In A Box

I’m not sure why but I find that I regularly put my skill set in a box. I feel like I’m out of my element if I’m doing something that isn’t in that box. I’ve never had formal training in an area or had some outside entity verify my skills. So I don’t believe in them.

I’m finding lately that I’m the only one limiting myself in this way – the people I work with are not putting me in that box. They want to see me succeed and solve their problems across a wide range of situations.

I have the skills, understanding, and motivation. I don’t need to artificially limit myself.

Oh Wait It Has Been Done Before

I’ve been talking through that moment after I’ve had an idea I think is great. In that moment I ask myself the question “Why hasn’t this been done before?” In my opening post I gave a list of four possibilities and over the last several days I’ve talked through them. But from the beginning I forgot about the most likely possibility in my experience – that my idea has been done before and I just didn’t know about it.

This one is a let down. I’ve gotten my hopes up about this amazing thing that I could do just to find out that someone else has beaten me to it. That part makes sense though – there are millions of apps out there solving hundreds of thousands of problems so it isn’t strange that my idea isn’t unique. But what do I do with it now?

Most likely nothing. You probably won’t add a lot of value by adding your take on a solution. You may look around and notice that all the other solutions aren’t very good and think you can do better and you probably can. But the problem is that the reason all the other solutions aren’t good is probably that there is little to no money in this area. No money means no motivation to improve your app which means crappy apps.

Can you add something that will give you different results? Or are you so fired up about this idea that you can’t not do it? Then by all means go for it! But you’re going to have to be smart about it and even if you are the odds are against you.

Because No One Could Make The Financial Numbers Work

I’m continuing my series of posts about that moment right after I’ve had what I think is a great idea. In that moment I ask myself “Why hasn’t this been done before?” One possible answer to that question is “Because no one could make the financial numbers work” which I’ll talk through now.

If I others haven’t been able to make the numbers work then you need to figure out if you can. Can you build it more efficiently so that you need a smaller total payback? Can you get your parts at enough of a discount to make it work? Can you remove the payment transactional fees? Have the cost of primary resources changed significantly since the last person tried? Or are you OK not making a living off of this thing or believe you’ll get enough non-monetary value out of it to make it worthwhile. Maybe it will help you form a relationship or spread the word about what you do. One word of caution from my experience – it is tough to rationalize working on things that don’t bring in money when you’re short on time. Your good intentions will be fighting against your psyche.

Because It Is Or Was Technologically Impossible

I’ll continue talking about that moment after I’ve had an idea that I think is great. In that moment I ask myself the question “Why hasn’t this been done before?” One possible answer to that question is “Because it is or was technologically impossible.” I’ll discuss this situation now.

When I find myself in this situation the first thing I need to do is figure out if the technological problem can be overcome. If it can’t then the idea’s done, at least for now. I can add it to a list of ideas to come back to in the future and move on to something else for now.

I can’t remember a time I’ve found myself in the situation where something was impossible but isn’t now. I’ve always been too busy with today to leave cushion for tomorrow. From what I’ve heard from others speed is critical in this situation. If you see something is newly possible then it is likely that others will see that too.

This is a risky situation but the most fun. It is risky because you need to invest resources without any sure indication that you’ll have a market for what you’ve built at the end. It might be that people just don’t care about what you’ve made or it might be that someone beats you to market and takes the customers that you would have had.

It is fun because you get to do something that no one else has ever done. That’s the sort of possibility I need to find time to do.

Before Or After

Yesterday I read a blog post about Warren Buffet’s rumored method for scheduling appointments. The author finished the story in a way that got under my skin:

I’m sure many people will say “well, he’s Warren Buffet so he can do that”. Yes he’s Warren Buffet, but no one granted him the power to do that or say that. He decided that.

It got under my skin for a couple of reasons. First, because it really does matter that he is Warren Buffet. When you are a billionaire you have much more flexibility over your schedule. I work in consulting and can’t imagine telling my clients that they need to call me the day before a meeting to schedule it. Because I’m not Warren Buffet I’m not in the position to dictate terms to others.

