When should an idea become a 'Project'?

Making your ideas pay off


Let's say that you are walking down the road one day, and you somehow stumble on this friggen awesome idea.

I mean like a really good idea. You know?

And if you are like me, you'll probably want to entertain it. So you think about it, and maybe draw out some poorly hacked-on-napkin sketches for yourself. Maybe you talk to a couple of people about it and get their reactions. But at some point, the idea is going to need to become formalized, if for no other reason than that it becomes easier to sell (and at some point, you are going to want to get paid for your troubles).

When do you start calling the idea you just had, a project?

Like an actual project with a sense of direction and maybe some stakeholders. And diagrams - pointing from stakeholders to resources to outcomes. Projects always come with diagrams.

Any entrepreneur worth their weight in beer will tell you that the answer to the question of when a project becomes a project is, "IMMEDIATELY."

Whether you are at the bar, or a party, or a Board meeting.

The idea you just had is always a project. If you can get it funded, it's as good as real. You sell it. You promise to send the diagrams in an email tomorrow, and when you get home you don't go to bed until they are done and sent.

Other, more cautious and maybe somewhat weathered types might say that you should give it some time.

Bounce it off different people and take some time to research and check your assumptions. Perfect it a little before formalizing it into something more officious and imbued with the initiative of a capital p, 'Project'. It certainly avoids coming into a situation half cocked and without having a full sense of the context.

Where to look for answers

Welp, I have lost count of how much I weigh, and the thought of a bag the size of me with beer in it is at the very most unpleasant. I've had a few ideas, and have tried to make some of them happen.

The good stuff seems to always live somewhere in the middle. It seems to me that, at the very least, holding this question of 'projecthood' as a backboard for the ideas one has might be a good practice for anyone trying to get something new accomplished. Having to come up with an answer to 'when does my idea turn into a project?' oftentimes helps the project itself take shape.

The things that your project will need in order to pass into officiousness (a name, a logo, diagrams, etc) would also be the same things that would need addressed in any project plan/concept you would put together for a potential contributor or stakeholder. Diagrams or not, and whether drawn on a napkin, or a conference agenda, or on 20lb. glossy, you are going to need to get someone on board in order for the idea you have to go forward.

Who your stakeholders are, and their needs in exchange for their investment of time, trust, resources or money will oftentimes dictate the point at which to start taking it to the next level. Putting the ideas together in a format that will make a difference in getting those players on-board will end up making things seem official.

Strategically, 'birthing' a project at the right time conserves and maximizes your ability to get the best of: 1) the momentum of the idea, while at the same time, 2) preventing false starts or misaligned early investments of time and/or resources.

I need Stakeholders?

Many people, when they realize they have to fund-raise for something want to crawl into a ball. This is the stage that often separates the wheat from the chaff, as my father would say. Just remember that fund-raising is just a twisted way of saying that you need to think about how broad-reaching the benefits of your particular project are (and whom they will effect) in order to even begin to think about how to make it happen. The process of having to figure out who the natural benefactors are (IE: who would WANT to pay or play) for your product/service almost ensures the viability of the project.

Knowing who the players are enables you to think about how energy and resources are going to flow through your project. As goods, time, trust, products and services are exchanged between different types of stakeholders (staff, clients, instructors, participants, funders, the board), your awareness of these flows enables the leveraging of these relationships towards the goals of your particular idea.

Well, you're half way there, might as well...

At this point, if you've been able to come up with a good idea of your stakeholders are, and the flows between them, you might as well just build the damn diagram that is going to explain it easily. People like arrows. They like complicated things explained in easy ways. If you can communicate these relationships and opportunities simply in your project concept or business plan, you will see a notable transformation as the idea becomes viable.

A project is born.

Economic Determinism: Nature's Way

This all might seem very capitalistic, but it is actually a way that nature organizes itself. I use nature as the example here only because it's a system whose wisdom has evolved over eons, and as a result exhibits an intelligence that human-made systems are not yet capable of.

An opportunity in nature is often recognized in what would seem to us to be tragedies or waste: such as with a manure pile or a wildfire. Nature organizes itself around creating bazillions of win/win relationships with the 'waste' in the wake of these little disasters such that, in the end, there is often more or as much as there was to begin with.

