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October 20, 2016updated 21 Oct 2016 4:48pm

Idea economy isn’t about ideas

A great idea might seem like the most crucial part of creating a new business. But the history of ideas shows us that very often lots of people have the same idea at the same time. The rather dull term for this is ‘multiple discovery’.

By John Oates


There were at least two people who came up with the idea of evolution of species. Alfred Russel Wallace usually misses out on getting the credit. It was Wallace’s paper, jointly published with Charles Darwin, which started the ball rolling.

But Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was a better implementation of the idea. Darwin spent 20 years refining the theory, finding detailed evidence and actually writing the book. In business terms Darwin’s implementation was more successful.

The invention of the lightbulb is another example. Thomas Edison usually gets the credit but there were dozens of extremely similar inventions at the same time.

Who ‘invented’ television or the telephone are even murkier arguments.

The tough truth is that ideas build on existing work and come out of existing culture and try to solve existing problems.

This remains just as true today.

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Uber is one of several taxi hailing applications which all appeared at roughly the same time.

HelloFresh is one of several companies offering home food delivery based on recipes which again all appeared about four years ago.

Of course all these businesses needed an idea to spark the process.

But the race now is not about ideas but about implementation.

Technology plays a crucial role is speeding up this process and reducing barriers for customers using the service.

Equally technology can play a role in creating barriers to new entrants – Uber’s investment in mapping technology is an example of this.

Not does the need for ideas stop once a service launches. Businesses need to continue refining their services and adding to them. HelloFresh will be judged on its recipes and its ability to reliably source new ingredients. Earlier this year Uber began offering courier services in Europe.

Modern businesses need not just one big idea but a reliable pipeline of ideas to continually change and evolve their business.

Technology can help here but dealing with this continual change requires great management as well as great infrastructure.

Even the best business idea is worthless until it is being bought by customers. Getting ideas from the sketchpad and into customers’ lives remains the real challenge of the idea economy.

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