- Obviously good ideas that are very difficult to implement. Efficient cold-fusion, flying cars, and a lot of other sci-fi ideas fall into this group.
- Obviously "good" ideas that seem possible but haven't happened yet. Video phones and HDTV were in this category for a long time. I think this happens when people get excited about technology and overestimate the benefits (and possibly underestimate the cost). I just don't care that much about having a video phone.
- "Bad" ideas. Many of these ideas are truly bad, but some of them will in hindsight turn out to have been very good ideas. I put them in the same category because they are difficult to distinguish without the benefit of hindsight. Some examples are the personal computer ("why would anyone need a computer?"), Google ("there are already too many search engines, and besides, search engines don't make money"), and Blogger ("can't you just use Geocities, and besides, are there really that many people with something worth saying?"). More recent (and still controversial) examples include Facebook and Twitter.
I expect that a lot of people will argue with the fact that I've grouped "truly bad" ideas together with "seemed bad but were actually very good" ideas. Everyone thinks that they can tell which ideas are the good ones, but observation suggests that they can't. I do believe that some people are better at picking winners than others, but at best they have maybe 50% accuracy. I've seen a lot of very smart people (such as at Google) be very wrong about these things.
For example, I remember when the "upload videos and put them on the web" incarnation of Google video was first being developed. Nearly everyone inside of Google, including me, was very skeptical that anything worthwhile would ever be uploaded. The common prediction was that it would all be movies and porn. Of course there was some of that, but the skeptics were completely wrong about the lack of worthwhile content. Uploaded video is one of the most important developments of the past several years. Unfortunately Google Video was burdened with an incredibly bad upload process (it included installing a windows client to do the upload!), and YouTube, which was started AFTER Google Video launched, took over. I believe that mistake was partially due to the negative expectations.
Here's my point: The best product ideas are often found in the "bad ideas" category!
If you're a super-genius researcher looking to dedicate your life to a really important problem that you may never solve, then the category one "cold fusion" ideas may be a good option. If you've found some clever way to dramatically reduce the cost of implementing a category two idea (like Skype did to the video phone), then that might be a good option. However, the real "low hanging fruit" is likely to be found with the category 3 "bad ideas". You'll have to deal with annoying skeptics and haters who say that you are wasting your time, but sometimes you'll create something hugely important, or at least moderately successful (and they won't).
Realizing that good ideas and bad ideas are often nearly indistinguishable, there are a few more lessons to be learned:
- Instead of endlessly debating whether an idea is good or not, we should find faster and cheaper ways of testing them. This is one of the reasons why open systems such as the Internet or market economies develop faster than closed systems, such as communism or big companies -- individuals and small groups are able to build new things without getting approval from anyone.
- Your product idea is generally worthless, because to most people it's indistinguishable other bad ideas. Very few people will want to buy (or steal, or take for free) your idea because they already have their own bad ideas which they like better. (There are other reasons as well, but this is one of them. The way to make your idea valuable is to demonstrate that it's not bad by building a real product -- this also demonstrates your ability to execute.)