Idea Gardening: A Primer

We teach entrepreneurs that they should pick an idea they are passionate about, work up a business plan, assemble resources and then execute it.

If we think about entrepreneurialism as a kind of gardening, this traditional approach in a sense encourages people to plant monocultures that are extremely vulnerable to disease. Furthermore, who wants a garden with just one kind of plant in it? Lastly, if the “idea” you choose to plant cannot grow well in your location or your climate, or the climate changes, you are left with a failed crop of your monoculture, and little recourse but to bankrupt yourself and start over.

Any gardener will tell you that putting together a good garden requires a kind of “flow” — getting “in the zone” to think about what plants will work where, what plants will complement each other, and how timing and horticultural relationships will play out to produce a garden that is maximally rewarding, whether those rewards are aesthetic or culinary.

Gardeners know what plants are native to their place, which require sun or shade, which are susceptible to parasite damage, and how to combine plants to achieve symbiotic results. They know how tightly certain plants should be planted, which ones need thinning, and which ones must be started as seedlings.

What you rarely see is a skilled gardener go out and plant a monoculture of, say, beets. Beets by themselves require a specialized kind of farming. A certain kind of soil. To really get a lot of beets, you need to apply particular pesticides and take a particular approach. And when the crop matures (assuming your bet on the conditions and climate pay off), you’ve got just one thing: beets. And, let’s face it: it’s pretty easy to get sick of beets.

“Pushing rocks uphill sucks.” – Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was sentenced to push a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down so he could push it again for all of eternity. This is a decidedly bad gig. Some businesses are like this too, and too many well-meaning, intelligent entrepreneurs spend time on these kind of Sisyphean enterprises – consuming a lot of precious resources and never getting traction.

In business, there are rocks to push sometimes: hard work is always part of doing something worthwhile. But successful businesses always reach the summit and get to watch the rock roll down the other side.

This is when business is fun. The world seems to love what you’re doing. People are clamoring to work for and with you, the press thinks you’re great, and the money keeps rolling in. New opportunities and ideas emerge at every turn and the sky seems to be the limit.

Great as these conditions are, they rarely last. Businesses nearly universally reach inflection points where their products fall out of favor or stop fulfilling a market need. They become old news, and seemingly out of nowhere, the business is pushing rocks uphill again – usually to the great surprise of management, investors, and customers.

When you’re pushing rocks uphill, you know it. Everyone knows it. The press remarks on it, and just as when things are going well you seem to be in an upward spiral of success, these conditions seem to dictate a downward spiral of failure. These times can be quite dark. Often, they can be sustained and overcome, until you reach a new summit where conditions have changed so that your boulder can roll freely downhill. But many don’t have the stomach to persist through these dark times. “Business turnaround experts” are really just people who can see what’s necessary to minimize drag and reposition a company to that next summit, where more favorable conditions can prevail again.

Towards a New Entrepreneurship

The old model of entrepreneurship creates arranged marriages between entrepreneurs and ideas, and these marriages often don’t work out. After years of struggle, they often end in disaster, and only in extremely forgiving climates do the entrepreneurs get a chance to even re-marry. Quite often, the entrepreneur decides to become celibate and return to its abusive relationship with The Man, while sometimes the wild-eyed ones manage to persist through a couple more failures before finally hitting upon a success.

According to this article based on a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the predicted success rate for first-time entrepreneurs is just 20.9%. That’s a one-in-five shot. Even more telling, the results for experienced entrepreneurs is not much better. Entrepreneurs with a track record of success see a 30.6% success rate on average, while serial entrepreneurs who failed in their prior venture are only successful 22.1% of the time on subsequent ventures. To pick a round number, these data show that about 75% of all startups fail.

Is this the best we can expect from the great capitalist engine? What if we could do better? How that might work?

You Don’t Suck – Your Idea Sucks

The data above tell us that experience doesn’t count for that much. In fact, ostensibly it counts for at most a 9.7% improvement in odds. Not a bad gain, but what if it’s an illusion? If an experienced entrepreneur and a first-time entrepreneur chase the same idea, I’d argue the odds of success are roughly equivalent. The only difference between a first-time and experienced entrepreneurs is that they have a better sense about what ideas to chase — and even that discernment may only count for a 9.7% improvement.

So the advice to all entrepreneurs thus becomes essentially the same: pick ideas that will work in the marketplace and expend resources only on those ideas.

Of course, this is easier said than done. How do you know what ideas will work? How can people try a lot of ideas without bankrupting themselves or running themselves ragged?

Starting a Garden of Ideas

First, we have to accept the fact that as individuals, people are really bad at knowing what ideas will work in the marketplace. This is the primary reason for the 75% failure rate we see amongst entrepreneurs. It’s also the reason why top-down planning failed in the Soviet Union. As a general rule of thumb, assume you know a lot less than you think you do about what ideas will work and what ideas won’t, because you’re likely wrong. So are your friends, your family, your trusted advisors, and other more experienced entrepreneurs.

