“Pull” Your Ideas from the Ether

Posted on March 25, 2010. Filed under: startups, venture capital | Tags: , , , , |

Sort of the nature of being an entrepreneur is that you see opportunity all around you.  The question “what if?” comes into your head 10 times a day, and most of those what ifs exist for a moment and then dissipate back into the ether.  What I’ve learned over thousands of what ifs is that if you don’t grab those ideas, almost right at the point of conception, and forcefully pull them from the ether into reality, most of them will never return to your consciousness.  A lot of building companies is about making concepts and ideas real…bit by bit.  You write an idea down on a napkin: slightly closer to reality.  You test it on a friend: slightly more real.  You test it on 100 friends: slightly more real.  You incorporate: slightly more real.  You build a product: MUCH more real.  You get a customer: really real., etc…

The mechanisms of making an idea real are learned with practice.  I remember quitting my first banking job out of school, thinking “I am an entrepreneur.  I have a ton of ideas.  I quit.  I am going to start a company.”  That quitting part was easy.  And then, at 23 years old with not a shred of experience executing…I found myself paralyzed in the effort.  I literally had no idea how to put one foot in front of the other to make these ideas I had been cultivating into real things.  The chasm between the stage I was at and operation appeared infinite.

I was not as resourceful then as I am now, and I more or less resolved that I needed to learn how to put one foot in front of the other from people who had achieved what I wanted to accomplish.  My route was to join General Catalyst, where I would work with a bunch of successful entrepreneurs that I could literally study.  This was the right move for me, although in hindsight, it turns out I could have used this magic machine called “Google” to figure out the first 10 steps to making my ideas real.

Different entrepreneurs have different styles of thinking.  Some go deep in a vertical, understand everything about a market, and then figure out what it needs.  I am much more of a horizontal thinker.  Ideas tend to come when I see similarities between markets, and the opportunity to apply successful models or concepts from one market to another with analogous characteristics.  One easy practice I have developed for capturing these ideas and pushing them slightly closer to reality is simple:  I keep a spreadsheet with everything I think is interesting, and force myself to power rank my conviction around each one.  My best ideas earn a 1 and sit at the top of the sheet.  My worst ideas earn a 4 and are waaaaaay below the fold.

Once the ideas are captured, making them more real than that becomes a bit of a bandwidth issue.  With only 19 working hours in a day, I find myself constantly pulled between JumpPost (85-90% of my bandwidth), and the myriad of other concepts that deserve to become real.  Taking on an investing role with Lerer Ventures has allowed me to use that remaining (10-15%) of my energy to make a whole lot of great ideas a little more real.  Now instead of building all the 1’s on my spreadsheet (which I could never do), I let those ideas influence where I spend time investing the fund, and more often than not, I am able to find people smarter than me who have recognized similar opportunities.

My advice to those who are thinking creatively: start tracking and ranking even the faintest of dreams.

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10 Responses to ““Pull” Your Ideas from the Ether”

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That’s a good idea. I just went through real quickly and did it.

Ideas are usually not the problem, figuring out WHICH ideas is a problem. I don’t know why it took this post for me to come to that conclusion, but good advice.

that’s why i force myself to power rank the ideas. then, keep your ears open for data that either confirms or denies the underlying thesis of the ideas. that data can come from smart people, reading/research, consumer surverys, etc…then you adjust the ranking accordingly…the ones that hang out at the top of the spreadsheet for more than a month or two are usually the good ones…then you can start to measure based on what you see other companies doing. almost always, a good idea that’s at the top for a month or two is recognized by someone somewhere else within 6-12 months of conception (other people have access to the same data that drove you to your idea)…then you get to enjoy this “fucking that was my idea!” moments over and over again on the stuff you didn’t act on 🙂

Great post. I love the idea of vertical versus horizontal thinking. This is one post to store away in the archives of must-read posts for students who want to be entrepreneurs after college.

Hackernews also compiled a great spreadsheet with startup ideas. What if people took your strategy as a group effort? Here is the spreadsheet:


The only problem with you joining Lerer is now every time I comment on your blog I feel like I’m sucking up to a VC :).

i’m no VC, i just play one on TV

Jordan, great advice. I find myself doing the same thing (although my rank goes to 5, very Spinal Tapesque).

I’d challenge anyone that follows a similar system to make sure that all those 1s are actually pursued in some meaningful way, even if just in marginal increments (as you suggest). Having the ideas are a small part of the battle – you become a rain maker if you can execute, which is much easier said than done and something I try to focus on each day.

execution is 99.9% of making the ideas real…i just found that a lot was getting lost in the transition from conception to execution

My ideas are supposed to be testable hypotheses that can be turned into publishable papers, rather than business or investment ideas, but same challenge every single day. I have a folder full of individual files with these ideas – Saving them for a rainy day. Do you know how often I find myself with one of those 1-2 hour-long rainy-day chunks of time where I think, “hey, I should get a new project started and now is the time to do it,” and then go into that folder to explore? Precisely never. One ranked spreadsheet that gets glanced at every time I add something new may be just the measure I need. Good work, Cooper. I’ll thank you in the first paper that results from one of these ideas.

makes total sense that it applies to academia…

Thanks for writing!

I really appreciate your insight into the world of entrepreneurs. I’m not sure if I’m vertical or horizontal in my thinking, but I’ve been to the ether and I’ve snatched the idea I want to give my life to and am in very early stages of developing it. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how I can improve my chances of making it happen. Check out my first prezi at http://g-a-i-a.org

Cheers and I look forward to your next post.

The ether zone is a good way to term the conscious framework of ideas that ebb and flow.

I find when I have an idea for a blog post (or an idea for anything really) I need to make it concrete in the moment. Even if it’s 2am and I’m in and out of sleep.

A lot of the ideas stay there and incubate (lie dormant?) but some get reinvigorated again, and inevitably it’s because they were fleshed out just a little and made real in the moment.

Reminds me of Jack Dorsey’s idea for Twitter, it literally came to him in that napkin-way when he was thinking about New York as a city of interconnected people. Powerful stuff.

Great blog btw

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at Jordan.Cooper@gmail.com (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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