Idea labs Bill Gross timing is everything

Timing Isn’t Anything, It’s Everything

Do you have a great idea for a new business or for your existing business? To quote Shakespeare, “Ripeness is all.” To quote Bill Gross, founder of Idealab, “Timing is everything.”

For almost 20 years, Idealab has tested many ideas at once and then turned the best of them into pioneering technology companies. Many of their companies went on to great success, but many failed and Bill Gross decided to find out why.

What he learned could help you launch your next big idea.

You Need an Idea, But…

In a TED talk, he examined the five factors that make companies succeed: the idea, team execution, the business model, funding and timing. The results surprised even him. After all the name of his company is Idealab. But he discovered the idea isn’t the most important factor – it’s timing.

He cited, among others, Uber and YouTube as companies that came to market when the timing was just right.

On the other hand, one of his own companies,, started just two years before YouTube, failed because broadband penetration was too low in 1999-2000. It was too hard to watch video content online, and you had to put codecs in your browser.

So, if you’re dreaming about your next “big idea,” tune into Bill Gross’s TED talk to learn from a master about what it takes to succeed and make money.

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  1. Timing is huge Jeannette. One thing I’ve noticed is that often my ideas are ahead of the curve. Even if they aren’t my ideas but if I am working for a company. I remember when I started in computer sales: it was too early. I hung in there though for 15 years. They last 7 years was when the timing kicked in.

    Gross’s presentation and the 5 factors he covered – incredible how he classified the factors, including how MUCH timing accounted for companies success. Thanks for this one!

    • Patricia — I found it fascinating, too. He didn’t mention Friendsters. Remember that social network? Too early, then came Facebook and the world changed.

  2. hello; thanks for sharing the video. it reminded me of the time i wanted to buy a set of dozers or coin pushers. they were brand new and just starting to catch on. by the time i could afford a set everyone had seen them and they weren’t making the same money. same thing happened with the titanic inflatable slides. the difference there is their appeal went away because of a design flaw that lead to accidents that resulted in not being able to get insurance for the big carnival version or having to put two operators on one killing the profits. hoping my current blogs and businesses are at their perfect right time. thanks max

    • Max — I hope your timing is just right, too, Max! So far it seems to be working. All any of us can do is our best.

      • hi jeannette; that’s the key to remember that we can only do our best. there is so much that is beyond our control in life that we just have to concentrate on the things we can influence and pray and hope for the best. by the way i found out the video is dark or appears dark because i forgot to make sure the lights were on. I actually have to look up at the ceiling where they are supposed to be to make sure. but a couple people said hey max you did that on purpose to draw attention to your message and the title of leading you out of the darkness. well nope it was a happy accident and it has given me the idea for next week’s video. you are the marketing expert, should i leave it dark or maybe turn on one light? at least people liked my voice in it. thanks for the reminder sweetie, max

        • Max — I just took a look at your video and I think it’s too dark. You want to seem approachable. Also I think you would appear more energetic if you sat up straight and “looked” into the camera instead of upwards. That’s one woman’s opinion!

          • hi jeannette; thanks for the advice. i will make a note to make sure the lights are on and try to record during the daytime so i also have some sunlight filtering in. and I will work on sitting up straighter. thanks so much max

  3. Jeannette, this was a fascinating post. In 1978 my husband and I started a business making crokinole boards. These quickly became in huge demand right across Canada. In 1982, when we had 19 employees, the recession hit and it was totally different from this one. Interest rates skyrocketed – up to 26% – and since we started the business with $2,000.00 you can imagine that we depended completely on our line of credit. We couldn’t raise prices (stupid oversight on our part) because we were selling to Catalogue places like Sears, Shoprite, etc. So we had everything a business needed except the timing. We were in fact losing $1.00 per board which, considering we had orders for more than 100,000 units, naturally forced us to close the business in 1983. That was a heartbreaker.

    • Lenie — I had to look up crokinole boards, not being a game player myself. Your story is truly heartbreaking. You were flying and it shows just how fragile a business can be when you don’t have control over outside forces.

  4. Abolutely, timing is essential, Jeannette. Strategy is also essential because that’s how you turn your idea into a profitable business.

    The way I have lived my life young people today are doing. Am frequently way ahead of others when it comes to ideas and what to do. Presumably I’m lead personality? My late father was the same and a lot of ideas and innovations he was interested in became hits a couple of decades later when he had already passed away. Disposable barbeques is just one example. He worked on that in the 70s.

    • Catarina — I’m sure you are full of ideas. The fact that you’re a world business traveler and executive demonstrates that you are a leader in your field.

      • Jeannette, to have ideas too early isn’t that great:-) People are not ready for them but will be in the future.

        How I have lived my life makes people our age in business in Sweden feel inferior. Young people on the other hand tell me that’s how they want to lead their lives. When they are older living and working all over the world will be normal and people will not feel threatened by them.

