It drives me crazy every time I hear about Mailbox, the fancy-pants email app that Dropbox bought for a gazillion dollars. I mean, come on, it’s such an obvious idea — the app’s killer feature is “email snoozing.” It’s basically organized procrastination, and it’s been around since David Allen’s Getting Things Done, if not longer. There’s even been a plug-in called Boomerang for years that allows you to snooze your email in the browser. I could have taken that old idea, quit my job and made my own beautiful email-snoozing iPhone app. And then I would have been rolling around atop piles of thousand-dollar bills in Dropbox’s fancy headquarters. It’s aggravating.
You can probably spot the flaw in my thinking: It’s a ton of hard work to take an old idea and make it amazing. And the older an idea gets, the less motivated one might be to do that hard work.
Some ideas are stacked up on shelves because, for one reason or another, they’re just bad. Others are set aside because, while they might be good, they’re either really hard to execute or the team isn’t ready to pursue them. Or maybe the timing isn’t right or the person who had the idea doesn’t know how to convince others of its merit. Regardless, once an idea begins to age, it can be difficult to tell whether it has potential. All old ideas are then sullied with the bad-idea funk and people forget how promising those good ideas once were. After a while, it’s hard to tell them apart.
All old ideas are then sullied with the bad-idea funk and people forget how promising those good ideas once were.
This is a pattern I’ve seen a lot. In the last year, I’ve worked with more than 50 startups on design projects at Google Ventures. Our design team comes in to help when a company is stuck on a big problem. And it often turns out that the company has a good solution somewhere on that idea shelf, collecting idea dust (which is practically impossible to get off your clothes, by the way).
So while I’m happy to help teams look at new ways to solve a design problem, I always encourage them to bring old ideas out first. It makes sense: The team has probably been thinking about the problem for weeks, months and maybe even years. They’ve had endless hours of opportunity for inspiration to strike: sitting on the train, standing in the shower, or waiting in line for the bathroom at a San Francisco Giants game.
Time and again, buckling down on an old idea yields impressive results. For example, a few months ago our design team worked with the designers and founders of CustomMade, a company that connects people looking for anything from custom woodworking to custom jewelry with the makers who can actually build it. We were trying to figure out how to help more people successfully post their custom projects.
We had a great new idea that we carefully designed, refined and prototyped. But we also decided to pursue something else – an old idea that CustomMade already had but never implemented. We took that old idea, worked out some of the kinks and prototyped it, as well. Then we recruited some real customers and tested the two prototypes, head-to-head.
Guess what? The old idea was better. It was easier to understand and more straightforward. It just hadn’t ever been executed all the way. Now CustomMade buckled down, hammered out the details, and built and launched it. In the real world, the old idea performed even better than in our tests, boosting CustomMade’s monthly project posts by 300 percent.
Making the decision to double down on something old — especially something that hadn’t worked yet — can be difficult. New ideas are fun, and they’ve got that new idea smell. It’s easy to get excited about them. As CustomMade CEO Mike Salguero said, “Building something new is far more tempting.”
But even famous inventors got famous with old ideas. Take Thomas Edison and the light bulb. Greatest invention of all time, right? And the universal symbol for having an idea. But wait. The light bulb was invented in 1840 — seven years before Thomas Edison was even born. So while he didn’t invent the light bulb, he figured out how to make it commercially viable. How? By creating a vacuum with the recently introduced Sprengel pump, invented by… you guessed it, some dude named Hermann Sprengel. The light bulb wasn’t a brand-new idea for Edison. It was an old idea that was difficult to execute on. It was the Mailbox of the 1800s.
So the next time you’re stumped, the next time you don’t know how to proceed, the next time you’re tempted to invent new ideas, take a good long look at your old ones. There might be a light bulb in there somewhere.
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