final tip is that while you will inevitably hear “no” a lot on any intrapreneurial or entrepreneurial journey, you should always be prepared to share your plan for next steps when the people in the room say “ yes! ”. Don’t give them every step for the next year, but give them confidence that you have thought through a plan on how you will proceed and walk them through where your idea will meet action, thanks to their support.

Start Today

“ Yesterday you said tomorrow,” is one of my favourite quotes. The only way you can fail is by not taking the leap to start. So fire up the idea machine, grab your Post-It Notes and get writing. It’s never easy to start but once you do, it’s so rewarding

Your feedback and comments are always appreciated and if you found value in this sharing it with your network would be the highest compliment.