Never be afraid to share your business ideas. Here are my top three…
When I started my first business at 25, I was afraid to discuss my idea too for fear of theft. Over the years I’ve come to realize how foolish that was. Unless you had something that was clearly patentable but easily copied, ideas are really a dime a dozen. The key to success for anyone is really in the execution.
When folks come to me these days and say, “I have a great idea, but I can’t tell you what it is. It’s going to make a lot of money and that’s why I have to be really cautious about who I discuss it with,” I try my very best not to roll my eyes.
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What about signing non-disclosure agreements (NDAs)? Well, they are actually quite futile unless you are a large corporation with valuable trade secrets you want to protect; and the willingness to pay large fees to lawyers and investigators to prove it was broken by someone who signed it.
Imagine this: I was told a great idea by an aspiring entrepreneur. I told it to my wife, swearing her to secrecy. She blurted it out to her hairdresser, who then told her cousin, who joked about it over dinner with her husband, who decided it was worth trying and ends up making a million bucks from it a year later? How do you prove it leaked from me?
On the other hand, sharing your ideas with other people often gives you a more complete perspective on it. More often than not we are overly optimistic or enthusiastic about our own ideas to see the blind spots.
I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and share with you some of my best ideas over the years.
Ever since we had Nokia phones and the vCard standard, I’ve always wanted to turn business cards into digital ones. Why, I kept asking myself, in this day and age where everything is digitally created and stored, are we still printing and giving out paper name cards?
There were many opinions over the years as I shared my idea. Before smartphones, technology wasn’t quite mature enough to do it conveniently. Now that all of us are used to native apps and paying for lattes with our phones, it seems easy to just tap our phones on top of each other and instantly exchange name cards.*
No more hunting for the card of that guy you met at that convention last month. No more grappling with scanning cards into mobile apps. Capturing contact information should be as easy, quick and automatically sorted and tagged in my phone’s contact list.
But the issue is really, chicken and egg. Unless such an app was preloaded into all smartphones, for someone to receive my card, he or she would have to be equipped with a similar app on his phone. It’s like starting a new messaging app. The other person had to have it to receive whatever I’ve sent.
Despite the major adoption challenges to this idea, it would have tremendous financial returns and environmental impact. No more paper and ink wastage on something most of us threw away eventually. Imagine if you charged every corporate citizen just $1 a year to maintain his business card on the app. At an average of about $10 or more a box of business cards, every company in the world would see the huge savings and sense in converting to e-business cards for staff. It would also ensure that everyone’s contact information would always be remotely updated instantly for both sender and receiver.
After thinking about it for a decade, I came to terms with the fact that I didn’t have the financial power nor tech expertise to execute this idea. I wrote an email to LinkedIn to tell them about it. Of all the social apps, I thought they were in the best position to execute it.
If LinkedIn did it, this would automatically ensure that their users had real profiles instead of fake ones. Their e-biz card would be updated every time they changed jobs. They would know exactly who met who, at what point in time! Wouldn’t this be tremendously valuable and important for their core revenue models?
LinkedIn never responded to my email.**
*There was a startup called Bump that did this but it required an Internet connection. It was hot for a while but didn’t last. Google bought the company for the team but killed the product.
**LinkedIn has since been acquired by Microsoft for $27 billion. The vision was to force integration into Office 365 and Dynamics, leveraging on LinkedIn’s user base. But wouldn’t creating an e-business card leveraging on both companies’ reach be even more powerful? Salesforce can certainly step aside if Microsoft controlled the most updated information on a huge base of working professionals.
Spiderman reusable bags
Many years ago as I sat at a bus stop, I looked at folks walking past carrying their lunchbox or purchases from the convenience store in small plastic bags and wondered to myself why they weren’t using reusable bags.
The answer was obvious. It wasn’t convenient. Especially for men.
We are used to carrying our wallets, keys and now mobile phones on us, but not a carrier bag. If we bought a little something on the way back from work or during lunch, it was unlikely we would have an eco-bag on us.
Even though many countries have banned or imposed charges for plastic bags, there are still many others where plastic bags are extensively used. There had to be a better way to encourage everyone to have a small reusable bag on them.
So I set out to create an eco-bag that would be small, compact and reusable, just to carry small items we’ve purchased.
I contacted product design companies and finally settled on one within my budget in Taiwan. I gave them four criteria. It had to be priced affordably for most. It had to be simple and fast to deploy and keep. It had to be washable and reusable. And it had to be compact enough to carry around like a keychain.
10 thousand dollars later and one month spent living at the prototyping factory, we concluded that it would require a much larger budget and some highly advanced material science R&D to make the product that I had envisaged.
I had neither the funds nor the scientific knowledge to do so. I dropped the idea and wrote off the investment.
Even now, I still think about doing it eventually when I have spare time and funds. Yes, someone in China would probably knock it off straight away if it worked. But nobody knocks off a product that doesn’t sell. If it was copied widely then I would have achieved my goal — created an environment-friendly product which many people were using.
Have you ever wondered why people still queue up to order their coffee and then waited around for it to be ready?
I think about it all the time. Especially when I see grumpy crowds shuffling to work in the morning and then joining the long queue at that café near their office to take away their morning dose of caffeine.
In an age where a combination of GPS and Bluetooth can pinpoint our exact location outdoors and indoors, our coffee should be ordered on the go and waiting for us to pick up just as we approach the café.
I’m on the train to work. 10 minutes before I am due at my station, I pick up my smartphone and order a grande mocha on my Starbucks app. The outlet I’ve picked near my office picks it up and tracks my location, running a countdown timer the same way you see your Uber driver approaching your pick-up point. As I walk up to the pick-up counter, the server smiles at me and says, “Good morning Lance, here’s your grande mocha, no whip cream. Have a good one!” (Yes, she has my picture on her merchant app and knows what I look like.)
How about drive-through coffee kiosks where customers could order their coffee in advance and simply pick it up without stepping out of their car? This business model should be easy to implement for app companies already doing ride-share or food delivery.
These are just some of the ideas I have that I wished someone would make a reality. There are many others, but let’s save those for another story.
In any case, if you make it rich executing the above ideas, all credit goes to you. If we meet someday, I would be grateful enough if you shook my hand or bought me a drink.