12/08/2013 11:20 EST | Updated 02/07/2014 05:59 EST

What I Learned This Week: Great Ideas Rarely Start Out Great

What constitutes a great idea these days?

I'll get to the answer in a second, but as a related aside, Fortune Magazine named Elon Musk its Business Person of the Year. Musk is the CEO/founder of TWO boundary-busting companies; Tesla, which produces sleek electric cars, and SpaceX, which helps send people into orbit.

Musk runs these companies in a corporate environment populated by enterprises that manage digital-only currency, print 3D structures in metal and/or plastic, develop drone armies to deliver books, cook up insect-based snack foods and give eyesight to the blind.

I could go on with other examples for hours. In a nutshell, we live in a world of science fiction, where the unthinkable is mere reality.

But things don't always start out that idyllically.

So back to the question of great ideas...

I'll frame the answer in a business context, but frankly, it applies to everything from piece-making to peace-making.

A couple of weeks ago, I was giving a speech to a group of young entrepreneurs. In the Q&A session, I was asked: "What was your toughest challenge?" My answer was spontaneous and simple:

"The toughest challenge I ever faced was trying to convince people that I wasn't insane."

Here's why. My professional career can be summed up in two big swings of the bat -- helping launch the world's first and biggest comedy festival, and pioneering the world of mobile media and entertainment.

In 1986, when Gilbert Rozon and I criss-crossed New York and L.A. offices trying to convince managers and agents to allow their acts to perform in a never-before-tried event called a "comedy festival," in Montréal of all places, people thought we were crazy.

In 2000, when Garner Bornstein and I, holding large mobile phones with monochrome green screens, tried to convince investors and media companies that "One day people will be watching video on these things!," people thought we had lost our minds.

Yet today, Just For Laughs reigns in a sea of competitors over the globe, and get a reality check if you need to be convinced about the global, society-changing power of mobile media and apps.

So this week's learning, as it pertains to the next great idea?


Every great idea is seen through a pair of glasses with two lenses of different strengths -- the stronger one that bewilders, the weaker one that plants the seed of "Yeah...but what if?"

I tell my kids this all the time -- both entrepreneurs. And it's counsel I offer to whoever comes to me for investment or advice on some innovation:

If you have an idea, explain it to a handful of people.

If they say "Wow! That's the best thing I ever heard! It can't miss!"...then drop it like a chunk of pulsating nuclear waste.

But if they look at you in a combination of sympathy and contempt, as if you are speaking in some sort of alien tongue, then smile succinctly to yourself. You're onto something. Maybe something big.

That's the reaction that allowed Elon Musk to conquer roads and skies. That's the reaction that allowed Jack Dorsey to change the way we communicate (Twitter) and use smartphones as a payment device (Square). And that's the reaction that allowed the late Nelson Mandela to change the course of a country, and the world.

Great ideas rarely start out as great.

But with time, with hard work, and with a little luck...they eventually get there.