Why Most New Ideas Fail—And How to Make Yours an Exception

February 28, 2019, 5:39 PM UTC

As Alberto Savoia sees it, your brilliant idea for a new product or service is like a baby sea turtle. Early in his new book, The Right It: Why So Many Ideas Fail and How to Make Sure Yours Succeed, Google’s former engineering director and “innovation agitator” writes that “the gauntlet that awaits most new ideas might remind you of one of those hard-to-watch scenes in nature documentaries [where] hundreds of newly hatched sea turtles race from the beach to the surf, while all sorts of predators pick them off one by one, like mini-quiches at a buffet.” Eeek. “Mother Nature is brutal,” Savoia adds, “and so is the market.”

Indeed, what he calls the Law of Market Failure says that 90% of new ideas, even when they’re executed flawlessly, suffer the capitalist equivalent of being slurped by a seagull. In The Right It, Savoia spells out a step-by-step method for increasing the odds of survival. The “it” of the title is a concept that stands a chance of succeeding, and a big chunk of the book is about how to tell whether or not your idea has the right stuff before you spend too much time and money (not to mention staking your reputation) on it.

Most people, whether in huge corporations or tiny startups, get this all-important first step wrong, Savoia writes. For one thing, they dither around for too long doing market research in a foggy metaphorical landscape he calls Thoughtland. When an idea gets bogged down in Thoughtland, it “becomes wrapped in a fuzzy ball of unsubstantiated off-the-cuff judgements, beliefs, preferences, and predictions,” including the opinions of focus groups, which he sees as all but worthless. Another hazard in Thoughtland is relying on data from other people’s experience, good or bad, with a similar product or service. “The Right It cannot be deduced or induced while you stay in Thoughtland,” Savoia writes. “It has to be discovered by experimentation in the real world.”

One of the most useful lessons Savoia learned at Google: How to turn “a fuzzy opinion into a testable hypothesis.” Instead of saying, for instance, “I believe that, if we make our ‘Subscribe’ button a little bigger, we’ll get a few more clicks,” someone trained at Google would suggest making the button 20% bigger, and hypothesize that would increase clicks by 10%. By trying that with one group of users and comparing the number of clicks with results from another group, the team could not only see whether the initial suggestion holds up, but could tinker with the size of the button to get different results. “Nothing removes fuzziness from your thinking like numbers,” Savoia notes, adding, “the best part is that those numbers can be just rough estimates at first.”

The word “pretotyping” might be familiar to some readers, especially in Silicon Valley. (The term, his own coinage, was in the title of a previous book Savoia wrote.) It refers to real-world testing of a product or service that comes even before a prototype exists. The Right It goes into detail about why this works, and several methods for doing it quickly and cheaply—or, sometimes, even accidentally. Among the many examples and mini case studies in the book is Airbnb, which got its start in 2007 when cofounders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, who shared an apartment in San Francisco at the time, needed to raise some cash to cover their rent. They blew up a couple of air mattresses in their spare room and advertised on Craigslist, charging $80 per night with a free home-cooked breakfast thrown in. They got three takers—and voila, Airbnb was born.

Whether or not you’re developing a new business idea at the moment, The Right It is a refreshingly lively read, and it’s often funny. Savoia takes issue, for instance, with the oft-repeated mantra “Failure is not an option,” which he calls “an inspiring but wrong and often harmful belief suitable for Hollywood movies but ill suited for most business ventures. Use it only if you are writing dialogue for an action flick with Arnold Schwarzenegger.” The book is also, despite the oft-repeated Law of Market Failure, weirdly encouraging. Market success is “not a one-in-a-million shot. It’s not like winning the lottery,” Savoia writes. “It’s much, much better than that. If 90% of new products fail in the market, that means that some 10% succeed. Those are odds that we can work with.”


Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at workitout@fortune.com.