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Ideas

Brain Crack

About a month ago, the excellent Avery Edison linked to an episode of the show by Ze Frank, which had quite a large impact on me:

I have transcribed the relevant bit below for your reading pleasure:

I run out of ideas every day. Each day I live in mortal fear that I've used up the last idea that'll ever come to me. If you don't want to run out of ideas, the best thing to do is not to execute them. You can tell yourself that you don’t have the time or resources to do 'em right. Then they stay around in your head like brain crack. No matter how bad things get, at least you have those good ideas - that you'll get to later. Some people get addicted to that brain crack, and the longer they wait, the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed, and they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals, and everyone's clapping - for them! But the bummer is, most ideas kinda suck when you do 'em, and no matter how much you plan, you still have to do something for the first time, and you're almost guaranteed the first time you do something, it'll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person, who's still dreaming of all the applause. When I get an idea, even a bad one, I try to get it out into the world as fast as possible, because I certainly don't want to be addicted to brain crack.

Dividing people up

The thing is, there are two factors involved - knowing how to do stuff, and doing stuff - and there are four combinations of these two factors. We can all agree that people that neither know how to do anything, nor actually do anything, are not especially useful. Additionally, we can agree that people that have both the knowledge/skill to do stuff, and actually go out and do it, are especially useful. However, the contention comes in when you look at the other two categories of people: people who have the knowledge/skill but don't use it, and people who aren't especially talented or clued up, but still try and do things (badly or not as the case may be).

I think that most people, whether they realise it or not, would consider the talented/intelligent individuals to be "better" (or "more useful"?) than the people that try (possibly unsuccessfully) to do things without having the actual talent to back it up - even though the talented ones don't actually really use their talent for anything "extra", other than getting a job and that sort of thing. I'm finding it difficult to explain this without sounding insulting or condescending, but it's fairly common to hear some very snide remarks about a website that somebody has tried to put together amateurishly, or an implementation of some service which just doesn't work too well. There seems to be a natural bias towards the talented, without regard to what is actually getting done.

Well, I disagree.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but I don't think people have internalised the full implications: doing something, whether you're good at it, or successful at it, or not, is better than knowing how to do it and never bothering.

Using ideas

Perhaps geeks tend not to implement their ideas because once they work out how to solve a problem, it's not interesting any more. This is understandable, if regrettable. Whether or not this is the case, though, I think that a much more common reason for never implementing an idea is that you think it won't work, or won't work properly, or isn't worth trying. This sort of thing has been said so often that it's almost a cliche, but people still don't seem to believe it: just do something, and it may work.

A lovely example of a good idea that you'd never believe would work is the zipper machine:

zipper machine

As the article says:

I have to imagine the person that first proposed creating this device was thought to be crazy. I suppose they had to fight their way through nay-sayers in their company until someone believed them. However, now that the machine exists it just seems like a natural thing to do.
Every time I see this machine I think it makes a great analogy for IT projects. The more audacious an IT project is, the more crazy it looks. After it is complete and people are benefitting from it everyone thinks it is obvious.

What about closer to home? As Alastair Pott says in the about page of DoStuffCT:

While hiking on Table Mountain I found myself wishing that I knew more of the many available hikes. I realised that a site where users can easily contribute to a collection of activities in Cape Town would be perfect. A Wikipedia of things to do in Cape Town.
I hacked together a quick prototype and the whole idea has developed into something of a hobby for me. I knew that I was onto something useful when I found myself using the site from my mobile phone to get restaurant details. It is my hope that others will discover the site, and that together we can create a useful and complete resource for those looking to enjoy our wonderful city.

This is exactly what I am talking about. Al thought "hmm, that could be cool", and he did it, and now it's one of my favourite sites. A slightly less successful example is Jonathan Endersby's new site, HalfPriceTuesdays. It died in its first incarnation, but he revived it, and it's in private alpha now, so hopefully we'll see it taking off like DoStuffCT.

