As an engineer, I am prone to bouts of the “Field of Dreams” syndrome.

You know the one.  “Build it and they will come.”  (If you don’t get the reference, click here.)

Have you ever found yourself there?  Have you ever just known that you were working on the most amazing project (or product) only to find out that there were no customers when you were done?  Perhaps you even wished the crickets would be quiet so you could curl up in a fetal position in the corner and pretend that the world had ended all around you.

Maybe marketing failed to send the right message.  Maybe licensing got messed up.  Maybe there were one too many bugs in the software.  Maybe the user interface wasn’t perfect.

These are all excuses.  Something was missed up front.

Maybe you never realized why you missed the market.  Maybe there was no market.  Maybe you were just stroking your own ego – developing a product you wanted.  And maybe this wasn’t the first (or second…or third) time.

A couple of months ago, I found myself facing this situation…again.  I was working on a new concept with an incredibly talented team and this path started emerging.  The signs were all there.  We all rallied around a great idea and started to execute.

To be honest, I didn’t recognized it right away.  It was a lot like waking up to an alarm clock from a deep deep sleep.  At first, you don’t consciously hear the alarm, but eventually your brain connects the dots and you actually realize that it’s time to wake up.

So at first, I was in.  Hook.  Line.  Sinker.  The works.  I had even started developing some software.  And then it hit me.  I was about to make the same mistake again.  So I pushed back on the team.  Unlike previous cases, a great deal of market research had been done and it was rather apparent that a market existed.  We even had real numbers that estimated the size of the market.

However, when you are looking at numbers like BILLIONS of dollars, maybe (just maybe) you haven’t narrowed things down enough.  Especially for a startup.

Instead of thinking about the overall market size, I started asking about how we will connect with the market.

Can we write articles?  White papers?  Can we develop a blog with content?  Can we pre-sell the product based on PowerPoint engineering?

That brought up one of the greatest fallacies that plagues startups.

If we tell people our idea, they will steal it.  No they won’t.

But it’s so ground-breaking.  Yeah, it still won’t.

But it threatens their business model.  Not until you start making money and taking money away from them.

I used to think those thoughts.  After spending time with my virtual mentors Dave Ramsey and Seth Godin, I got over it.

Think they will steal your idea?  Call them up.  Pitch to them.  See if you can get someone to listen.  They have their own business objectives…they have their own way of doing things.  You may very well have a great idea, but they have already made tremendous headway in the market on their idea.  And, in most cases, their idea is making them money.  They don’t need your idea.

Shortly after sharing these thoughts, the project fell apart.  It was a real shame.

If possible, start building an audience before you try to solve their problem.  People are really generous.  They will help you solve their problems.  MOST importantly, they will tell you what problems they have (and they will pay YOU to solve them).

But you have to know who they are and you have to ask them first.