How to Have a BIG Idea

A friend of mine needs $2 billion. He has a big idea. The idea came first. He wants to buy a well-known public company. He has an idea of how this public company can quickly become profitable, return money to the buyer, and then it’s a free ride with new management. He’s picked out the new management and already discussed the idea with them. They’re in.

He just needs two billion dollars to make his idea happen.

(the most expensive art ever made – this is one billion dollars)

Another friend of mine has a smaller idea. She needs one million to make it happen. It’s an idea for a new business. She already has customers. She’s spoken to a few people who can put in $25-50k each. It’s very hard to raise one million. Sometimes it’s easier to raise two billion than one million.

With my friend’s two billion idea you have to ask the obvious: how come nobody else thought of it?

For one thing, people at public companies don’t really think very much. They have a lot of nobs and switches that they need to turn on and off every day. They don’t have  time  for many big new ideas. So they keep running things as “business as usual” even if it means running things into the ground. Often executive compensation is not aligned with owner-interests and that makes things even worse. Often the executives are not hungry enough. They are already rich and fine just turning the nobs and flipping the switches until all of the lights are out.

My friend’s idea would completely transform this company and it’s relatively easy to do. But it’s a risk for the people who are already there so it makes no sense for them to do it.

What impressed me is that he started off with the big idea. Now he needs the two billion. That’s how big ideas work. If you already had the two billion then there’s many dumb things you can do with it. But if you need two billion, it takes a very smart idea to get it.

So he told me the idea and I made some calls. Immediately I had people interested. The last time I tried to raise money for an idea I had trouble even raising a million and even then I returned all the money.

But with two billion, no problem. Everyone wants to listen.

That’s the nature of big ideas. They are like peacocks strutting down Park Avenue in Manhattan amidst the cabs, the people rushing to work, the skyscrapers containing all the little engineers that flip switches. Everyone gets up from their job and stares at the peacock. What’s it doing?

My friend’s idea had about four or five components. He didn’t know how to do any of the components by themselves. One component needs a banker, another component needs someone connected to big Internet companies, another component needs former management of this public company, and another component needs two billion dollars . And finally another component needs knowledge of how to do tender offers, proxy fights, SEC rules, etc. My friend had none of these things. He just had the peacock. And yet everyone I call wants to listen.

So how did he come up with the idea. And, by the way, it’s almost certain there’s no way to pull this idea off. But he’s young and will come up with more ideas every week, or every day. So one of his ideas will work. Maybe even this one. Why not try?

– Experience.

He’s run companies (smaller).He’s been involved in various transactions. The company is an Internet company and he has experience being in the management or being an employee of several internet companies. He’s been through his share of failures and successes so he has a reasonable filter on what ideas might work.

– Network

His network includes the former management of the company involved so he was able to run the idea past them for some confirmation that it would work. His network includes me. I was able to make some calls and now some people want to meet him who could potentially put some money to work. The idea might need up to $2 billion but realistically, $300 million might be enough to get the ball rolling with some creative financing after that. He didn’t know that at the beginning but now he knows it.

His network has also been working on their own ideas. These ideas can combine with his ideas to form the mega-idea. (See also, “The Nine Skills Needed to Become a Super Connector”). Ideas love to have mate with each other to generate new ideas. You can either have your own ideas mate with each other or your ideas can mate with the ideas in your network.

– Mini-Ideas

For instance, he might’ve had a smaller idea a few months ago. And then another smaller idea last month. And he probably wrote those ideas down and thought about them for some time but then they “mated” at some point in his head and came up with the bigger ideas. It’s important to always be thinking, always write down your ideas, review them, analyze them, and see what new ideas come from them.

– Learn from mistakes

My friend bought a subdivision of this company about a year ago. He did well with it but also made some mistakes with it. He also has been involved in fundraising for quite a few companies and realized an important fact: sometimes the bigger ideas are easier to execute than the smaller ideas. With the smaller ideas, there’s less “goodness” to hand around so you have to do everything yourself. With the big ideas, everyone can picture making money so right away you can get a lot of help. Small ideas are lucrative if you can pull it off – but it could be MORE hard work than the big ideas and probably less lucrative inthe long run.

