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How do the most successful entrepreneurs come up with their ideas?

6 min read


Treat ideas like eggshells — if you’re not careful you will crush them before they hatch.

Ideas by their very nature are living organisms — many times growing and changing into something altogether different than planned. Most great ones mature on the backs of other ideas and don’t end up where they started.

For example, I can look down our street in Provo, Utah, and see three billion-dollar companies within 1,000 yards of each other. And I’ve been fortunate to watch these companies evolve. Interestingly, where they started isn’t where they’ve ended up at all.

Qualtrics began as online survey software tool developed strictly for academics for research purposes. Today, we’ve transitioned to a platform company with multiple products serving over 5,000 enterprise customers. Vivint, next door, started as a pest-control company and has ultimately developed into a home-security and automation and solar business. was originally a publisher of genealogical books and magazines. Today, it is the world’s largest online resource for genealogy.

So, it can be hard to distinguish a good idea from a great idea in the beginning. The key is in giving it a chance to grow into its full potential and hatch.  But no idea is valuable if it’s parked in the idea phase.

Quit polishing your boat and get it into the water: I believe that too many people have good ideas that just sit on the dock. Honestly, nothing exciting happens there; the amazing stuff happens out on the open waters.

Still, it’s not very likely that you’re going to come up with an idea that’s the next Facebook. When you look at the technology industry, there are only going  to be one or two Facebook-like companies per decade. So the question is, how do you best position yourself for the next great idea?

To do this, some of the key questions entrepreneurs often ask themselves are “What am I passionate about?” or “What am I experienced in?” or “What is the largest addressable market problem that I can solve?”  For me, it was mostly about jumping on an opportunity and being passionate about the possibilities at hand. I believe that entrepreneurial skills can be learned, but recognizing a great opportunity is more about instinct, and that can’t be taught.

How often do you hear people say, “I thought of that idea before they did” or “I came up with that first”? I hate to point out the obvious, but you didn’t think about that idea enough to develop it and actually do something about it. What really matters is that you get moving on your ideas and see what sticks.

I wasn’t the one who originally came up with the concept for Qualtrics, but I saw the potential and was willing to jump on the opportunity. There were others along the way that saw the potential but weren’t willing to move.

Interestingly enough, both my parents were PhDs in academia for years. In their late 40s, they moved entrepreneurial ventures where they each has been wildly successful. I’m sure they had plenty of ideas along the way, but it wasn’t until they put their boats into the open water that their ideas could reach full potential. So, while I wasn’t running around branding myself as an entrepreneur, and neither were they, we all had something in common in that we recognized a good opportunity and ran with it.

So ask yourself this: what if the next Facebook was being started next door, and you had the chance to be a founding member? Would you recognize the potential? But a better question is, would you do something about it?

There is no right or wrong way. At Qualtrics, we bootstrapped for 10 years, and brought on almost 5,000 enterprise customers without a marketing team. So, you don’t have to run somebody else’s playbook as you create your business. One of the benefits of coming up with an idea is to be able to develop something the way that you’ve always wanted. The purpose is to do it your way or to create something that you’ve always wanted. Don’t forget that. If you’re always following someone else’s playbook, it’ll be difficult to think of something original.

You don’t know what you don’t know — be open. Beyond wanting to be a pro athlete, I was never hell-bent on what I was going to be or do when I grew up. This turned out to be a huge advantage. See, people often get locked into a mental career path, such as accounting or investment banking, and have a hard time changing directions. But what if there’s another plan, or an unforeseen opportunity or idea, that comes your way? You might miss it because your head is programmed to believe that you’re going to be an investment banker.

I asked myself a series of questions to identify what was most important in terms of career direction. For me, the most important attributes were a job where I could set my own goals, something that would give me a rush to go into the office, where I could be a change agent and transform ideas into the vision I had.

I believe that it is key to evaluate every opportunity through the lens of what matters most to you. This will give you a clear understanding if an idea is worth pursuing or if it’s best crushed in order to make room for the next one.

Ryan Smith co-founded Qualtrics in 2002 with the goal of making sophisticated research simple. As CEO, he has led the company from a basement startup to one of the fastest-growing technology companies in the world, experiencing triple-digit growth in the past four years. Qualtrics has more than 5,000 customers, including half of the Fortune 100, 1,300 colleges and universities worldwide, and 95 of the top 100 business schools. Smith was named one of Forbes’ “America’s Most Promising CEOs Under 35” for 2013 and has been featured in Fortune, Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.