Test the Feasibility of Your Dream Idea With These 5 Questions

How to test if your idea is feasible

Last week I offered 5 things to do to get started on your good idea. Sometimes, though, knowing if your great idea is the right idea can be hard to figure out. How feasible is your good idea, anyway?

Writer Paul Graham, who I occasionally read (and would read more often if he had an editor), makes several good points about the feasibility of a creative idea, and how to avoid wasting your valuable creative energy.

In Graham’s experience, bad ideas happen because:

  • You created the first thing you thought of
  • You were ambivalent about being “in business” (which means creating ideas to meet people’s needs, not just because you felt like it)
  • You deliberately chose an impoverished market to avoid competition

He is right. I have done all three. My hunch is that most people pursuing a creative idea have done these, in some form or another. Usually the first one most.

His short list inspired me. What factors can help determine if your creative inspiration will succeed? Here’s a short list of 5 feasibility considerations.

1. Could Your Idea Sell on the Open Market?

First, forget about the difference between “good” ideas and “bad” ideas.

Usually, we dream of ideas because they sound cool. “Cool” is a bad barometer if an idea is any good.

Graham shares an old British idiom given by his father: “Where there’s muck, there’s brass.” Which means, unpleasant work pays. It’s a simple law of supply and demand. Work people like doesn’t pay well, because there’s so much supply.

This sounds bleak, but Graham offers some hope:

[This] is not to say that you have to do the most disgusting sort of work, like spamming, or starting a company whose only purpose is patent litigation. What I mean is, if you’re starting a company that will do something cool, the aim had better be to make money and maybe be cool, not to be cool and maybe make money.

You can create all day long for your own personal benefit, which can be great for your psyche. But if you want your creative ideas to have an impact on the world – to change hearts and lives – then you need to make something people want. As writer Stephen King notes in his article about what makes for a successful creative,

I’m interested in telling you how to get your stuff published, not in critical judgments of who’s good or bad. As a rule the critical judgments come after the check’s been spent, anyway. Stephen King

The only judgment on an idea in a market economy is if it ships. Could your idea sell on the open market?

2. Are you considering other people’s problems?

Part of creativity is learning to spot a good idea. A prime candidate for a good idea is that it solves someone’s problem.

This applies not just to entrepreneurialism but to any endeavor. You can be in a salaried position, working for a corporation, non-profit or church, and spend a ton of time on a bad idea that meets no direct need in the lives of your people.

Instead of starting with your idea, start by thinking of problems. Graham suggests the front page of the Wall Street Journal as a good source for finding problems to solve. I find problems in talking to people and in my daily morning web surf. As common themes emerge, I start to save them out to a folder. Then I test my concepts with the informal focus group called Colleague Nagging, where I bounce questions and ideas off of people I work with and see how they respond.

If they stare blankly, I shelve it. (I have over 100 unpublished blog posts and the number is growing). If they get excited and started responding, I am on to something.

3. Are you paying attention to your own nagging questions?

I don’t mean to suggest that you should only create as a response to the market. On the contrary, in Think Like a Five Year Old I say that it’s only in our personal experience that we find the passion that is necessary for any great work. So how do you solve this paradox between art and commerce?

The way I handle the tension is that in addition to keeping eyes open to other people’s problems, I also pay attention to my own nagging problems. If I have a personal question that won’t go away, I start to pay attention to it. I begin with a few months of taking notes and saving links.

Think Like a Five Year Old started with a basic question about creative “success” and why it ends. What happens if what you’re doing is no longer working? The more I articulated my own problems, the more I realized that many people have had a similar experience.

4. Are you avoiding a crowded market?

I used to do this. I would fool myself into thinking I could create a market. Bad idea. You’re not likely going to discover a never-before-seen pocket where creative sunshine has never previously shone. If no one has ever done anything on it, it’s probably not a great idea.

The question instead is, has anyone ever done it like you want to do it? Don’t look for an empty arena; instead, look for a fresh angle or approach in a busy arena.

In publishing, part of a good proposal is to list “Comps” – other comparables in the market, their sales history, and how yours is different. As an acquisitions editor, I needed to show there’s a market for my new idea pitch, but at the same time I listed sales figures I also needed to show how they angle on each previous work was wrong or incomplete. The market of books on creativity is large, but I asked, “Has anyone written on the combination of creativity and the life of Chrtistian faith?” And I had a hard time finding any. Bingo!

5. Do you have a good metaphor?

In addition to the angle, the other thing that makes Think Like a Five Year Old unique is its hook. It is based on a core story that comes from research showing that young children are creative geniuses. This gives the work its unique position in the market, and also makes it universal to the human experience: If we were all once geniuses, what happened?

The hook makes it compelling. It is the glue that brings it all together.

I’ve been working on my next book for several months, based on a nagging personal problem and a theme I kept finding in my online reading. A few weeks ago the hook appeared as manna from heaven, and now I am off to the races with a concept that both speaks to me personally and solves a common market problem.


What good idea have you been chewing on lately?