– Read

Reading constantly keeps you abreast of other ideas in the industry. Sometimes these other ideas will be the ones to mate with your ideas to create the genius idea. Reading what’s going on in your industry (Note: this is not the same as generic reading of news) can catapult you to the forefront of the good ideas if you are constantly synthesizing what you are reading with not only your own ideas but others. Reading about what works in other industries help also. Too often people involved in the Internet industry (as an example) ONLY read about developments in the Internet industry. What if you also read about the latest developments in the medical industry? Who knows then how these ideas can mate with each other.

– Possibility

Knowing what’s possible, my friend could’ve just said, “ok, I will buy shares of XYZ.” but he didn’t do that. He thought about what’s REALLY POSSIBLE: “I can buy the entire XYZ” and make a lot more money. Again, take your idea and make it 100x bigger and picture the steps it would take to make that idea possible. If you just bought shares in XYZ you might make a little bit of money – or you might not. Who’s to say the current management of XYZ will do the ideas to actually make XYZ work. Its highly unlikely (they are the switch flippers and nob turners). In order to make the idea really work you have to think as big as possible. And, most importantly, you have to have a next step. Else the idea goes from possible to impossible.

The trick is: how high can you take the idea before it goes from possible to impossible. Where’s the boundary.

– Time.

This is really a drag. I put “Time” down in my notes just like I did in this Prior Post but I can’t, for the life of me, remember why.

– Knowledge

When my friend bought the sub-division of this company he got a nice peek into the inner workings of XYZ. He saw what was missing. He saw where management was lacking. He saw the ways in which the pipes were clogged in their thinking so they would never be able to implement the bigger ideas he easily saw. In other words, he saw the beginnings of the opportunity.

– Follow-thru

Have idea. Call ex-management of company. Call James. Call ten other people who could help. Get feedback. Repeat. Clean idea. Call everyone again. Take the next step: meetings with management. Meetings with funds who have money, etc. Again, what’s the exact limit where the idea goes from possible to impossible. Chances are it’s a lot higher than you think. Push at that boundary as hard as you can.

– Confidence

Many people have “the big idea” and then right away say, “I can’t do it. its too big.” How am I going to raise 2 billion, or 300mm, or even 1 million. I’m just an X, or Y, or a Z, and I don’t have an MBA or a law degree or a high school degree or whatever. And Zs get nowhere in life. Zs turn into Zzzzs. Asleep. Like all the other people in the pencil factory – asleep at the switch.

The people who I see succeed never think this way. It’s a daily challenge for me not to think this way. I’m used to being a big fat Z.

Will my friend’s idea work? I don’t know. I’ve already stolen it for myself when I’ve called around. Lot’s of people interested. But interest is one thing and action is another. Now my friend needs to inspire confidence in the people around him so that the team he puts together can each do their special mutant power and pull off the big idea. Like Professor X and the X-men. And he needs to follow-thru and keep pursuing the idea. This is hard. But it’s a good idea so he will get help. Small ideas don’t get help the way big ideas do.

And if this idea doesn’t work, his next one will. Or the one after that. If you come up with 10 ideas a day that’s 3650 a year. Many of those ideas will mate. Many generations of ideas will occur. And one day the Messiah of ideas will be born to save them all.

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  • Videoboi

    thinking by ‘time’ you probably meant that some ideas/trends have an ‘expiry date’  Timing is everything in some markets and trends.

  • Anonymous

    I think Bernanke printed 2 billion just yesterday. Maybe your friend can borrow it at 0%. LOL.

  • Daniel Mills

    So, what is he going to do do with Yahoo? :-D

    • random internet guy

      I immediately thought the same thing ?

    • Clever call!

    • Sg

      Is your friend”s name Henry? :)

  • C. Martin

    Can we know what the idea is and/or what company it is? Very curious, don’t worry I won’t steal it. It’s all about execution anyways, right?

  • James you are on fire the last days 

  • Hey,James,woud like to ask you a question here,as the article is still fresh.I’ve read most of your stuff and bought your book of course.Most of your articles are great.But last week you wrote that you were super productive,when you were doing 2×4 hour sleep.
    If a full sleep cycle is 1.5 hours,aren’t you interrupting your sleep cycle both of the times?
    I’d also recommend you reading the comments at collegeconfidential regarding your “Don’t go to college articles”.Let me know what you think,as this is quite relevant to me ,being a 19-year-old wantrepreneur,who’s taking a gap year currently and self-teaching himself programming.

    • Anton, not sure I understand your questions. The 2×4 is 2 times four hours. So two stretches of four hours each. I don’t currently do that but did at one time. 

      Also, I don’t know the collegeconfidential site. Do you have a link?