The ideas behind these two sites are not unique. There are tons of ideas out there, and I bet that you had one just the other day. Just in the course of discussing what I'm saying in this post with some friends, two new ideas got brought up simply as examples to back up the discussion:

  • Find-A-Maid.com - you're in Vredehoek, you need a maid who can work on Friday mornings and is good with children. It's a known problem, and it can be solved. The implementation may need tweaking to be a viable solution (problem: maids don't have broadband, madams do), but it's there.
  • HoldMeAccountable.com - When I say I'm going to do something (implement an idea, write a blog post, fix my car), you can put it on this site, I'll confirm it, and if I don't do it by the deadline, I'm named and shamed. I'd use this.

They may not be great ideas, they may not work, but they are ideas.

And here's the nub:

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
--Linus Pauling

Ratios of success

My boss, Vinny Lingham is involved in the venture capital landscape, and he recently gave a talk on investing in startups (which are essentially "people implementing ideas"). As confirmed by the maths here, Vinny said that in order to be successful, a venture capitalist needs about a third of his ventures to succeed, and a third to break even (i.e. make their money back). That's not impossible, but it's a risk that a VC has to take.

However, I am not talking about VCs. I'm talking about you. You don't have that one-third burden on your ideas. Because, no matter how many ideas you implement, you only need one to succeed. If you try six things, and one becomes a success, you've won. If you try twenty things, and only one becomes a success, you've still won. And, of course, the more things you try, the more likely it is that some, or any, of them will succeed. There's, like, no excuse not to!

While you were sleeping

Another thing Vinny went over in his talk was his big idea of "making money while you sleep". This brings us back to the distinction I made earlier between the knowers and the doers. If you're very knowledgeable or skillful, you can make a lot of money by selling your knowledge or skill. You can freelance, or contract yourself out, or even get a permanent position, and the harder you work, the more money you'll get, because you've got the skill and the knowledge to make it happen. But to be really successful, you've got to work really hard. There's a direct correlation between the time you spend and the amount you get back. And that's all well and good, but there's only so much time you have. It's much more efficient (and pleasant) to make money while you sleep. If you implement an idea, and it works, and becomes successful, then you can sit back and let it work for you, and bring in the money for you. Or, better, you can start on another idea, and hope that that one works, too. If, instead of just "being good", you actually produce something that is out there and tangible, separate from yourself, the correlation between your time/energy and the amount you get back no longer exists.

My friend Dom makes an important point about this: if you are only making money from your job, you start to rely on your job. You get tied down, and start accepting more downsides and problems, because you worry that if you don't, you'll lose your job, and have no income. You need to be earning things on the side in order to be free enough to put your foot down when your job becomes intolerable. You may be lucky enough or skilled enough to walk straight into another job, but... you know... you may not.

And now, to my final point.

Cape Town

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor's research findings over the past five years show that the percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 64 in Cape Town who pursue new business are 190% above the national average.
In Johannesburg, it is only 60% above the national average.
But only 5% of new entrepreneurs in Cape Town and only 6% in Johannesburg make use of the latest technology in their businesses.
Only 15% of new entrepreneurs in Cape Town expect to have more than ten employees in five years' time.

We are in the most entrepreneurial city in the country. It has been referred to as the next Silicon Valley. Not only that, but we, as geeks, are also capable of making use of "the latest technology". We're perfectly positioned to take our ideas and make them work (if we have the confidence to "expect to have more than ten employees in five years' time"). I know that a lot of the people reading this have already been nagged by me: this post has been burning a hole in my brain for a month (I'm only publishing it now because I'm presenting this exact material at the GeekDinner tonight). But even if I have already said it to you, it's time to actually do something about it.

Conclusion

So, from now on, some rules:

  • Don't say "I will [ later ]"
  • Don't say you don't have enough time: you're lying
  • Don't expect it to be perfect (or even to work) at first
  • Don't over design

I know I'm the worst of the lot, and let this blog post hold me accountable if I haven't started doing things in six months.