Dream Crushing Leads to Better Ideas
News Article by Omar Bakht, PhD, Director of UR Ventures and Founder of New York Medical Angels
They call me a “Dream Crusher” and I take a mild offense to it. As the Director of New Ventures at the University of Rochester and the founder of New York Medical Angels, it’s my job to listen to people’s business ideas. In my career, I’ve heard many business ideas and most of them not well thought out. Sometimes, I have to tell people that their idea is not worth moving forward and no one really likes to hear that, so I guess that explains the “crushing” label.
When I first started at the University, I had to shut down companies that were not working properly. It’s not that they were terrible, but it was more like they were on a track to not work correctly, so it would be easier to start all over. The best way I can describe the feeling I had is that it was like watching someone else load your dishwasher. It’s not exactly wrong, but… (About half of the married people know what I mean). For this, people started calling me “Dream Crusher”. When I worked in Boston, some people would call me “Icer” when I did due diligence on companies. It was sort of the same thing. The reason why I take mild offense is that I feel like I’m being nice when I shut down an idea. I feel like I'm saving them time, money and a lot of energy
Here’s the thing - when you say that you are going to start a business, you are committing a lot of time and money, usually more than 100% of your time and money. If I tell you that you can stop, isn’t that a good thing? When I started shutting down companies and ideas here at the University, I told my boss that one day, they will thank me. That hasn’t happened yet, but I keep hoping. Additionally, I take offense to the “Dream” part. When I tell you that your business idea is not going to work, I’m killing your idea not your dreams. The problem is that people don’t have very many ideas, so they get emotionally invested in the few that they have. Have more ideas! It doesn’t cost anything. To quote Thomas Edison, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”
The problem is sometimes it makes sense to stick with something and sometimes it makes sense to quit. I don’t have an answer to this, but let’s break it down.
The Argument for Sticking With It
It is true that when you propose to do something new or innovative, people are going to tell you that it’s not a good idea and things are fine the way things are. That’s just the world we live in – it’s hard imagine a different future. There’s this great quote by George Bernard Shaw,
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Only the “unreasonable” people innovate. They stick to their guns when people tell them to quit. In order to be really innovative, you need a healthy dose of disdain for other people in general. Milton Hershey had three failed candy companies before creating a successful one (caramel…chocolate came later), J.K. Rowling got rejected by twelve publishers before getting picked up by a small publisher, who still told her to get a real job. There is no shortage of examples of people who have succeeded by sticking to their guns when everyone else told them to quit.
It is also true that in order to accomplish anything worth accomplishing, you need a certain degree of perseverance or grit. Take graduate school for an example. It’s awfully easy to quit graduate school. The hours are long and the pay is negligible, but at least no one respects what you’re doing. I kid, but sometimes it does feel that way. It is precisely because it’s so easy to quit a PhD program that you need to have some grit to force yourself through.
But is a lot of grit a good thing? Can you have too much grit?
The Argument for Quitting
Here’s a fact of life: you have a limited amount of time. Each person has about 1,000 waking minutes a day. That’s right, that guy who talked your ear off for twenty minutes just chipped away 2% of your day. It’s because time is such a limited and valuable resource that we have to be really stingy with it. There are currently dozens, maybe hundreds, of graduate students in the lab trying to do something impossible. Literally, impossible. They might not know it’s impossible yet, but it is. Should they “stick with it”? Are they failures if they quit? I would argue that they are winners for quitting. There’s a great quote by Regina George,
“Stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen.”
The upside to quitting is that you can put your valuable time, attention, and money toward something else, maybe something better. Every-so-often, I hear a very capable person telling me about all the projects they have going on and I think it’s way too much. I usually advise them to drop a few of their projects and they usually respond with, “don’t you think I can do it?” My answer is always the same, “I believe you can do anything you want, but not everything you want.” You have to prioritize and focus on a small number of projects, and if you find out that one of those projects is not working out, for whatever reason, cut it and move on. There’s a story about someone who asks Warren Buffet for advice on being more successful. Buffet tells him to write out all the things he wants to accomplish that year, but to circle the top 5. Then he tells the guy that everything not circled is a list of things he has to avoid for the next year. Warren Buffet completely denies that this happened, but it’s still a good story.
A quick word about the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Just because you have invested your time and resources on something in the past, doesn’t mean you have to consider it when you are making future decisions. For example, I have a PhD in Biophysics. It took me forever and I worked very hard for it, but if I can make millions of dollars selling candy bars, I’m gonna sell candy bars.* Maybe your long-term goals aren’t to make millions of dollars, but you should think really hard about what your goals are. You might discover that grad school doesn’t bring you closer, in which case you should probably quit.
Often you hear about companies “pivoting”. Something wasn’t working, so they switched. This is essentially “quitting”, but without all the negative connotation. The company “fails” at one thing, but that doesn’t make them “failures”. A good example is a company called Odeo. They started over 10 years ago to help people to publish podcasts. There came a point when the company felt like podcasts were not going to be the wave of the future they thought it would be, so they quit and decided to do something else. They offered all the investors their money back and every one of them took their money back rather than keeping their money in Odeo. The company switched gears and pursued a new idea to create a microblogging platform called Twitter.
So now what?
So far we’ve established that sometimes it’s good to quit and sometimes it’s good to persevere, but how do you know which action to take and is “dream crushing” a good or bad activity? I still don’t know, but what I notice in the Milton Hershey, J.K. Rowling, and many other examples is that each individual had a body of work before they were told to quit. That is to say, they had more than just one idea and I think that’s the key. In the entrepreneurial space, we have a mathematical equation for valuing an idea. Are you ready? Ideas = Zero. Ideas themselves are not worth anything. People sometimes want my advice on their business but refuse to tell me their idea because they don’t want anyone to steal it. I tell them that if just an idea, don’t worry about it because it’s not worth anything and if they don’t believe me, they should try to give the idea away and see where they get.
Be your own “Dream Crusher”
I have a lot of ideas. Most of them are bad. Some of them are terrible. However, I know the only way to give my ideas value is to put work into them. The best way is to do the smallest amount of work possible to create a prototype that gives people an idea of what you are trying to do. Got an idea for an app? Mock up a powerpoint presentation that does what you want your app to do and get feedback. Got an idea for a product? Mock up a prototype and put it up on Craigslist or Etsy or something and see what kind of response you get. Also, it takes almost no work at all to make a landing page nowadays. Next, use your completed “smallest amount of work” to get feedback, and if positive, do a little more work. Then repeat. Keep going until you are able to crush your own ideas. Be your own dream crusher! That way, the only project (notice I didn’t say ideas) that survives is uncrushable – at least by you.
The more work you put into a project, the less people like me can “crush” it. Ideas are crushable. Execution is the only thing that matters.
*I actually am trying to sell candy bars. Look for my new candy bar concept later this year. Help me make a million dollars!
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