      • James,I hoped you wouldn’t answer so I’ll have more time,but I guess now I’m obligated to not stop reading your blog anytime soon.
        I’ve read a lot of materials about different sleep schedules.In most of them it was quoted that a full sleep circle lasts around 90 minutes and if it’s interrupted you feel tired.Therefore by that theory if you sleep 4.5 hours,you’ll feel more recovered than if you sleep 5 hours,because the last full cycle would be interrupted in the middle.
        This is the link for the college confidential forum.Keep in mind the average visitor there is either high school kids,obsessed about getting into a top school,or obsessed about the Ivy league parents.
        I think I watched an interview with you and some of the questions were similar.Some of the things I personally have against your article,is that especially the top US schools,would pay for your whole education,considering 1)they find you worthy enough candidate ; 2)your parents truly can’t afford it.
        So considering I can’t initially get into MIT,I can’t excuse myself with mommy and daddy being poor,or the college being extremely overpriced.
        I’ll give you another example  – ETH Zurich.It’s a top 10 in the world school in Computer Science and after 3 years and considering I don’t get a scholarship,I’ll have paid under 5 k usd.

        I would like to ask you another thing-do you think it’s better to try to start with a smaller business that I can bootstrap on ramen,or to wait until I’ve built a network,”earned” great co-founders and try to get investors for the startup?

        I truly appreciate your reply and want to thank you again for all the great advice you’ve shared

  • I’ll refresh the page later tonight,if you don’t reply,consider me disappointed and unsubscribed.Going to train the idea muscle now

    • I did reply. See below. 

      • Wow James, your a more patient man than me! I wouldn’t have replied. The minute someone starts throwing silly threats to get me to do what they want I’m less likely to do it. 

        Good article by the way :)

  • CLandes

    I have a small idea that probably won’t make me a lot of money, but it would help a specific group of people in a particular industry and probably change things in a big way and make things better for everybody.   

    Should I still do this small idea even if I won’t get rich?

    • Yes! If you do this, others will notice your achievement, and subsequently, your network will want to support future ideas you have!

  • James, what if you have multiple workable ideas, you brief your ideas to your friend, they like it, tell few potential investor, they seems interested.. do you focus to execute just one idea at a time?

  • You have written about reading about different areas , but doesn’t that mean not focusing on few good things & develop knowledge about it. I mean Steve Jobs used advocate it What you say?

    • Steve Jobs was an expert in a wide range of areas from design to movies, to music to computers to architecture, etc. And he “mated” many of these ideas to create the most important innovations in his products. 

      • Ankit

        “Creativity is just connecting things” — Steve Jobs. I guess knowing and experiencing more things can enable you “connect” them in amazing ways :-). 

  • Amazing! Thanks for this post

  • Stewart

    Follow Through – I’ve had big ideas, I’ve even sold a couple, got them going etc, but the truly big ones I’ve just let slide… I guess that’s the confidence thing as well!

  • Love when you write about how to have ideas. Gracias!

  • I think selling something is the same thing. I have
    noticed that charging a premium price sometimes is easier to sell than
    something affordable.
    I closed down a small startup after I saw that I didn’t execute the idea correctly and the market also was tanked and dying slowly. I made money that year, but too much scam and spam killed the industry. I’ve been trying to raise funds for a bigger idea right now and I see that is as difficult as the small one.  I do believe more people listen to you if you want more money. They are more skeptical with small ideas.

  • Good interview on CNBC, I believe you about Japan but what about the other smaller countries in Asia, when will their economies start to grow.

    • China is creating a new Greece every month from their growth. And people keep telling me that Vietnam is the new place to invest. South Korea I’m not sure about and there’s all this uncertainty (which will pass). 

      • I lived in Vietnam for about a year and saw this first hand. The Vietnamese have realized what has worked for the Chinese and it’s following the same approach. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Viet Nam is a communist state running on a capitalist economy. However, my question was more about even smaller countries like Cambodia and Laos. It strikes me how economies can differ so greatly in nearby countries, huge difference between Japan and Cambodia, even though Japan is the size of a pea.

        • I don’t really know the specifics on those countries but from what I’ve read they can’t really get moving til they’ve wooded out government corruption and cracked down on the sex slave trade and drug trades. These will keep a free market down since (in addition to the ethics) they are massively illegal in first world countries. Legal, ethical trade will bring those countries into the first world.I think China realizes this, for instance, and has slowly eased into it over the past two decades. Ditto for Vietnam. 

