We all, but perhaps especially VC types, are always in search of "the next big idea." The next big idea is brilliant, simple (or complex) and original (or perhaps a slight twist on something familiar). Think AOL crossed with Wonder Bread, or Facebook crossed with automatic car washes.
I have a new idea: think video conferencing crossed with fine business dining.
A hotel chain (or perhaps an international celebrity chef like Todd English) should take this up immediately. Each restaurant in the chain, in business cities around the world, should install a high-end video conferencing system in a private dining room for up to 6 or 8 people. The system would be at one end of the room, and the dining table would be placed right up against the very large screen. When connected to one of the other private dining rooms through the magic of video-conferencing you see the table in the other location as if it were an extension of your own table.
Now you just go ahead and arrange to have a business meal with colleagues (or customers) in distant locations without anyone having to fly anywhere. In such a setup you can have optimal lighting and sound systems because you know people will sit down (and sit still), because they are eating. You can be having lunch in London with colleagues having breakfast in New York. Given the two locations are part of the same business you can arrange for the food to be served at the same moment in each location, and certainly you (as host) can pay for the meal in both locations with one credit card slip.
The current high-end video conference solution is Cisco's Telepresence. I understand it costs about $250,000 per location (including network costs). Assuming this is a good proxy for the costs of a great system, a restaurant chain would need to charge say $5000 per event (assuming an event is two cities only - not sure of the logistics for multiple cities), and ensure at least 100 events per location (on average) each year to cover costs. Given you could be using the facilities for a couple of meals a day, this seems doable, and much cheaper than business class air fares (no-one using this system flies coach).
I will surely make millions from my brilliant idea. I made it up a while ago, and am just waiting for the check to arrive in the mail. After all, big ideas are what we need... or are they?
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great article in the New Yorker earlier in the year (In the Air, 5/12/08) documenting the counter-intuitive fact that big ideas are not, in fact, rare. Get a group of creative people together and they can generate lots of good ideas, some great ideas and even a few brilliant ideas. Even the big inventions of the industrial revolution were more about hard work by people who knew what was needed than about a brilliant idea occurring to someone one day, according to the later chapters of The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World by Tim Harford.
What is really hard is that hard work: what the VC world calls, in shorthand, "execution" (executing the plan, not the entrepreneur!). The ability to actually deliver on a great idea is in much shorter supply than ideas themselves. That ability starts with mere willingness ... am I ready to drop everything to put my video-conference-dining-experience into action? The next factor is relevant experience ... even if willing to do so, do I have experience in video-conference businesses, or restaurants? Next on the list is a good team ... if willing and able, do I have a team of folks with the right specialty knowledge to be able to conceive, produce, package and sell a product and service that meets market needs? Does the team have what it takes to respond to market changes, competitive pressures, problematic partners? Finally we need resources ... can I find someone willing to invest so I can pay my team, buy the equipment, set up the system and so forth? Execution demands willingness, experience, energy, resources, and commitment from many people over an extended period, and the ability to conduct the orchestra invariably involved when executing on a great idea.
This is just as much the case in my life as a venture cyclist and a volunteer in the non-profit world (last chance to support my participation in the 2008 NY Jewish Environmental Bike ride). There are a million great ideas out there for any non-profit. The issue is the ability to execute... the professional staff, the volunteers, the resources, the plans, the follow-through... the hard work!
If you are involved in a non-profit, you know this already.
If you want to be involved in a non-profit, then go right ahead, but don't just expect to contribute great ideas ... I am sure yours are fabulous, but they will go into the pot like everyone else ... no, you have to get involved with your commitment to do the hard work of making ideas into reality.