Last Updated Jan 18, 2011 2:15 PM EST
This post has been adapted from interviews I conducted in the book, "How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America."
One hundred-million-dollar business ideas are the stuff of legends. Usually we read about them in the context of an entrepreneur who decided to follow his passion, or a founder who just happened to be the rocket scientist of his industry. Most of the time, however, this is not where great ideas or great companies come from. I interviewed 45 company founders, each of whom started, grew, and sold a company for $100 million or more, or took their company public for $300 million or more. Here are some of their secrets.
1. Fill a need, not a passion.
It's a myth that successful businesspeople got into their field because they cared deeply about it. Success doesn't follow passion, it follows need. Find something that no one's doing that somebody should do. That's what Dick Costolo, founder of Feedburner, did when he saw that publishers had content but no way to distribute it online to subscribers and syndicators. (Google eventually acquired Feedburner for $100 million.)
Don't get me wrong -- passion is critical. But what I've come to believe, based on the wisdom from these 45 home-run hitters who created $41 billion from scratch, is that need trumps passion and passion trumps skill. In other words, when you're fired up with a great mission, you'll become passionate about it. As for skills? Once you're jazzed up about the great idea, skills can be acquired or hired.
2. Identify your customer's big problem.
Where there's a meaningful problem, there's a reason to solve it. Cardiologist Donald C. Harrison came up with the idea for his medical device company AtriCure after asking himself how he could make a novel contribution that would help his heart patients in a major way.
One thing I learned after interviewing the founders is that, in most cases, their major innovations were not rocket science. They simply saw something, often very practical, that many other people simply missed. Successful company founders tend to be truly curious, and they don't accept the status quo as being beyond improvement.
3. Get it from your hands, not your head.
How did a guy with a degree in supercomputing end up in the trucking biz? Internet Explorer billionaire Tim Krauskopf got the idea for a transportation technologies startup, FreightZone, after he learned to drive a semi and began to experience what was involved in the trucking industry.
So often, I discovered that $100 million ideas come from doers, tinkerers, and collaborators. Rock Mackie knew Tomotherapy was a viable concept only after three of his graduate students each made separate and important discoveries. Put together, his team's ideas resulted in a new and remarkably better CT scanning technology for treating disease.
4. Make it sellable and fixable.
Do you think you have a great idea for a new product? It's not a great idea until you've gotten involved in selling it. Jim Dolan of the Dolan Company, a newspaper and media publisher, advises that selling is the quickest way to find out what's wrong with your product idea so you can fix it quickly and move on. When Dolan bought a 107-year-old legal newspaper publisher, he quickly figured out how to turn those fine-print bankruptcy notices that other newspapers overlooked into a $100 million product. If you can't sell it, don't make it.
Every one of the founders I interviewed had stories about the problems they wouldn't have discovered had they not listened to customers, colleagues, and investors in the process of pitching their product.
5. Get help developing it.
Serial entrepreneur Mahendra Vora, who's launched more than a dozen highly successful tech companies, warns would-be entrepreneurs not to be narcissistic about their idea. Instead, develop 60 percent of your vision, put it into the hands of trusted customers, and let them help with the remaining 40 percent of the idea.
Every one of the founders failed at one time or another along their entrepreneurial journey -- sometimes spectacularly -- before they found that $100 million idea. As a result, they learned humility. Many of them would argue that you can't really build a successful business without it.
Robert Jordan has been launching and growing companies and helping other entrepreneurs do the same for the past 20 years. He is author of How They Did It: Billion Dollar Insights from the Heart of America (RedFlash Press,), a collection of interviews from 45 leading founders who created $41 billion from scratch. His newest endeavors are RedFlash project implementation team, and interimCEOinterimCFO, a worldwide network of interim, contract, and project executives.