The Greatest Hits Are Obvious

Oct 2012

A couple of months ago I was listening to the Emerging Music Chart (by We Are Hunted) on Spotify, in an effort to discover some new music. I can remember the second song on that playlist: Some Nights by Fun.

When I first heard the song, something immediately struck me about it. It wasn't that it was perfect in my taste of music, and neither did it sound like a masterpiece. It was a bit different to what I had been listening to at the time perhaps, but on first listen and in terms of my logic reasoning, the song was unremarkable.

Yet I listened to it over & over again, which eventually lead to listening the entire album. A couple of full cycles through the whole album later and I was really into Fun.

The remarkable thing was that this happened about 8 months ago. Fast-forward to today and Some Nights - along with a couple of other songs by Fun. - have been on mainstream radio charts worldwide for quite some time.

8 months ago, I was sucked into Fun., because the song had obvious hit qualities despite it being recognized as such (by myself, my peers or music critics). Subconsciously my mind had made a decision that this song (and then the album) was really good, even before I could logically & objectively come to the same conclusion.

Startups, Ideas & Greatest Hits

Months after this realization first dawned on me, I kept coming back to what had happened and how I had discovered a hit song before it was a hit.

I tried to look at the history of great hits, but couldn't necessarily find any examples that would help me explain this (especially since musical hit creation has become more a robotic art of marketing, than the art of creation itself).

The only thing that I could really pin-point was this notion that the greatest hits were obvious.

This notion immediately had my entrepreneurial mind considering how this would apply in the world of startups, where ideas are a dime a dozen, yet so little startups actually succeed (due to bad execution, a bad idea or both).

I've seen so many startups eventually launch, which make me say to myself: "Shit! I should've thought of that! It's such a brilliant idea."

Does that reaction tell us something about ideas & how we spot the truly great ones? Maybe. Yet in my experience, that reaction is been one mostly born out of hindsight, which we all know eventually becomes an exact science.

I also considered the early days of WooThemes, where the Founder & Managing Director of my firm (to this day, my only corporate gig) declined the opportunity to bring WooThemes in-house as they didn't think the idea was that great. Fast-forward 4 years and it's a multimillion dollar business.

So maybe WooThemes wouldn't make a Greatest Hits list, which would probably include the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter etc. But surely it wasn't an idea that should've been marked as spam?

Judgement by Pop Culture

Getting nowhere closer to actually quantifying why some ideas become greatest hits and others get marked as spam, I cycled back to Fun. & what eventually made their song(s) Greatest Hits.

Fun. became popular, because they were acknowledged & listened to by millions. In the startup-world, this would be the equivalent of having thousands of revenue-generating customers. They didn't write the song knowing it would definitely become a hit, because there is no recipe; just like no startup - regardless of how great the idea is - is guaranteed to succeed.

So if there were no logical, objective and conscious way for me to judge whether Fun. would ever get the traction they eventually did, there's only one thing that could've influenced my decision-making: intuition.

Intuition is the sum of many things (amongst others): preference, knowledge, experience & personality. Intuition is the occurrence where your mind is making a decision based on all of these inputs and stored "data", before our conscious is even sure what's going on.

In Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, he suggests (with enough data to drive a concrete argument home) that that split-second decision made on intuition and your gut feel is more often right than it is wrong.

Doing It Wrong

And it's with this realization about ideas and how I've been judging them, that I think I've been doing it wrong. Or at the very least, I could've been doing it better.

Instead of relying on intuition to gauge the merits of ideas, I've focused on using external validation techniques: Customer Development, data analysis, determining product/market-fit, determining the size of the market / opportunity etc.

Data-driven decision-making. No intuition, no dreaming; just cold-hard facts that I could use to validate any notion that I had.

The reality is that I've not had that "Aha!"-moment about an idea, where I think that idea is truly fantastic, in quite a while. Yet, based on my validation techniques I've pursued many of those ideas that my sub-conscious had dismissed.

My track record reads something like this:

  • WooThemes continues to grow and we're getting better every day. The success rate of new products are however still closer to 50% than it is 100%.
  • I had sunk $250k into Radiiate, because we were tackling "obvious" gaps in the market. None of them had enough traction to build a business.
  • I've made a couple of promising startup investments, none of which are mature enough to gauge success.

So not having any proof that my intuition is good at spotting a greatest hit (except obviously for recognizing that Fun. were gonna be great months before they hit the mainstream), I'm left with this: Great ideas remain great ideas. And the greatest ideas are obviously great at first sight.

I may be right in that notion or I may be way off the mark (in which case, I'll be back to the drawing board, figuring out better validation techniques).

But in a battle of head vs heart, I'll have a lot more respect for my intuition when I consider new ideas.

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