I was excited to be part of a the Think Tomorrow Today conference put on by ThinkEquity (an investment banking firm) in Half Moon Bay, CA last week. I was on a panel entitled "Managing Innovation" along with Mike McCue (CEO of TellMe, recently acquired by Microsoft) and Jonathan Rosenberg (SVP at Google) to talk about the challenges of driving innovation within organizations of all sizes. All three of us commented that we have tried to preserve the innovative spirit in our companies that we had when we were smaller--perhaps a hidden message to the smaller companies out there that there is no time like the present to push the envelope by innovating?
During our hour long conversation we kicked around a few metaphors for innovation, and how it differs from invention or idea-generation. The one I liked best contrasted the easiness of coming up with ideas with the difficulty of nurturing those ideas into successful ventures. Essentially, you can think of ideas as seeds. If you've ever spent any time in a gardening store, you know that seeds are quite cheap. You can get dozens of organic heirloom tomato seeds for $2.99. But if you want to get a single seedling of the same variety, you'll pay the same price. Go to the farmers market down the block in August (where you can choose from dozens of heirloom varieties) and you might very well pay $2.99 for a single tomato! Full disclosure: to my wife's great amusement, for some reason I actually buy seeds to try and grow tomatoes from scratch over the winter, still buy tomato seedlings every spring (nine varieties this year in our garden!) and still buy several pounds of tomatoes at our farmer's market every week during tomato season. There is no rational explanation for this behavior.
Or consider Japanese maple trees. I am especially fond of Japanese maples. You can find beautiful specimens on almost every block where I live. No owner objects to you collecting the seeds that come in little pods around this time of year. However, if you want to buy a one year old tree of even the most common variety of Japanese maple (less than 12 inches tall), you'll pay $50. If you want to buy a five foot high tree (about seven years old) you will pay between $500 and $2000. Mature trees of eight or teen feet in height can cost between $15,000 and $25,000!
The difference between those tomato seeds in the little packet or collecting Japanese seed pods, and actually getting a perfect tomato plant or a stout Japanese maple; that is the difference between ideas and innovation. Anybody can come up with ideas--they are not only a dime a dozen but, like the seeds, very difficult to get to the next level. Deciding where to plant them, how to condition the soil, how much sun and water to give them, and giving them constant love and attention--that's the hard part. That is innovation, and it's the major thing that entrepreneurs do. It's also what we strive for every day at Homestead, and it's a fun and rewarding way to spend your professional life if you ask me. It's also dirty, hard work, and takes a lot of patience before you see the rewards. But trust me (and Mike from TellMe and Jonathan from Google), it's worth it.
In other words: it's not the idea, it's what you do with the idea that matters. So get out your metaphorical gardening gloves and get dirty!