My imagination has been debunked!
August 30, 2012 10:24 AM   Subscribe

In the past 24 hours I've discovered that both of my "million dollar" ideas (for websites/services/apps) are already out there and established. To me, these weren't just "good ideas", they were "innovations" I was emotionally invested in and slowly working towards. How do I move on? (in two parts)

On the micro level: how can I stay interested and enthusiastic on these specific ideas when I find out they're not as groundbreaking/innovative as I hoped?

On the macro level: How do I keep dreaming and hobby-developing when I don't have an immediate passion project and I feel like my good ideas will always be "taken away from me"?

Intellectually, I know the general advice is to "just keep swimming", but right now I'm reeling from feeling like I've lost the edge on both of my passion projects, and confidence in myself. Yesterday I felt like I could put them in my portfolio and say "I thought of this all on my own!" and now all I can say is "This is my version of [existing product]".
posted by itesser to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Million dollar ideas are often superseded by million-and-one dollar ideas. When is the last time you heard Friendster (or, hell, even MySpace) mentioned as anything but a punchline? If you want to go into cliche territory, you had an idea for a mousetrap and it turns out someone already invented the mousetrap. There's only room for a better one.
posted by griphus at 10:30 AM on August 30, 2012 [14 favorites]

Can you develop a product that improves on the existing one? That's certainly worth working towards. You might be putting projecting too much worth onto the idea itself, which is far less important than an actual finished product that truly works and serves a purpose for people.
posted by davebush at 10:30 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, a bit of a changeup to your pitch:

"This is my version of [existing product] that fixes [annoying problem]".
posted by griphus at 10:34 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

If these are your passion projects, derive passion from them. It sounds like you're trying to monetize them, which is a different thing; speed to execution wins in most (technological) starts-ups. If you confuse "this is how I will make money" with "this is what I love", you'll generally end up unhappy.
posted by ellF at 10:35 AM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

One way to look at it is to remember that Friendster, Myspace, Orkut, and a dozen other social networking sites (many of which I've never heard of) existed when Facebook first went live. Google was not the first search engine and Chrome was about the 57th browser. The Mac was up against the PC. There were lots of smart phones out there when Apple came up with the iPhone.

So someone else has come out with your idea first. Awesome! First, that means your idea is not completely stupid. Someone else thinks there is a market out there (if you are the only person in the world to think of this, the odds are pretty good that you are fooling yourself). Second, you get to see what works and what doesn't. What does this other site do? What do they do wrong? Can you do it right? Are they ignoring handheld devices? Overly invested in handheld devices? Do they have a crappy UI?

Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is everything.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:35 AM on August 30, 2012 [19 favorites]

You did have million dollar ideas!! Just that someone else beat you there. The fantastic news is that you are clearly on the right track!! That these other ventures are up and rolling and successful is proof that your brain in inventing in the right direction. Keep brainstorming - eventually you'll hit upon The Next Great Idea first.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 10:35 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had an idea for a music collaboration site for musicians. Of course, a google search brings up half a dozen. In checking them out, I found that each has its deficiencies.

The nature of marketing is to know your competition inside and out and to maximize the customer's value while minimizing your costs. You imagined these concepts on your own and you are 'emotionally invested', so you already have a fairly deep insight about them. Use that to your advantage.
posted by Ardiril at 10:37 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Like others have said, it might help to keep in mind that success comes not just from having the right great idea, but the right great idea at the right time. 14 years ago my boyfriend at the time worked for a startup that was developing a site where students could create personal profiles and use them to keep in touch with their classmates and friends after graduation, and it failed miserably, because who would ever use something like that? And 10 years ago I had friends working on writing software for PDAs so you could use them to play music and communicate with other people who also had PDAs, but their company failed, too, because no one was buying the smartphone concept quite yet. So don't let the fact that someone else had the same idea discourage you--your version of it may be better, or better-timed.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:43 AM on August 30, 2012

To start, give yourself a little bit of time to feel bad. Take it easy this evening and watch a funny movie. It's hard to deal with disappointments of the intellectual variety.

After you feel better, maybe realize that this will happen quite often. It's not always a bad thing. Facebook was established after Myspace, but it has done far better. The iPod was not the first MP3 player, and the iPad was not the first tablet. Why? Write down a list of why your service is different/better/appeals to more people than XYZ existing product.

After you feel better better, you can start brainstorming with more ideas. Don't look at your learning experiences as failures. You know that your first 2 ideas were good because people have already used and capitalized on them. That's a positive thing! Even really innovative things like calculus and telephones were thought of by multiple people at the same time. Don't be hard on yourself, but do keep working. It may take a lot of failed ideas to come up with a success. Practice makes perfect.