Not only that, nature seeks reciprocal relationships. If an organism contributes to an ecosystem, it gets something out of it. There are no free meal tickets in nature. If an organism wants to get something, they have to contribute in some way. The really brilliant part is that in nature, that contribution is rarely something important that the organism uses to live. The contribution is usually a natural waste product that the organism was not going to use anyhow. It is an economy so far above what humans have been able to create in the last 150 years that we can only dream about it.

Case Study:

Let's say I have an idea about using waste products created by the a lake ecosystem (hyacinth and hydrilla) and certain agricultural activities in the highlands of Guatemala as an inputs for the distillation of ethanol +/or methane +/or alcohol and the creation of organic nutrient-rich fertilizer.

Is it possible/feasible?

The first question I would ask myself is if my idea is indeed true. Can these ecological and agricultural 'waste' products indeed be 'recycled' to make fuel and fertilizer? Check. They can.

Who are the natural beneficiaries/stakeholders?

Well, the first people who will benefit are the farmers who are currently having to 1) buy fertilizer, 2) buy fuel and 3) dispose of the agricultural wastes themselves.

The next group of folks who would benefit are the lake residents - particularly the ones who have docks on the lake (the cities/villages and lakeside residents). The Hydrilla get's caught in the rotors of the water taxi's engines, particularly when they are getting closer to a dock, and it also makes it difficult for people to swim. So in this case, tourists and the taxi's are also beneficiaries of this project.

What do they need in order to get on-board?

To build the machinery necessary to digest these waste products and turn them into fuel and fertilizer will require money. Eventually, the selling of the fuel/fertilizer might make enough money to purchase additional systems in order for the project to grow of it's own accord, but there will need to be an initial investment of capital in order for the project to become truly viable.

While the city and the residents, in this scenario, would pay for the service of a clean lake, that money will not come immediately, and will also be needed to compensate the persons who are taking the hydrilla and hyacinth out of the lake.

On the other end of the process, the sale of fuel and fertilizer could potentially fund the growth of the project, that is a market that would need to open over time, and at the moment it is a market that is not 'thirsty' enough to want to buy in before the goods are produced.

There are several ways that an initial injection of capital is created for projects.

Collaborative/Cooperative Funding

Look for the groupings of stakeholders who immediately have the most to gain from the project working, and have them all pitch in a little as a self-investment. In this case the 'farmers' would either also manage the harvesting of lake resources or they would contract another organization to do so. In the case that another organization (more allied with the water taxi organization) would take on that service, the initial investment might also include them as partners.

Venture Capital (VC):

Venture capital is usually leveraged based on the calculated risk against the ability for your project to make money (and be able to pay back the investor with interest) in a short amount of time. While there are some 'Angel' VCs out there who are less focused on seeing a return come back to them plus interest, they are few and far between, and they are also inundated. Your ability to satisfy the kinds of requirements that a VC investor would have (a tight business plan, diagrams, a presentation, other investors). That is not to dissuade, but simply to say that in order to get any serious VC involved in this kind of thing is going to require a certain amount of 'tightness' with regard to the presentation. This lifts the bar for what you will need to have in order before you can call this a 'project' or 'official', and for most projects is more trouble than the chance of it working is worth.


If your project is altruistic, there are other options as well: namely the sponsorship of a non-profit or a local donor who is altruistic. These donors can range from a firm like 'Rotoplas' who builds a central component of the machinery of this project, a generous individual or group of individuals, or from a sponsoring non-profit whose work is very much along the lines of the project. In any case, it is important to remember that some non-profits will 'sponsor' viable projects by lending you their credibility and their 501(3)c status (for tax-deductible donations). Often they will charge a percentage of the donations you bring in for the 'service' (typically less than 10%). Don't let this it is still well worth it to develop that kind of a relationship.

Where's the Beef?

So in these cases, what it would take to get your project off the ground is really a question of what the folks who would be contributing the initial influx of resources will need in order to contribute. Do they need a napkin drawing, a 4-page glossy, or a ten-page business plan? Might they like to be taken to dinner or simply sent the request over email? Want to make it happen? This is the key - if you can get to the point of presentation with these folks, you will see your project become a Project.