The other reason it got under my skin is that it implicitly states “if you want to be successful like Warren Buffet then you should do this.” But we don’t know if this is a key component of his success. It could be that he got successful and then started doing this because he could at that point.

Because No One Cared Enough To Do It

Today I’ll continue talking about the moment after I have what I consider to be a great idea. In that moment I ask the question “Why hasn’t this been done before?” One possible answer to that question is “Because no one cared enough to do it.” I’ll discuss how I handle that situation.

Most of my side projects start in this situation. I’ll identify a problem I have that I can solve fairly simply. For example, my Dharma Talks app that u created because listen to Mission Dharma’s Dharma Talks was difficult in a mobile web browser because it wouldn’t keep track of where I was in the talk between my morning and evening commutes. It is a simple app but no one cared enough to make it.

Another way of phrases that statement is that no one had a sufficient incentive to build that app. Which brings us to the fundamental problem when you are in this situation – you probably can’t make money off of your idea. I knew that going into making the Dharma Talks app because I volunteered to build it for a non-profit. But I’ve had other projects where I hadn’t realized the truth of this situation and put in time and energy with no direct monetary payback. I’m OK with that sometimes, but you may not be.

It Has Been Done Before But It Failed

Today I’ll continue the discussion I started yesterday about that moment after I’ve had an idea that I think is great. In that moment I ask myself “Why hasn’t this been done before?” One answer to that question is “Actually, it has been done before but it failed” so I’ll discuss how I handle that possibility. I think it’s important that I note here that I’m asking this question to determine whether I can turn my idea into a sustainable project and business. If you only care about making something you are fired up about then this question won’t matter to you.

The keys to handling this situation are research and finding root causes. I need to learn as much as possible about the previous attempts to do this thing. From that research I need to put together the facts to figure out why it failed. Most businesses fail because they run out of money but that isn’t helpful information here. I need to know why they ran out of money. I’ll also be tempted to blame the incompetence of the people who were trying to do this the first time. I’ll tell myself that I won’t be so dumb and make the mistakes they did. But again, that isn’t the root cause and, as a side note, I will make incompetent mistakes too although they may be different ones.

Ultimately the root cause should fall into one of two broad categories – the previous effort either went in unprepared, with too little cash or experience or talent or all three, or their target market didn’t care about their thing as much as they anticipated. After finding one of those root causes I have to ask myself “can I bring somethings to this that will avoid that problem?” Hopefully the answer is yes. Then that is the beginning of the slog to actually follow through and prove it.

Why It Hasn’t Been Done

Every once in a while I have an idea that I think is fantastic. I get really excited and start imagining how much better the world would be if I did this thing. I explore the limits of the idea in my mind while examining it from every angle – is this really as good as I think it is? Once the excitement wears off a bit I get around to asking myself a very important question: why hasn’t this been done before?

I can think of four categories of answers this question could have:

1) It has been done before but failed for some reason 2) It hasn’t been done before because no one cared enough to do it 3) It hasn’t been done before because it is/was technologically impossible 4) It hasn’t been done before because no one could make the financial numbers work

Over the next several days I’m going to talk through these different possibilities and what they mean for your idea.

Figuring Out What Is Good

One way you may try to figure out what is good is to look around at things you like – things you think are good. Maybe you can use those things to set your bar for quality. But imitation isn’t enough – a copy of something good isn’t necessarily good. Rather than simply copying you have to know what things about that good thing make it good. What do you like about it? What if you changed this one part, would you still like it then?

Framing The Problem

The solution you need depends on the problem you have. That’s obvious. But the problem you have isn’t obvious.

I read a tweet this morning about how open floor plan offices are bad for your health. The first person that replied said “…I rarely see good solutions for maximizing floor space yet dealing with these issues.” That person sees a different problem – maximizing floor space – than I see – giving people a productive place to work.

Step #0 in solving a problem is figuring out what your problem is.