When I was in undergrad, I was talking to a mentor about a classmate that had taken an idea from me and presented it as their own. I was a little upset and asked him if he'd ever had a similar experience. He explained that it was okay if he had an idea taken from him because he had too many surplus ideas to bother lamenting the loss of a single one. If something doesn't work, just move onto the next plan! His words have really stuck with me. Don't be too attached to any one thing, because lots of things won't work out.
posted by semaphore at 10:45 AM on August 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

It depends. If you want to do ground-breaking work and are less concerned about the specific idea:

Micro: You shouldn't stay interested. You should move onto a more original idea.

Macro: You need to go deeper and practice iterating faster. If you had this idea for a year before your competitors launched, they probably had it at the same time. You need to be faster next time. Figure out where your ground-breaking ideas come from and spend time doing hard thought in those areas. Read widely and deeply, talk to a lot of people, etc. When you get the idea, solidify it and then move as fast as you can to be first.

If you want to do your idea and are less concerned about it being ground-breaking:

Micro: The execution of your idea is going to be different from theirs. You both won't be able to develop all the same features. You'll be attractive to different markets. There is room for all of you. Note: if you both charge money for a product or service this is more true than if you are all trying to make enormous, free networks. But, if you want to compete to build the gigantic winner, jump in and overtake them.

Macro: Your idea was also used but not your project. All that means is you share a category. Everything is in a category.
posted by michaelh at 10:47 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

As an addendum, working on your implementation of your own ideas often leads to further great ideas. I can sit and learn cover songs for weeks on end without an original melody cropping up, but when I start rearranging and orchestrating songs I wrote myself, even decades old, new ideas hit me left and right.
posted by Ardiril at 11:00 AM on August 30, 2012

It's not a million dollar idea, than a million dollar EXECUTION. Therein lies the difference.
posted by xtine at 11:53 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ideas are easy; it's only the way you develop them that's valuable. Seriously, almost every idea you have has been had by somebody else, and if not, somebody else is probably about to have it in the next week or so. (Think about how just about everybody wonders at some point in adolescence: "Do we really all see colors the same way? What if what I see as 'blue' is totally different from what everybody else sees as 'blue,' and we're just using them same word?") The difference is between those who develop and those who don't. It makes no sense to feel protective of something that occurred to you in an instant, since it could occur to anybody else the same way -- what you should be protective of is your work. So in the future you'll probably feel better (and work more!) if you tie your feelings of investment and self-worth to your actual work.
posted by ostro at 12:11 PM on August 30, 2012

Many years ago, I had an idea for an improvement to a common consumer product. Thanks to awesomely supportive parents, I made some mock-ups, compared the product to what was on the market, and ultimately pursued a patent with an attorney. All in all, it was a multi-year process.

Imagine my shock and disappointment when the patent was rejected due to prior art. Somehow the patent attorney had missed it, but some dude in Scotland invented the same damn thing 50 years ago.

I was devastated and really angry, but as time goes on, I realize that it's kind of neat that the two of us had the same idea, and cared enough to patent it. I was also somewhat comforted that apparently it wasn't very marketable!

Never stop inventing and innovating, and don't let this disappointment get you down. You never know what's around the corner.
posted by charmcityblues at 12:21 PM on August 30, 2012

Not to minimize your inventiveness: Please realize that as soon as you release your innovative idea to the web, there will be copycats. They could be better than your original idea (let's hope not). It is more likely that someone will copycat your idea and not have a better product, but will have a different (and possibly better) marketing direction.

The best thing to remember is not who is first to market, just who does it better and is more popular.
posted by Drasher at 12:22 PM on August 30, 2012

Yesterday I felt like I could put them in my portfolio and say "I thought of this all on my own!" and now all I can say is "This is my version of [existing product]".

This is kind of a silly way to think about project ideas. Let's say instead of a creator of websites you're an architect. Sure, the best architects in the world due come up with cutting edge innovations that have never been seen before, but they don't see that someone has built some kind of building and then say "Oh no, now I can't build an opera house because it's been done!" or whatever.

And a website is not something that you just make and put away in your portfolio to prove how smart you are, it serves a purpose on its own. So instead of saying "This is my version of [existing product]" you say "This is my [product], which X number of people use every day and gets glowing reviews from everyone who tries it". There are plenty of hobbyists who invent something just for the sake of inventing it and move on, but for the actual end user a project that the developer actually maintains and improves for years is much more useful than an innovative project that gets abandoned before all of the bugs are ironed out. So stop wasting time trying to beat every tech company and hobby developer out there to finding the next big thing and just find something useful that you could do and do it.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:22 PM on August 30, 2012

So, I've been reading a lot about software companies and startups and Million Dollar Ideas and suchlike lately.

