Responding to Bad Ideas

By Martha Rush, Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips From the Front

So, your students have identified a meaningful problem. They’ve validated it with customer interviews. And they believe there’s a solid market for a solution.

Good news! They are finally ready to develop their minimum viable produce—aka their first iteration of a real product or service.

As the teacher/coach/advisor, you’re excited to see what they come up with. Finally, it’s getting real! But then they propose their idea, and your heart sinks because you’re pretty sure their idea is a bad idea.

What do you do? How do you navigate this minefield, knowing that what you say next could derail their entire startup experience?

We like to say “there are no bad ideas,” but we all know that’s not true. There are some bad ideas, ideas that are illegal or unsafe, ideas that are implausible, and ideas that have no market potential. The trick is distinguishing ideas that might be bad—but which can be thoughtfully tested in the market—from ideas that really should be stopped.

Here are a few examples. What would you say to these young entrepreneurs?

#1 The problem: Teenagers don’t like calling restaurants to make reservations. 

The solution: A bot restaurants can use to answer customers’ questions on social media.

#2 The problem: Teenagers don’t like the snack options available at school. 

The solution: A student-run bakery producing thousands of donuts per day.

#3 The problem: Senior citizens in the community need help with chores, like leaf-raking, snow-shoveling, and home maintenance. 

The solution: A website that pairs student volunteers with the seniors who need help.

I think these are all potentially bad ideas, and here’s why:

#1 sounds a lot like Open Table, and plenty of restaurants already respond to social media inquiries. Plus, where we live, very few places require reservations. The bot didn’t seem viable.

#2 wasn’t my students’ idea — it happened to another teacher. The logistics were completely unreasonable, and she was pretty sure the students were just testing her, trying to make her say no.

#3 is the one that really worried me. The potential for a predator in the area to use this matching service (a la Craigslist) to find vulnerable teens was just too great.

So, what should a teacher say?

In most cases, my response to any idea is to keep my mouth shut and keep my bias out of it. After all, who am I to judge an idea? I’m acutely aware that I have limited knowledge of what 21st-century consumers want, and if I’d been in the room, I probably would have shot down moneymakers like the Keurig, Airpods, or the Kindle.

In scenario #1, the restaurant bot, my response was the same as it is for every group: go out and talk to more customers.

Talk to the potential buyers (the restaurants) and not just the users (your friends), and find out who would be willing to pay for this bot.

That resolved it. The students found that restaurants were not, in fact, interested in their bot, and after many weeks stalled in place, they chose to pivot and market their bot to student groups.

In scenario #2, the teacher was brilliant. She took her students’ idea seriously, and she masterfully guided them through a process called: what would it take?

The students themselves finally concluded that they didn’t have the resources to secure a commercial kitchen, meet state health and safety guidelines, or bake at that scale. They moved on to a different problem, but they felt empowered rather than discouraged.

Scenario #3 is the one that triggered my strongest response. There had been a few high profile incidents of assaults happening during Craigslist and Uber transactions, and I wasn’t willing to take on that level of liability. I didn’t actually forbid the venture—but I did tell them they would have to consult with the school district’s lawyers about liability concerns. They chose not to pursue it.

What’s the takeaway?

Students have some bad ideas, but most of the time, real-world market feedback will sort that out. Your students don’t need you to be a naysayer. What they do need is your support and encouragement and to be held accountable to the process.

My policy: Only intervene and say no in the rare case that their venture will put themselves or others in harm’s way.


Martha Rush

Martha, founder and CEO of NeverBore Education Consulting and author of Beat Boredom (Stenhouse, 2018), is a nationally recognized teacher with 25 years of classroom experience. She has worked as a professional curriculum writer since 2011 and a workshop consultant since 2013. She founded NeverBore in 2015 with a mission to provide teachers nationwide with hands-on strategies to overcome boredom and improve student engagement and motivation. She now serves as Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero and has compiled the QØ Teen Startup Handbook.