Paul Graham, Scott Adams, and Ideas

Two writers I didn't expect alignment from:

Scott Adams, 2010, on the Internet buzz about the prospect of a Dilbert movie:

Evaluating whether an idea is good enough for a movie is a bit like an automobile expert saying a certain brand of car doesn’t taste good. It’s absurd. You can only hold the opinion that a particular movie concept is a good or bad idea if you don’t understand what a movie is or what an idea is.

For example, here’s the world’s worst idea for a movie: Titanic. It did okay at the box office.

Movies are good or bad because of execution, not concept. Even outside of the movie realm, ideas generally have no economic value whatsoever, except in rare cases such as when a patent is issued. And even in those cases it’s the patent law that creates the value, not the ideas.

How about a comic strip that is literally a bunch of stick figures? It will be called XKCD and have no discernable characters. Done! It’s the most viewed comic on the Internet.

How about a comedic TV show about a Nazi concentration camp? Done! It was called Hogan’s Heroes and was a hit in its time.

You’d be hard pressed to come up with an idea so bad that it couldn’t succeed with the right execution. And it would be even harder to imagine a great idea that couldn’t fail if the execution were left to morons.

Paul Graham, 2005, on startup ideas:

I think people believe that coming up with ideas for startups is very hard-- that it must be very hard-- and so they don't try do to it. They assume ideas are like miracles: they either pop into your head or they don't.

I also have a theory about why people think this. They overvalue ideas. They think creating a startup is just a matter of implementing some fabulous initial idea. And since a successful startup is worth millions of dollars, a good idea is therefore a million dollar idea.

Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here’s an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there’s no market for startup ideas suggests there’s no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.

The fact is, most startups end up nothing like the initial idea. It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it's broken, you'll come up with your real idea.

When I started as a product manager, I had a false notion that the role was about being the "idea guy"– figuring out cool shit nobody else had thought of for engineering to build. I thought my job ended at a set of requirements, and then it was on to the next cool feature.

I rapidly learned that almost nothing in product has to do with brilliant ideas, and everything to do with grit and getting stuff done. The cool ideas for new ways to use the API? Everyone on engineering has hashed them out over the lunch table. And your UX improvements to the onboarding flow? Yep, they're a step up from what's there now, but set your user experience designer on the problem and they'll take it five steps further.

A product manager's job is to curate the different ideas out there, prioritize them in a way different stakeholders can get behind, and get them shipped — fast and well, doing whatever it takes — so your team can learn and your customers can get value. It sounds less glamorous than being the brilliant idea guy at first, but it's a lot more sustainable: rather than constantly wondering if you're a good product manager, you just manage the product well.