Where do entrepreneurs get their ideas?

As I look at the landscape of the articles on entrepreneurs, this question always props up. Where do they get their ideas from? The usual wisdom is that every successful entrepreneur has 3 elements in abundance: know what, know-how and know-who. Then you read about Jeremy Moon, who started Icebreaker in 1995 (today has about 100 people and 50 million in revenues) when he was 25 and just graduated from school. Obviously, he does not have a huge amount of talent in any of the 3 dimensions.

For me, this question had a far more profound question hidden underneath. How does one succeed in starting a business? There seems to be an unspoken belief (almost faith) that the right idea is the primary factor in explaining the success of a business. So, if we can understand how a successful entrepreneur generated his/her idea, maybe we can get our hands around this hard problem of succeeding on our own.

I beg to differ here. I think the secret sauce is far more complex than just having the right/better/unique idea. In fact, I think a successful entrepreneur needs to have 3 things in spades to succeed:

  • A mindset that can generate ideas at will. Usually, this means that the person needs to be multi-disciplinary in interests, friends and career moves. Generating ideas at will means the person looks at ordinary encounters with the eyes of a problem solver and imagines how he/she would go about creating a business that solves the specific problem.
  • Determination. Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay on this. To quote,

I now have enough experience with startups to be able to say what the most important quality is in a startup founder, and it’s not what you might think. The most important quality in a startup founder is determination. Not intelligence– determination.

  • Visible passion. When you begin the journey, you will be all alone, walking down the road. If you would like the business to reach its objective, you need to create a team of partners, followers and believers. For every one of them, this commitment begins with their interaction with you. If they see you determined to walk that road, passionate and energetic about the journey and the destination, then sooner or later, they will start walking with you.

So, no, having the greatest idea is not the huge deal about a successful entrepreneur. It is the other 2 traits, which require enormous will and confidence that need to be probed deeper.

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