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The value of sweat equity

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Focusing all your energy on conjuring the perfect idea for a business is just plain lazy, argues Kevin Garber.

“Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” The famous words of businessman, inventor and owner of over 1,100 patents, Thomas Edison.

They effectively communicate the idea that success is disproportionately based on the amount of work invested and only marginally dependant on the strength or originality of the “idea” or “inspiration”.

Armchair entrepreneurs in particular tend to project all importance on the “idea”, with very little weight given to how the execution remains core to the success of any commercial project.

“If only I would come up with a GOOD idea,” declared one acquaintance, “then I would leave my job and develop the idea into a business.”

I think Edison’s words are better understood by expanding on his original quote: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, the 99 percent perspiration providing opportunity for further genius and innovation and, hence, perspiration.”

Edison’s original quote over-simplifies the entrepreneurial challenge and implies that entrepreneurship revolves around seeding an idea and then applying labour in order to give shape to the inspiration.

The beauty and trap of entrepreneurship is that innovation is a process and not an event. Moreover, innovation should be a process that arches over all stages and elements of the business. Every element of execution has the opportunity to be implemented better, smarter, cheaper and more effectively and be improved by innovation.

Many prospective entrepreneurs view the entrepreneurial process as the following sequence of events:

  • Generate “good” idea.
  • Find some way to pay people to put product/service together.
  • Find some way to pay to market and advertise.
  • Collect profits.

The entrepreneurial process is much more subtle than these well-defined steps, with the need for “good ideas” required along every step of the way.

And, of course, the most highly valued businesses are highly innovative in both their “idea” and in the execution of the idea.

For example, the YouTube founders understood that providing an easy way to upload and view videos on to the internet was a timely “idea” that would offer substantial value to internet users. They didn’t stop there. They innovated strongly along the entire execution path.

In order to be successful, businesses don’t necessarily have to innovate to the point of fulfilling demand in an area where it is not even known if demand exists (the good idea).

The success of a business depends on the innovation that occurs at every point of execution. While the “inspiration” should certainly be considered, innovating during the “perspiration” is where the bulk of business value gets created.

Businesses that are unoriginal with their inspiration and operate in established areas can and often do achieve significant success. For example, restaurants, plumbers, panel beaters, fashion retailers, consultants, car manufacturers, bloggers, e-commerce websites and printers are businesses where the “inspiration” is very well understood and certainly not original, yet effective execution creates robust success.

The lesson for prospective entrepreneurs is that momentum is everything. Don’t get bogged down with waiting for the golden idea to present itself. Get moving and continuously look at all aspects of your new business with a critical eye, aiming for constantly ongoing innovation and resourcefulness.

For existing business owners, it’s worth looking into all aspects of your business, from the sexy groundbreaking tasks, such as product development, right through to the routine aspects, such as debt collections and accounts payable. Sprinkle innovation and genius on all aspects of your business and watch your profits grow.

Kevin Garber is founder and general manager of Sydney-based digital marketing company Melon Media. His company recently launched spellr.us, a website and blog spell-checking service.

This article was originally published in Australian Anthill Magazine, Issue 32 (April-June, 2009).

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