Start thinking instead about what you want your idea garden to look like. What ideas motivate you, and fill you with a sense of childlike wonder? What ideas give you inner peace and create a sense of aesthetic fulfillment? What higher causes do you aspire to? What causes do you think you can motivate others to rally around? With these questions, you can start to get a sense of what you might start to try in your idea garden.


Today, we have tools to test the resonance of ideas with fairly wide audiences — for free. Twitter, Facebook, the web, and other mechanisms allow us to expand our networks to find people to bounce our ideas off of. Start bouncing your ideas — the ideas you’re most passionate about — off of a wider audience. Put out feelers. See what sticks.

This wider audience should consist of at least a few hundred people, ideally, and you will get a sense of what ideas move people by listening to peoples’ reactions. If you don’t have an online audience of a few hundred people yet, start thinking about how to get one. Go to meetups and other events. Follow people online whose opinions you trust. Build up a good-sized audience and listen to what they tell you about your ideas.

Ideas Are Cheap

You may worry that sharing an idea with people will “let it out of the bag” and someone else will “steal it.”  You’re not so smart to have come up with an idea that no one else has thought of before. Really — believe that. Look through the US Patent Office site sometime and you’ll get a sense for just how cheap ideas really are.

What you must have that is unique and irreplaceable is the vision, passion, and relationships required to bring your idea to fruition.

But the idea itself — the raw two or three sentences that define your concept — has very little potential by itself. By sharing your idea with others, you can strengthen it. Others can contribute to it, pointing out the places where it’s weak, and repurposing it in ways you never imagined. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, in whole or in part, so that others can help you bring them to fruition.

It could be that you do not want to put all your cards on the table at once. That’s fine. If your idea can be broken apart and tested amongst audiences that way, that can be a way of making your ideas public without disclosing the entire concept. This can be a valid approach when dealing with concepts that require patent protection. But those ideas are much rarer than you think.

You can expect that you will break down and reassemble your own ideas repeatedly before they make it to the market. It’s quite likely that you’ll combine the “resonant” parts of two ideas into one cohesive concept (CD’s by mail bad, DVD’s by mail good) that resonates in the marketplace. Be willing to play around with your ideas and allow them change over time.

Waiting It Out

One of the reasons the success rate for startups is so low is that we have taught entrepreneurs to set up housekeeping with the first viable idea they encounter. The societal pressure to be doing something (so, what are you up to these days anyway?) is very great and people want to perceive and project themselves as successful.

Idea Gardening is something that we as a society have decided is only a valid occupation for people like Richard Branson or Oprah Winfrey. And even they have specific ongoing successes that they can point to that seem to validate their modi operandi.

Gardening takes time — time for sunlight, for seed, for rain to converge in fecundity. The same is true of Idea Gardening. Patience is required for ideas, people, and resources to converge in a way that releases stored energy. If you’re having to use too much pesticide (lawyering) or fertilizer (cash) to make your idea work, you’re likely going against the forces of nature, and not taking advantage of the energy of the marketplace.

Don’t overextend yourself by sinking resources into the first idea you have that looks to be viable. As a committed gardener, you will have many sprouts and leads that are viable. Put your attention to the ideas that seem to be the strongest, and use all of your available resources to drive multiple ideas forward in parallel. Otherwise you’ll have the kind of fragile and brittle all-beet monoculture that will have a hard time surviving market conditions.

Over time, you will find that there are projects that you need to cull. Often, an idea is just premature for the market. But that doesn’t mean you can’t nurture it and keep it going in some form until conditions are right. Often, that is not a very expensive proposition and if you are passionate, it can be very fruitful in the future.

Sunk Costs

People are suckers for sunk costs; this is the instinct that makes folks want to double down in Vegas to recover their losses. But losses are losses, whether measured in time or in money, and chasing after a failed idea to recover yourself to some perceived baseline is a mistake.

In the past, entrepreneur failure often meant sunk costs in the form of infrastructure and time wasted. These sunk costs could run into the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. Entrepreneurs, wanting to perceive themselves as successful, very rarely will walk away from this kind of situation willingly or rationally. Likewise, investors (less often) sometimes fall into the same trap. It’s these kinds of sunk costs that keep good money chasing after bad in countless businesses.

Clearly the only rational thing to do is to stop burning money and move on to something that will work. It’s not your fault it didn’t work out — the market didn’t want what you were selling. So, without pride or prejudice, stop the bleeding and move on. It may be your idea is still viable, but it might be viable for someone else, someplace else, at some different point in time. Put it on ice and return to it then.

The key to avoiding the trap of sunk costs in the Idea Gardening model is to minimize costs until an idea looks to be viable. If you have 10 ideas you’re experimenting with, and 4 show promise, what can you do to put a minimal amount of investment in only those four that will advance them to a stage where you can learn more about their prospects?

After that round, it may be that only two show promise at that moment. What can you do to put a minimal amount of investment in only those two ideas that will advance them? It may be that one of those ideas is really ready to explode and is ready to accept a major investment. Do that. By adopting this methodology, all of your investments will be right-sized and appropriate to advancing your concepts. With the disciplined use of this approach, one could theoretically achieve a 75+% entrepreneurial success rate , rather than a 75% failure rate!