Coming from the world of writing and art and creative pursuits that are cultural rather than financial, one thing that strikes me as really weird in the tech/business world is that people get all invested in One Big Idea.

This seems counterproductive to me. In television, it's not unusual for a group of people to sit in a room and brainstorm up 10-20 Big Ideas in an afternoon. When I was part of an art collective, all we did all day was come up with Big Ideas. Even if you're a lone artist, sitting in a room staring at a pile of materials or a computer screen, you can't have one novel, one painting, one song, one comedy sketch. You always have to be coming up with new stuff.

Maybe you should recharge your creative batteries. Rather than looking at your output as My Million Dollar Idea, look at it as a constant flow of cool stuff you want to do. Think of every day as "what else?" and "what next?" rather than "oh shit there went my one idea ever..."
posted by Sara C. at 12:38 PM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is no such thing as a million dollar idea. There are only million dollar executions of ideas that everybody has already had.
posted by davejay at 1:06 PM on August 30, 2012

Ideas are a dime a dozen. It's the execution that matters - pretty much all that matters. If you can execute well, you are ahead. Concentrate on the successful execution, not the ideas.
posted by cgg at 1:22 PM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is a bit of myth that good business ideas are profoundly unique or unheard of before. That someone is doing it already is in a way an affirmation of the idea. If you are passionate about building the service then look closely at what the competition is doing. They are not 100% efficient or meeting the market demand 100% of the time. You won't either, but observe and you will see where you can channel your passion.
posted by dgran at 1:49 PM on August 30, 2012

You're focusing on the wrong thing. Focus on the elements that you can do that is exceptional. Having ideas is not exceptional. Think of ideas as grist for your mill, and then focus on your mill. Maybe you're really good at adapting your work to various niches, in ways that others - developing the same ideas - can't. Maybe you're really good at being nimble and responsive to users. Maybe you're really good at marketing or communicating to people why they want your widget. Maybe you're really good at doing on a shoestring what would take a corporation a million dollars to develop. There are endless things to focus on. But being the only person in the world to ever have tried a thing isn't, in a practical sense, as useful as you seem to assume.

Also consider - the Big Idea concept of internet riches is a myth. It's a great story that we keep telling because it's appealing, endearing, and enduring. But the world doesn't really work that way, so you shouldn't work that way if you seek some riches yourself.
posted by anonymisc at 1:56 PM on August 30, 2012

Also, think of the ipod, because it encapsulates a story that happens over and over:
People had a great idea. They worked hard on it, spent their resources solving the fundamental problems, managed to get very innovative devices working, and brought them to market.
Apple then copied the template with most of the solutions already in place, and thus was free to spend their resources on polish (and marketing) instead of on figuring out basic foundations from scratch.
Result: Apple owned the market.

Being the second (or more) to market is often - if not usually - better than being first to market.
posted by anonymisc at 2:04 PM on August 30, 2012

How many really original ideas are there? HTML wasn't completely original (the concept of hypertext existed before that). Amazon is to the 21st century what Sears was to the early and mid 20th century (only online). How boring is that? Apple has made tons of money selling music online. Music! Online! That's... not even remotely creative.

Craigslist - it's like newspaper classifieds... but online! Does "Let's do X, but online!" really count as original (plus, classifieds online counts as one of the most snooze inducing ideas known to mankind)?

Isaac Newton was one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived and one of his amazingly, totally original ideas was calculus. Which, as it happens, was pretty much invented at the same time by other mathematician - Leibnitz. Did Newton get all huffy and pissed off because someone had his brilliant idea first? No he... okay, actually he did. Still, if someone as smart as Newton can't be completely original all the time then what chance do the rest of us have? Newton, btw, may have had the idea first, but he didn't publish until later. Thus proving, once again, that it's all about execution.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:20 PM on August 30, 2012

I work in a job where people bring me the Big New Idea an average of three times a week. This has been true every year for five years. I have yet to come across a genuinely new idea; most ideas are new applications or implementations of existing ideas. That is fine because that is exactly how humanity builds.

Additionally, you must understand that it absolutely positively isn't who gets to market first, nor is a market one product.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:38 PM on August 30, 2012

>>you must understand that it absolutely positively isn't who gets to market first, nor is a market one product.

This! Webcrawler, Lycos, Friendster, LIvejournal, etc...

>>Focus on the elements that you can do that is exceptional.

Also this! You may discover something all new as part of whatever it is you're working on. A subinnovation?

So many good good good advice on this thread.
posted by Blake at 6:09 AM on August 31, 2012

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