With the ubiquity of electronics, going from an idea to a working prototype has become cheaper and easier than ever before. The biggest problem with ideas is that everyone has them but most people do not have the drive and persistence needed in order to turn their ideas into a reality. To add further insult to injury it is also a challenge ensuring that the ideas one has chosen are good and not just a waste of time and money.
In terms of selecting an idea it is worth taking a step back and examining examples of good ideas and what made them so successful. Throughout history man has not changed too much from an evolutionary perspective. As a result, man’s desires and needs have also not changed too much either. The key thing that has changed is the technology available that that has enabled us to implement concepts to fulfill these needs and desires in different ways. Fiat money was first developed not because it was a good idea but rather because it became impractical to carry heavy goods and gold around to barter with. Another more recent example would be the development of Google and Wikipedia. Prior to the internet people would have used encyclopedias and libraries to research anything they needed, but the advent of the internet has allowed Google and Wikipedia to be developed to more efficiently and broadly spread this knowledge. With this observation in mind, that an idea can be successful if people find it useful, we get a tool we can use to help sift through our ideas. To use this we can just check if an idea we have will be useful to enough people, and if so, see how technology can help us pull this off to great effect.
Once an idea has been selected the execution stage can begin. Many methodologies have arisen to make the process of building ideas more scientific. Lean startup methodologies are one of the popular approaches in the startup space while agile provides similar concepts for software development. No matter the approach generally they encourage people to come up with a hypothesis and decide on the smallest possible chunk of this hypothesis they need in order to make what is known as the MVP or minimum viable product. All bloat is removed in favour of the smallest possible grain of the idea that we can build so that we can get it into the hands of customers as fast as possible. Small development cycles are advocated so that we can get feedback on the idea quickly and based on the feedback validate our hypothesis, and tweak it a bit more or completely change direction by pivoting.
One story that illustrates the power of small iterations comes from a book called: “Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
What we can infer from this is that the faster we can test more ideas, the faster we can start perfecting our process and in so doing eventually hit upon the best ideas.
When building something it is very valuable to draw a line in the sand in terms of both time and money. If we have no deadline we may never finish, so putting a firm deadline in the sand helps us weed out unnecessary features to end up with our MVP and pushes us to make our development cycles as short as possible. Y Combinator (a company that provides early stage funding and assistance to startups) for example gives companies they fund just enough money to act as seed funding and 10 weeks to build a working prototype after which they present it to potential investors and acquirers. With unlimited funds and time, we are more likely to keep adding unnecessary features and deviate away from the MVP we decided upfront.
On a much smaller scale and from a personal perspective I decided I wanted to start building up an online presence with my own personal blog. I wasted time getting lost in the details and the technologies available without writing a single article. In the end I gave myself a deadline of two weeks from that point and decided my main aim was about the articles I wanted to start writing and not so much about the technology behind it. So I ended up using the cloud computing provider DigitalOcean and used one of their pre-built vanilla Ghost blogging platform deployments to get up and running ASAP. In the end putting this time constraint in place forced me to get on the right track.
Coming up with good ideas is tougher than it may seem. Many people have ideas but not all that many can go from idea to finished product. By looking at existing ideas one can get a feel for what makes a good idea — generally it is something that people really need as they find it useful. A number of methodologies have come to light which guide in validating an idea as fast as possible. Giving ourselves constraints helps keeps us honest and working towards a reasonable deadline. In the end if we can iterate through our ideas and validate them as fast as possible we are more likely to come upon a successful one. Thomas Edison sums it up best in his response to a reporter on their jeering comment about the number of times he failed: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
by Yair Mark