How A Doctor Killed My Idea, And I Stopped The Madness

healthcare-healthMy son sent me a text from college. Usually he texts me to give me some news, like about his new part-time job at Fedex. Or how cold it is in the northeast.

Smart kid. He doesn’t text me about money. When he needs money, he reaches out to his mom. He knows I wouldn’t have a clue how to log-in and transfer mula into his account. At least I think that’s how it works. I honestly don’t know. He texted me to ask if his friend could call me, “to talk about his invention.”

“Of course,” I immediately replied.

Later that evening, a college student named Eric calls. And in a youthful voice filled with hope and an enviable amount of enthusiasm – proceeds to breathlessly summarize his idea. At this point, it was really just a concept. He had made no mockups or prototypes. Didn’t do napkin sketches or basic research on the internet to see if a similar product already existed.

Yet, I LOVED IT! And by “it,” I mean the entire conversation. His enthusiasm, hope, uncertainty and questions as to what to do next.

There was something viscerally wonderful about listening to his enthusiasm of a new idea. I loved it all. I pictured a kid carefully holding an egg, while excitedly pointing out a little beak just starting to break through. I needed a reminder of that unmitigated enthusiasm.

In the early 1970’s, when I was about 15 years old, I had an idea for a shoe insert. I imagined it would be like a little bladder or pillow you’d insert into your shoe. Only special.

There were shoe inserts at the time, but they were made from hard plastic or foam. My idea – was to have an insert filled with either water or gel. Something that would be like “walking on water.” That’s how I imagined it.

It seemed like a pretty darn good idea to me.

My dad told me to walk into town and introduce myself to the podiatrist. Which is exactly what I did. I don’t remember the Podiatrist’s name. But I remember his office and what he looked like very clearly. He was old. When you’re fifteen, everybody over 30 looks pretty old. But this doctor was old-old.

The meeting lasted about 2 minutes. No exaggeration. Maybe less. I explained my idea to him. Describing enthusiastically the benefits of walking on little waterbeds for your feet. The doctor wore glasses. I remember thinking he’s probably seen thousands of feet. I stared at his face. He showed no interest or enthusiasm. He never nodded and his eyes never widened.

He slowly turned to his right, and pointed with his hand at a chest-high bookshelf on the wall behind him. The shelf was nearly the entire width of the wall, and was lined with books. They all had the same dark green leather cover. Like an encyclopedia. He turned back to me.

“Do you know, the foot and hands have more than half of the bones in your entire body?” he asked. “Wow! I didn’t know.” I said politely. He continued. “Oh yes. The foot is very complicated. Very complicated. And it has been studied extensively. Everything about the foot is known. There have been many books written about just the foot.” He motioned again to the books on the shelf. “All those books are just about the foot.” “Wow,” I said again. “Oh yes. Everything has pretty much already been done.” He said.

I walked the mile back home. “How’d it go?” my dad asked. “Well,” I shrugged, “the doctor said pretty much everything is known about the foot. And he didn’t seem to like my idea too much.”

And that was it. I basically never thought about my waterbed insert foot idea again. Well, at least for the decade or so until ALL THE DIFFERENT COMPANIES started coming out with gel inserts and gel soles.

Here’s what I told the college student Eric.

a) That may very well be an AWESOME idea!

Know this fact. Nobody can really tell you if an idea is a “good” idea or a “bad” idea, for the simple reason that NOBODY REALLY knows. Every failed company has had its share of believers, just as every grand slam company – from Google to Twitter to Apple had its share of knowledgable people that judged its success unlikely.

This isn’t to say asking for someone’s thoughts, opinion or advice is a bad idea. But it is a bad idea to take any one person’s opinion as a clairvoyant view into the future or as a meaningful judgement on the idea.

b) It’s really about the execution (not the idea).

Somewhat counter intuitively, it’s not so much about having a GREAT idea. Ideas are ev-er-y-where. And everybody has them. What actually does matter, is DOING something with the idea. And of course doing it in a unique manner.

Mrs. Fields didn’t invent the chocolate chip cookie. Howard Schultz wasn’t the first person to sell coffee.

c) There is NO downside to pursuit.

Go after this idea. Learn more about the market. What currently exists that’s similar? What does the market say about the need?

Everything you learn and experience will put you well on the way to better understanding HOW market research, product development, prototyping, boot-strapping/fundraising and business actually work.

Get on the Internet and query what customers are saying about this need.

Go to a local hobby store and buy some material and start experimenting at home.

Collect data. Make some charts and graphs of your experiments. Learn the basic math or engineering related to the invention.

Make a quick prototype. Show it to friends… or better yet potential customers, and get their feedback.

Ask your professors for help and advice.

Anyone of those things is better than watching TV or hanging out. And being a bit atypical because you’re working on something and skipping some typical social activities will be good experience itself.

d) Prepare yourself to answer questions.

Anticipate the questions you’ll be asked about your idea, or should you seek a partner or investor.

Be able to articulate the problem.

Be prepared to discuss what already exists on the market.

Explain in 30 seconds how your idea is an improvement.

Show some basic market research.

Show some test results.

Put together some rough pricing estimates.

e) Use this idea as an opportunity to develop yourself.

Everything you experience and learn by exploring and trying to bring this product idea to fruition will not only make you a better student and give you better insights into business, but it will make you better at life.

That’s a far-reaching statement, but I believe it’s absolutely true.

Everything you do and learn, contributes to what you know and who you are. And there is NO BETTER way to learn than by doing. No textbook, no story, no friend or teacher – can take the place of learning by doing.

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

–Isaac Asimov

And Eric, one thing I can promise you. Regardless of where this idea leads. You will absolutely be a better person for pursuing this idea.

I imagine it’ll be an experience like walking on little waterbeds. 


Thomas Triumph
Thomas Triumph
TOM is a hands-on technology executive who helps large organizations act more nimbly in the market and small companies scale. Leading marketing and business development, he has launched numerous technology products and led cross-functional teams – including participating in two technology revolutions – less invasive medical devices and the Internet/software. Tom has been a part of some remarkable technology and business growth success stories (as well as some misfires). Building submarines out of 55-gallon drums in grade school, he eventually fulfilled a childhood dream of living aboard a research ship (Jacques Cousteau was on the Board of Directors) and tending to the mini-sub. Tom has also wrestled in the Olympic Trials, founded a consumer electronic company, and worked for leading companies to help launch and lead: medical device products, software, SaaS, Internet companies, professional consulting services, and 25 ton hovercraft built entirely from composite materials. This broad background has resulted in two unique characteristics - the depth of skill that allows Tom to contribute to the technical, business and creative process; and the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. He's an enthusiastic and collaborative team player who maintains a good sense of humor.

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