How I Test Ideas (Or: Discerning Good From Great)



The Web is the most empowering tool for organized, creative folks in the history of the world. If you have an idea and you are willing to work hard, then you can ship something.

Between the inception of an idea and its advent there is a great deal of hard work and many opportunities to quit. It takes skill and character to push through and ship something when you’re afraid of failing, or of being embarrassed, or even afraid of succeeding (What if this actually works!?).

However, courage isn’t the only character trait needed when it comes to turning our ideas into something tangible…

I suspect many of you can relate to the dilemma of having more ideas than time. Which means that, in addition to endurance, we also need discernment to know what ideas are worth pursuing and what ideas we should let go of.

Discernment is anything but an exact science, but I do have a bit of a routine that I find myself acting out every time one of my ideas seems to have an extra amount of energy behind it.

  • The first rule of ideas is that they have no rules. They can strike at any moment, but they prefer awkward locations when we cannot write anything down. Such as: when mowing the lawn, taking a shower, driving to the airport, or working out at the gym.

    The reason ideas love to pop up at these times is because when our mind is at rest doing a mindless task or routine (such as showering), things are free to float to the surface. Not only do new ideas come to us at these times, but also solutions to current problems. As Paul Graham says, what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is quite important.

  • My first reaction to a new idea is to write it down as soon as I can. Since the idea is still organic and fresh at first, it’s important to jot it down in its purest form. Also, by writing the idea down it clears my mind to continue thinking about the idea some more and even exploring its grander scope. Or sometimes, after I’ve written the idea down I have nothing more to think about and my mind is clear once again.

    This is why I keep a waterproof notepad in the shower, I have a Keyboard Maestro shortcut key that brings up a new TextEdit window in a split second, and I keep DropVox close by on my iPhone’s 2nd Home screen.

  • Once I’ve written down the idea, I let it simmer. Sometimes I keep thinking on it over the next days, weeks, or months, and sometimes I forget about it altogether.

    If I find that it keeps coming back to me, I’ll bring it up in conversation during dinner with Anna to see what she thinks about. And, if I’ve already thought of a cool name for this new project or venture then I’ll buy the URL as well. (More ideas than time, but also, more URLs than ideas shipped.)

  • If Anna likes it even a little bit, then I’ll start crunching the practical details and asking myself a lot of questions:

    • If this idea were to turn into something tangible then what does that look like?
    • How will the website work?
    • How will I market it?
    • Will I be proud of it?
    • How much of my time will it take to build and ship it, and then how much time will go into maintaining it?
    • Will it be worth my time? What is the expected return on my investment of time and money? (And that return doesn’t necessarily have to be a directly financial one — sometimes new projects have indirect financial returns through other means.)
  • If all of the above seem viable, then I begin pitching it to some trusted friends in order to get their feedback. I ask them to shoot holes in the idea and tell me why the name (and thus the URL) is dumb. I ask them to tell me what they do and don’t like about it and if they think it could work.

  • And so, if everything seems to add up and the idea just won’t go away, that is usually when I decide to go for it.

Going for it doesn’t guarantee success. But to me, that’s not entirely the point. I want to take risks, try new things, and continue to build and create. If I was guaranteed to succeed then it wouldn’t be called a risk. And if I waited for the can’t-fail moment, then I would never try anything new. The key is discerning what’s worth going for and what’s worth shelving.

They say good is the enemy of great, and I agree. Some ideas, as good as they are, should be left alone so that when a great idea comes along there is a place for it. Discerning the difference between a good idea and a great one takes practice and the support of trusted friends and advisors.