How much is an idea really worth?
This question has been top of mind for me lately, and it sparked a big debate over on Twitter.
I still believe that ideas are fundamentally worthless—but that begs the question of how I’m assigning value to an idea.
So, how should we assign value to an idea?
Turns out, this is a pretty difficult question to answer.
First, allow me to color this question with some much-needed context around where I’m coming from…
I get dozens of emails every day from readers of my blog.
Many of them asking for feedback on their business idea and for guidance on which idea has the most potential.
I deeply value these conversations that have lead to hundreds of new friendships (just yesterday I met up with a reader, Lindsay Saewitz, for coffee here in Denver). And I always do my best to get back to everyone who writes me.
The reason I bring this up… is because I’ve been identifying a trend over the past few years with how these conversations with readers often go. Many start like this:
Reader: “My biggest challenge right now is that I have too many ideas and I’m not sure which route to go… what do you think about [insert business idea here]?”
Me: “Sounds interesting! Have you been doing anything yet to start testing if anyone wants/needs this solution?”
At this, the vast majority of readers reply saying that they haven’t really done much with their idea yet.
Mostly because they don’t know how, and they’ll launch into reasons about why they just haven’t had the time to:
- Get around to filing for an LLC
- Come up with a name for the business
- Register a website domain name
- Get a logo designed for it
- Learn how to build a website (and start blogging)
- Find a factory who can manufacture the product
- and the list goes on…
Trust me, I get it. I didn’t know how to build a business my first time around, either (it didn’t go very well).
But this is the exact wrong place to start.
And when I check in with many of these readers a month or two down the line, they’re in the exact same place as they were before.
When you’re doing something brand new without a clear path laid out in front of you, it can feel overwhelming—bordering on scary.
When we’re faced with fear of the unknown, of risk, embarrassment, potential failure… we tend to default to what’s most comfortable. The easy stuff that we do know how to do—or have heard so much about in the thousands of books out there about “how to start a business.”
Which is where checking off all these boxes like filing for a business license and registering a domain name come in.
And if you approach executing on your idea by first spending money on these kinds of activities listed above, you can incur a bunch of unnecessary expenses on things that don’t build real value.
This begs the question again, how should we assign value?
Let’s unpack a couple of different viewpoints.
The measurable value argument
I believe that an idea alone is worthless, because it delivers no measurable value to your potential customers.
Value in the form of a tangible solution to a problem they have; a challenge that’s worthy of solving in the first place.
In this context, an idea is inherently worthless—it cannot possess any measurable value—because it does not change someone’s state.
This view really resonates with me, because it’s very linear and reflects the primary way I think.
We can all agree that nobody is going to pay you for just an idea that doesn’t change anything for them.
And the sheer act of telling someone about your idea isn’t going to change anything in their lives.
Unless the action of telling them about your idea leads to something that eventually creates measurable value.
Which, in my mind, is where this gets tricky…
The immeasurable value argument
What if the act of telling your friend about an idea leads to a great conversation, incredible feedback, and a burst of motivation that propels you into building the idea?
In this case, I’d argue that your idea just became pretty damn valuable.
And this is one of the points my friend Mubs makes in his piece, Ideas are Everything.
His immeasurable value argument is that ideas can lead to value that isn’t measured in dollars and customers.
Ideas can lead to unpredictably awesome outcomes. Mubs asks, “How much value can you place on something that drives you to work on it, to use every spare minute in your day to make it a reality?”
I don’t think you can assign a measurable value to that—nor should you try.
However, the immeasurable value argument implies that you need to get your idea out into the world.
In order to get that inspiration and motivation to start building your idea, you need to have conversations with people.
You can’t just create in a bubble, without feedback from the people you’re creating for.
If you’re going to stand behind this argument, that predicates that you do something about your idea.
So, what’s an idea really worth?
Well, it depends on what you do with your idea…
Not every idea needs to be valued in terms of money.
But an idea that stays locked away in your own head—without execution OR meaningful conversation that leads to action—remains worthless in both contexts.
It won’t deliver measurable value to your customers as-is.
And it’s not leading to the execution that could eventually create measurable value.