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How I Passed Up A Billion-Dollar Idea—And Lived To Laugh About It

Okay, maybe not laugh. But 10 years ago, Perky Jerky COO Bret Morstad was on the verge of creating Google Maps. But he didn't. Along the way, he learned that sometimes a crazy idea is worth the risk.

How I Passed Up A Billion-Dollar Idea--And Lived To Laugh About It

Have you ever seen the movie The Italian Job? Not the original Michael Caine version, but the Mark Wahlberg remake from 2003? Remember how there is this back story about Seth Green's character, Lyle, and how he keeps claiming to be the "real" Napster because Sean Parker stole his idea when they were roommates in college?

Well, this story is going to sound a lot like that. But I swear on a stack of servers, it is absolutely true.

In the summer of 2003, I was driving through the Black Hills National Forest just west of Custer, South Dakota with my friend, and then business partner, Michael Koch. We had started up a video content development business that year and, along with a small crew, were on our way to the Crazy Horse Monument to produce a documentary.

As we wound through the trees on the small two lane highway, we were discussing the state of digital technology, particularly the future of digital video. People were just starting to realize the potential of digital video, from building databases to file sharing. We had a long list of potential ideas ourselves. Michael, with his visionary outlook, would always say something like, "In the future, everything will be documented."

Now remember way back if you can, to what the world was like in 2003. This was before ubiquitous high speed wireless was available. In fact most people were still using DSL. It was the year Apple iTunes was launched. Camera phones were just hitting the market. YouTube didn’t even exist yet. So long ago, it seems we were still powering cars with our feet.

Our discussion bounced back and forth from the production project at hand to our list of fantastic new concepts. At one point, we considered how else we could best capitalize on all the gear we had purchased. We had several state-of-the-art professional grade video cameras, for example, and a nice boom rig.

In the months leading up to our trip, countless hours had been killed discussing what it meant, exactly, to "document everything" when Michael said something outlandish. "Why don’t we go back to Sioux Falls (our home town, also in South Dakota) and make a short video of every street corner in the city? Someday, every location in every city will have some sort of imagery attached to it that can be searched and viewed. We could start by driving through each intersection and build a visual database of the entire town."

Interesting, I thought. "But that would take several months of work at least. We can’t afford to spend the next half a year shooting and editing hundreds of these clips," I said, clearly skeptical. "Besides, even if we could, what would we do with it all?"

Like all bubble-building technology entrepreneurs at this time, "what you do with it all" was a question only a silly venture capitalist would ask. And quite beside the point, really. As a visionary, you build it because you understand its inherent value. You feel, deep down, that your digital dream has merit beyond what you can break up into some simple transaction. I, however, as a new business owner, wanted only transactions and lots of them. Don’t bother me with talk of a forest; I have trees to look at.

Unknown to either of us at the time, 2003 was also the year two brothers, Lars and Jens Rasmussen, started up Where 2 Technologies in Sydney, Australia. A year later, Where 2 was acquired by Google and is now called Google Maps. A brilliant startup story of its own. We, of course, had never heard of Where 2 Technologies or the Rasmussen brothers. Michael’s idea, it seemed, had sprung from the black depths of the forest we were cruising through. But had we, in parallel, created the first database of local level street corner video, the enormous gravity of the mapping software revolution may have pulled this satellite idea into its orbit. Our fortunes, and bank accounts, transformed forever.

My lack of vision that day to embrace the inherent value of this opportunity stopped it dead. Michael was convinced it would take no longer than 30 days of driving around to capture all the footage. I was convinced it would take much, much longer and was not prepared to stop everything we were doing to find out. I was too worried about the bottom line to risk it all on this crazy vision.

So like The Italian Job’s Lyle, I am left to a similar, if slightly less bitter, fate; to wonder what could have been. In this case there was no wrong doing, except failing to recognize a billion-dollar idea. The good news is there’s never a shortage of ideas.

Bret Morstad is the COO of Perky Jerky, a Denver, CO. based consumer snack food startup. In 2011, Perky Jerky was #93 on the Forbes list of most promising companies.

[Image: Flickr user Paul Schadler]