This is an entirely different approach to entrepreneurship. For the software developers out there, this is the agile approach to business. Start small, iterate, and follow the market need. This also means that failures, when they occur, happen quickly. And that is the best thing any entrepreneur could hope for.

Cost Control

Besides for only investing time and money into ideas that have promise, it is now more possible than ever to experiment with concepts for very low costs. Free, open source software like Ruby on Rails, PHP, MySQL, and Linux have made it possible to prototype complex concepts extremely inexpensively. If you know how to code the ideas yourself, you can lower costs even further. An entrepreneur who is also a software developer is uniquely positioned to try out dozens of ideas and let the market decide which ones will work.

Additionally, phone services like Google Voice and various other outsourced business services ranging from PayPal to GetFriday and Amazon Mechanical Turk enable incredible things to be done at rock-bottom prices. Cloud computing resources like Amazon EC2 and S3, and Google’s App Engine allow for fast and affordable scaling of ideas at very reasonable prices.

There has never been a better time to be a technology entrepreneur but many of the same forces help all entrepreneurs keep costs down. You won’t get trapped by sunk costs if they are very low;  you will walk away from $10,000 sooner than you will $100,000 or $500,000.

More Thomas Edison than Henry Ford

Many of the great industrial entrepreneurs of the last 100 years have been uniquely positioned — as much by accident as by anything else — to capitalize on emergent trends. Carnegie, Mellon, Fricke, Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, all took advantage of (and helped to create) massive trends that could be pushed through society and thereby capitalized on.

You’re not those guys. The odds of any of us finding some “megatrend” that we can exploit profitably for very long are quite slim.

Look instead to Thomas Edison’s approach.

Edison put himself into the Idea Gardening business. His labs in Menlo Park, New Jersey were a virtual playground for engineers. They generated more than 1,500 patents and went on to form General Electric. He was famously quoted as saying that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” but this is often misunderstood.

Edison wasn’t saying that entrepreneurship was driven by “hard work” of the Sisyphean kind — no one can sustain that kind of load and be that prolific. Rather, he was suggesting that the hard work of invention lay in hoeing the rows and planting countless seeds of innovation so that, in time, the best ideas could bear fruit and thereby transform the world.

So entrepreneurs, plant your gardens. Give them sun, water, and time. The rest will follow, and you, too, will go on to transform the world.

Many thanks to Bill Mill, Mike Subelsky, Gus Sentementes and Jennifer Troy who thoughtfully reviewed this essay.


#1 on 04.06.09 at 11:14 am

My favorite aspect of this innovation model is that it starts you out further along a path you’re going to be following anyway. Almost all the great ideas out there mutated from something else. I know that’s been the case for us at OtherInbox; we started with one idea that grew into something else. So it seems to me if you spread out your initial efforts across a few different projects, you’ll be much more likely to allow them to mutate – because of lower sunk costs and because you’re building in a greater degree of flexibility right from the start.

#2 on 04.06.09 at 12:54 pm

This sounds a lot like Daniel Cook (danc)’s “Stage Gate” model for game and software design (intro: , explore: ). I’ve not worked in the game industry professionally, but from his description of the process, they’re dealing with the same risk factors. Sunk costs, idea pursuit dilemmas (Is this idea great or just good enough?), over commitment, etc.

His conclusions are similar: like gardeners we seed ideas, prune and compost (reinvest) waste, and seek diversity. It’s interesting, but not surprising that the same metaphor would occur separately but at the same time to two authors. It suggests a larger trend in entrepreneurship and invention.

#3 on 04.06.09 at 2:43 pm

Great post on the entrepreneurial process. In addition to what you illustrated, what I’ve learned is the great importance of starting. For a long time I waited for the “right” idea to come along rather than just implementing the ideas I had. Once I started implementing one such idea, I learned so much in the process that many better ideas emerged. That first idea wasn’t successful, but had I not started, the second idea wouldn’t have happened. In the mean time I became a much better engineer, which helps me implement any idea. The ability to implement and the idea generation process are intertwined – each feeds and grounds the other.

#4 davetroy (Dave Troy) on 04.06.09 at 10:03 pm

Idea Gardening: some thoughts on entrepreneurship and developing ideas for the market.

#5 on 04.12.09 at 10:03 pm

Costs, without question, have come down, enabling the possibility of trying out many ideas, and there is much that is sensible here. But isn’t there such a thing as stretching too thin? Isn’t there something to be said for finding one thing to focus on completely? Wouldn’t that increase the likelihood of success for that one thing? There is a reason for the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none”.

We all have only so many hours to devote to our work. Splitting one’s time between many different ideas and concepts will dilute the chances of success for any of them. Seems to me a balance is in order.

#6 ouc (ou c) on 08.18.09 at 4:55 pm

Ideas Are Cheap

#7 tobins (tobins) on 08.18.09 at 7:57 pm

Dave Troy’s essay on Idea Gardening

#8 subelsky (Mike Subelsky) on 09.14.09 at 3:36 pm

This @tferriss post about entrepreneurial risk-taking ( reminded me of @davetroy‘s Idea Gardening post (