  • PC

    Hey James, taking a breakfrom work (phone under desk). Given the recent scam post and cost that scamming puts on good business, how about a “reverse scam”? Reverse scam your friend with liberal use of ur idea muscle and, shall I coin, “help muscle”. The rev scam will be sucessful when you can say – a friend came to me with a big idea and I helped him out with it, and he benefitted. Regardless of what he makes I expect nothing in return. I am a blogger and reverse scam artist. Not that you are not already doing this, just re-framing expectations because maybe our best opportunities in business are born from helping out the guy with the big idea.

    • Isn’t the reverse scam just being scammed? You do something for someone and get nothing in return… 

      • PC

        No I disagree, the reverse scam artist builds up a bank of good will and trust. Not that he gets nothing, but the help is unconditional and his expectations are set accordingly. I’ve been scammed north of $100k and it sucks. My hope is that the reverse scammers rise up over the scammers and maciavelliens in the long run.

        • Well I know that’s just an invitation to screw you over. People conveniently forget you or downplay your role when they are successful. A bank of good will and trust doesn’t really do you good, because you can’t spend goodwill to feed your family.

  • I remember during the dot com era of VC’s they wouldn’t even look at realistic numbers.   They wanted pie in the sky numbers only, even if they made zero sense.  Is that becoming the trend again?

  • Great post.  I just quit a startup I’ve been working on for 7 or 8 months.  We have paying customers and I think there’s a good chance over the long run it will turn into a profitable business.  But it was a small idea, and I have a bigger idea that I want to launch off the ground.  So, this is much needed encouragement :-)

  • Anonymous

    Great article, as usual!!! Thank you!!! :-)

    Not related, but this TEDx video is very inspirational, and brought you to mind.

  • JPT

    “great post”? This is an obnoxious post because it’s so vague. Sounds like my uncle with all of his “big ideas.” Please let us know when the 2 billion dollars materialize. lol.

  • Ninty9problemz

    Can you share his idea with us so we can steal it too? I might have a few ideas that may mate well with it Lol

    • it’s not about the idea. it’s about execution. ideas are everywhere. if it’s a good idea? you can bet there are at least 10 other people working on it right now. the challenge is how to out-execute them.

      • Ninty9problemz

        I think more importantly it’s about vision. Without vision, you cannot execute. Steve Jobs had ideas, but he also had vision that drove execution. Additionally, I think you really have to fall in love with your concept. Without love, you can’t eat, breathe, and sleep it.

  • Really liked the Peacock metaphor, drove home your point on big ideas in a great visual way.

  • James, I’ve watched executives turn knobs and switches. It’s ugly. Equally bad is when motivation and incompetence both soar. Worse is when a CEO doesn’t know how to build executive team. He/she has vision, passion, and hyper-A-type personalities, but the exec staff isn’t passing it along because they have no leadership abilities. They’re professional administrators. My point is that even the company seems hungry and upbeat on the outside, they might not be the crew that can make your idea fly. That would need to be factored in…

  • Billy

    Wow, that last paragraph made me think of a scene from Pineapple Express:

    This is like if that Blue Oyster shit met that Afghan Kush I had – and
    they had a baby. And then, meanwhile, that crazy Northern Light stuff I
    had and the Super Red Espresso Snowflake met and had a baby. And by some
    miracle, those two babies met and fucked – this would the shit that
    they birthed.

    Dale Denton:
    [smells the marijuana] Wow. This is the product of baby fucking.

  • I agree with you to an extent, however instead of buying the big company, couldn’t he just slowly create it like for example zaarly? Or would it take too much time or what? I agree with you on the ideas, they later seem to conform together to make a better idea. 

    James check out:

    might be of some help to you.

  • Great post James….thanks!

  • great post 

  • Patrick Lilley

    What keeps the people he has shared the idea with from stealing it? You can’t even patent an idea. Sorry to ask such a paranoid-type question, but I live in upper East Tennessee. Most of the pastors here would rob you if they could?

  • Patrick Miller

    Public organizations are indeed terrible (in general) at innovation. I love to ask people “Does your organization execute ideas or do they execute ideas?” and see which they choose.
    I spoke with Salim Ismail from Singularity University last fall about innovation in large organizations. He nailed it. He said that when a new idea (especially a big one) enters an organization, the organization’s immune system kicks in an attacks it to protect the status quo.
    Thanks for sharing your writing.