        • Catarina — you are obviously a role model for young women in Sweden — and anywhere, for that matter.

  5. Timing is as important as the product. They mentioned some above, but long before internet There were so many inventions and companies that did not make it because of timing. I just watched a show about Philo Farnsworth, who invented TV, his company eventually went under because of WWII putting a hold on manufaturing, but RCA with its money was able to outlast it and make millions on television. The list can go on and on. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post.

    • Bill — I know there are so many examples of people and companies that were just ahead of their time, or were unable to get the financing to take their product to market. It’s sad to think about.

  6. Fascinating!! It was amazing to hear how vital timing really is. Of course, that’s not always easy to see, right? For the idea person, they might think if it’s a good idea for them then it would have broad appeal. But other circumstances (such as his with the lack of broadband penetration) can tank a perfectly brilliant idea. Wonderful post Jeannette!

    • Jacquie — It made perfect sense once I saw the examples he gave. As the branding experts Trout and Ries famously said, “It’s better to be first than be best.”

  7. Very interesting – love TED Talk! Have to say I’m not at all surprised about the findings. I not only saw this but lived it in my career in travel. In one example I recall the trend was to pursue business in Korea – everybody was convinced this was the next big destination for Hawaii. Well, everybody but me. I saw too many problems with travel restrictions but on the other hand Germany was in an ideal position for growth. Everyone thought I was crazy but I was fortunate to work for a progressive company and they gave me the green light to test my theory. Long story short a decade later and we’re still waiting to see that influx of business from Korea where as Germany took off and became a huge new market for the Islands, and my hotel enjoyed a whopping 46% share of the business because we were first to negotiate travel packages. The only reason it wasn’t higher was the bulk of first time travelers head to Oahu. There’s no question timing is critical, but in some cases you have to risk riding the crest of a wave when you’re able to spot a potential trend.

    • Marquita — what a wonderful story. Yes, you do have to spot a trend and congratulations that you were prescient to foresee that Germany was ripe for your market.

  8. I have a friend who is doing well giving Uber rides. The time was definitely right for that. In general, I think the timing bodes well for other forms of sharing services as well. Why does each person need to own their own lawn mower, etc when sharing websites could make using such items more cost-effective?

    • Jeri — I agree. In the early days of our country, bartering was the currency and it still is an effective way to exchange a service or product with someone else. No money changes hands and you don’t get stuck buying something you may just need once.

    • Donna — yes, it’s sad when someone has an idea and it goes nowhere and then someone else comes up with the same idea later and cashes in.

  9. Jeannette, interesting video. Funny – I hear “startup,” and I think, way too many hours for me. Some people are made for the startup atmosphere; others like me need “garden putter” time. Or time for our kids. I grew in the Boston area, and I thought I would like working at a startup. I ending up at MIT – academia was a good pace for me. Lots of smart people, but I didn’t have to put in all their crazy hours.

    • Leora — you’re quite right. Start-ups aren’t for everyone. Aside from the punishing hours, you have to be able to live with ambiguity, the uncertainty of not having a steady paycheck and being one step away from failure. To quote Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.”

  10. Timing is so critical and sometimes so unpredictable. It is dependent on so many outside factors. Seeing someone else benefit from using an idea you had earlier can be a real disappointment.

  11. I agree that timing is the major ingredient however like playing the stock market, timing is the great unknown; only hindsight can pinpoint it and then it’s already too late.

    • Tim — how true. You can’t time the stock market or the housing market, for that matter. The economists are all good at hindsight!

  12. Jeannette,

    I’m sure you’ve heard me share my experience about the 360-degree virtual photography business that my husband and I went into years ago. We learned first hand the importance of timing.

    It was around 2004 and I had been working from home as a business consultant (after losing my job to down-sizing) when my husband’s company closed the doors. Together we decided to launch a high-tech photography business.

    The problem was that while this photography was highly valued in European countries, we were late to market here in the U.S. Unfortunately, realtors here were marketing low quality 360-degree virtual tours. While the two products were vastly different, we found ourselves needing to educate potential buyers of the value of our photography.

    To make a long story short, the timing was off. We learned a lot from the experience but if we could roll back time, we would never have gone into that business.

    Thanks for sharing Jeannette. You always find the most interesting topics.

  13. I cant believe the company that wanted to be YouTube but were too early. Talk about kicking yourself!! Timing really is everything and it can affect so many things in business – or life in general for that matter. Even day to day communication. It’s like being able to read your audience; sometimes before they even exist. Enjoyable post Jeannette. Thank you.

    • A.K. — I know, imagine that company now as it sees that YouTube has become the second biggest search engine. Interesting thought about reading your audience. Timing is so important in giving your audience what they want.