John McDonald: The spark of entrepreneurship—ideas are free

April 27, 2018

David McCullough Jr. caught national attention for a commencement speech in 2012 in which he told all students, “You are not special.” This is something you will hear many times as an entrepreneur when you pitch what you believe to be a valuable idea.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but ideas are free, and everyone has them. It’s likely the “genius moment” that woke you up in the middle of the night probably also woke someone else up on the planet at nearly the same time, and you were beaten to the punch by hundreds or thousands in the last week.

Entrepreneurship is often incorrectly identified as having ideas, when in reality entrepreneurship is the wherewithal to see ideas to fruition. People do not simply invest in an idea; they invest in your ability to get it done. As evidence of this, you cannot hold onto a copyright, trademark or patent for an idea alone; in all these cases, you must “prove up” the use of the idea in practice, through published words or pictures, through the use of a mark in commerce, or the use of the idea as an invention.

Steve Jobs famously used to say, “Real artists ship.” He was referring to the fact that everyone has ideas, but real artists deliver on them or ship them. The development of the first-generation iPhone was a bet-the-company product for Apple. The iPhone reinvented the mobile-phone sector and redefined devices as we know them today—not by creating a concept product but by betting its own billions on a product it was willing to ship.

So, if you’ve really got the idea that will set the world on fire, but have yet to emulate Jobs’ incredible work ethic, what is stopping you? Through practice, I’ve discovered two key characteristics exhibited by entrepreneurs that separate them from the dreamers.

The first is anxious initiative. It starts with a growing sense of doom related to missing the key moment—that the time is right, or soon will be, and something major will be lost if action isn’t taken. This feeling becomes overwhelming, so much so that the dull buzz in your head grows to a screaming command to move—now! The only way to relieve the anxiety is to at least attempt to take action.

The second characteristic is calculated risk-taking. Much has been written about risk and reward being the heart of all business, but the willingness to risk it all (or most of it, anyway) to validate your idea is the other critical part of true entrepreneurship. The calculated part comes in constantly working to build safety nets under the idea and the organization. In addition to safeguards that serve as a first line of defense, plan backups to your backups.

I recently wrote about how we do ourselves a disservice in the way we use language and behavior to socialize out of young women some of the key personality attributes that lean into anxious initiative and calculated risk-taking. This is a tragic oversight, as it means a huge portion of the great ideas generated never are acted upon, because they were dreamed up by a woman, not a man.

But we all would do better to realize that it’s the spark of initiative that creates companies, not ideas alone. It’s so simple and makes such a huge difference, and yet from how we socialize women to how we educate our children, we must do better to celebrate and encourage this key to every business success.•

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McDonald is the CEO of Fishers-based ClearObject and chairman of the Indiana Technology and Innovation Policy Committee. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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