What's in an idea?

‘Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’ Thomas Edison is reported to have said. With all his successes and ‘failures’ he was in a very good position to know. His observation applies equally to what we call innovation; having the initial idea or insight is only a very small percentage of what’s required for successful commercial innovation.

Many aspiring inventors overlook Edison’s wisdom, and describe a short and almost inevitable path between their original idea and commercial success. That view has many implications, including the inventor getting many ‘nasty surprises’, setbacks, delays and ultimately a greater chance of complete failure. It can also lead them to expect other people to perform or fund the performance of a large portion of the ‘perspiration’ in return for a small percentage of their ‘certain’ financial success.

Experience shows that only a small percentage of innovations succeed commercially typically 3-15% according to different sources. Often aspiring inventors think their ideas are somehow ‘entitled’ to be in the ‘fortunate’ successful minority.

Edison offers another useful observation:

‘Unfortunately, there seems to be far more opportunity out there than ability… We should remember that good fortune often happens when opportunity meets with preparation’.

That gives aspiring inventors the opportunity to improve their prospects of a good outcome. The good news is that people who have been closely involved with previous innovations, both successes and failures, are often generous in sharing their experience and wisdom.

Incidentally, ‘good outcomes’ can include identifying early that an idea should be abandoned, or at least revised. Even a small degree of perspiration often yields substantial improvements, or releases the inventor to focus on more promising opportunities.

Roger Tipple

Roger is an inventor and a specialist in funding for innovation and invention.