““Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”” – American Proverb

Last night during dinner with several business partners, BK said, “We all know that in business, ideas are the most important thing.”

I knew what he meant and it was mostly true . . . but in one important way very false. I wanted to explain why, but since I had just gone a little nuts lambasting BK’s colleague, I kept quiet. (My tirade was so dramatic BK had to excuse himself to go to the bathroom – presumably to take some tranquilizers.)

Since I didn’t get to do it last night, I’ll make the point to you.

Good ideas are important, but they are amazingly mercurial. Getting them done is key to making money.

These observations were dramatically illustrated by the conversation that followed BK’s comment.

We were talking about a new product that had just been launched. A high-priced investment service built on the credibility of BB, API’s president. It was doing very well. Everybody was happy.

Especially me, because it was MY idea. I was proud of myself.

My Side Of The Story . . .

I remember when I got “the idea.” I was in Nicaragua looking for beachfront property to buy for me and a few friends, including BB. I ran into some AP readers who were down there on an AP tour, looking for property too. When they asked me what I was doing there and got the answer, they said . . . and immediately . . . “We want in.”

They didn’t need to see the property. They didn’t want to know the specs. If it was good enough for BB and his cronies, it was good enough for them.

So it occurred to me that we could create a very good little investor’s club out of this credibility. I called it, as a working title, The President’s Club.

I pitched it to BB, but he didn’t want to do it right away because he had other stuff on his agenda and didn’t want to do something that related so directly to him unless everything was right. I kept pitching it for two years . . . about once every other month . . . I have the memos.

Now here’s the interesting thing. Almost as soon as the conversation began, I discovered that our hot new product was not my idea after all. It was (a) LD’s (apparently because she made a suggestion as to how we should price it), (b) BK’s “from years ago”, (c) “an idea that’s been around a long time” (said in some leap of logic to placate me), and (e) the idea of DC’s girlfriend (DC had just sat down to have a cigar.)

Instead of feasting on praise and admiration, I was watching food being stolen from my plate. And if that weren’t demoralizing enough (I swear I have at least a dozen memos explaining and re-explaining my “idea.” Copies can be furnished at your request.), we then discovered that an acquaintance of BB’s was upset with us for stealing “her” idea. Apparently she had suggested – for a related but different idea – the name that BB used. Although I distinctly remember the name being suggested for another, though similar, idea we were talking about for DC!

Which gets me back to my original point.

Whose Idea Is This Anyway And How Much Is It Worth?

The truth is, most significant projects end up being a collaboration. When an idea enters a collaborative funnel, it changes its shape along the way. When it comes out the other end, it is different – though the differences are tricky to detect. It becomes like one of those paintings which change as you walk by. Every participating person who looks at the resulting idea sees a different thing.

Usually what he sees is the resplendent image of HIS idea.

That, unfortunately, is the nature of ideas.

They are hard to own. Hard to claim. Hard to sell or get paid for.

And for good reason.

Good ideas – and especially good business ideas – are already out there when you “get them.”

Smart people – just like you – have been looking at the same problems and information and having the same daydreams and wondering – just like you – how to take advantage of them. The next great product or promotion is already latent in the challenges you face.

Good ideas do not spring unbidden into the universe. They are simply the next little buds in a shoot of a branch of a tree that has been growing for a long time already.

And that’s why we all truly believe . . . when we see an idea actualized . . . that it is ours.

But claiming possession of ideas usually does you no good. The trick is to capitalize on them. And that, dear reader, requires action.

My working rule is this: If you have a good idea, put it into action. Test it. Try it out. Find out if you can sell it. It is only in the actualization of the idea that value is born.

And if you follow that line of logic, you won’t expect to be paid (in cash or adulation) for your ideas.

Two Things You Should Think About When You Think About Ideas . . .

If you do get yourself into a situation where your idea is being “confiscated,” be gracious and comfort yourself with two thoughts:

1. If it really was your idea, you are smart enough to think of another one. And another one. The true value is not in the idea, but in the ability to have the next one.

2. If it wasn’t entirely your idea, at least you were the one who made it actually happen by badgering people and planning it and outlining it and selling it and so on. Getting the damn thing done may be – in the long run – worth more than the idea.