Do ideas have value?

Ben Buie | 11/6/15

I’ve been entrepreneurial minded ever since I can remember. I’ve talked about this before, but I think it had a lot to do with my dad’s example and my mom’s wisdom. Looking back on my career, the entrepreneurial mindset has been my most valuable asset.

Being that I think a lot about business opportunities, I’ve been keeping a list of ideas for over a decade. I’d never share the whole list, but I’ve often shared the individual ideas if a related subject comes up. I started the list in Word, moved it to Onenote, and this morning I moved it to Trello. I love Trello! I use it to organize my caotic life of work, a wife and 4 boys under 7, service in my church, and my side businesses.

I like the idea of tracking my ideas in Trello because it will keep a record of the date/time an idea was created and I can add checklists, attachments, notes, labels, and other helpful things to the idea as they come.

I add ideas to the list all the time, but I don’t often review them. Transferring them to Trello gave me the opportunity for review. The review reminded me of something I’ve known for many years:

Ideas are worthless.

This morning, I added a category to my list for “ideas already done.” Some of the ideas on that list include: online order and grocery pickup, texting via voice, and laptop sized tablet. I don’t remember recording some of these, but I obviously had a pain or saw an opportunity that I wished I could cure/pursue.

Let’s take grocery pickup for example. Grocery stores are now making hundreds of thousands of dollars off this idea. Amazon is even getting into the ring with Amazon Now in some cities. This would lead you to believe my idea was valuable; however, that is not true. I had the idea 2-3 years before anyone had implemented it, but I did nothing about it. I didn’t act and now it is too late. Clearly, my idea is worthless, but the truth is, it always was.

You may be thinking, “no, ideas are valuable because you can patent them.” To that I’d say that it is not the idea that is valuable, it is the patent. A patent isn’t just an idea on paper, it is an idea on paper with a law that says you can horde any future value of that idea. I personally think this is absurd! Why can we artificially give value to something that has no value?

Unfortunately, the fact that you can patent something that is worthless is a great example of why the patent system is broken. If I have a great idea for a widget that I’ll never bring to market, why should I be able to give it value that it doesn’t innately have? The truth is I shouldn’t.

So, if ideas are worthless, what is valuable? The answer: action.

Had I taken my idea for a grocery pickup/delivery service and put some action into it, I may have been able to grow it enough to where a major grocery chain, or maybe even Amazon would have bought the company rather than starting from scratch. Had I implemented the idea, things could have been different, I could have produced some real value. The idea still would have been worthless; the action is what would create value.

If it is true that ideas have no value and action is everything, I’d love to see a patent rule that if you haven’t produced a prototype in x years and if you don’t put the product on the market by another x years, the patent is invalid. Or better yet, you can’t get a patent without a working prototype and you have to put in on the market as well. We need to stop giving value to something that has no value.

My thoughts here are not meant to be a broad study of all that is broken in the patent system and all the ways we can fix it. I just thought I’d share something I’ve known for a long time and realized again this morning while reviewing my idea list:

Ideas are worthless, action is everything.

About the Author

Ben currently works as a contract web developer and business consultant in Boulder, Colorado.

His passion for entrepreneurship led him to study business and learn to code. Although he never anticipated working on the web, Ben has spent the past 9 years learning everything he could about building and operating websites and web assets.

When not at work, Ben spends a lot of his time with family. He is married to a “beautiful” woman and they are raising 4 energetic boys. In his spare time he loves keeping up with technology, playing guitar, eating Sweet Cow ice cream, and painting (although he has very little time for painting these days). Other than that, Ben is a supporter of freedom and liberty, a fluent speaker of Russian, and he tries to be a humble follower of Jesus.

Read more about Ben.

  • Steven

    Great article Ben, though I’d like to comment about patents. Technically a patent only holds if the inventor is actively developing their invention. If you were to patent an idea and not pursue it, the patent gives you no protection so it is completely useless. However, if you have an idea and make it your business, a patent protects you from bigger companies so they can’t glance over your shoulder and steal the marketshare just because they have more resources and can build and sell your invention before you do. There’s definitely room for improvement in the patent system, but as a co-inventor on 2 patents I can say that owning a patent is a compelling reason to follow through and turn your ideas into action, knowing that if you don’t, someone else will (legally).

    Very true though, an idea without action is meaningless.

    • benbuie

      Steven, thanks for the comment. Are you sure about the fact that they have to be “actively developing their invention?” I have some doubts because if that were true, patent trolls wouldn’t exist: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patent_troll