Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Ideas are the easy part - bootstrapping for beginners

"Invention on the Internet, eh?" said a friend of mine as we slid into our third pint. "I've got an idea, actually. I'll tell you it if you promise you won't nick it."

An idea that you promise not to nick. Hmm… what's the value of that these days? I'm not sure it's worth the paper it isn't even printed on.

Ideas are 1% of the work. A very important 1% for sure, but a tiny proportion of what matters.

Getting ideas made isn't even the remainder. That's just the next 49%.

Then the real work starts.

1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. True enough. Though I strongly suspect there should be more than 100% in there.

It's a common mistake to think that great ideas are what distinguish great inventors from all the rest of us who never did. We've been at the invention game for a few short months now, and it's interesting to see how little of invention is actually about inventing things.

First: if you don't understand how to make it yourself, you probably shouldn't even bother having the idea.

Let's say I have an amazing idea for the next social network. It's kind of like Facebook, and it sort of borrows from Twitter, but here's the twist: it's way better than both of them. Great! Am I a billionaire yet? If I can hook up with a few clever (and cheap) programmers, then surely Bob's your Friend and Fanny's your Tweeting auntie.

It doesn't work like that. Any digital product needs painstaking hours, days, weeks and months of meticulous crafting for it to do justice to its original concept. You need to be able to look after that craft work somehow - at painstakingly close range. Either you have the skills to do it yourself, or you can manage and direct other people doing it. But either way, you need to fully understand it. Fully. Double fully. More than that.

There's nothing worse than a box-ticking exercise masquerading as a good solution.

Can you mark someone as your friend? Yes. Can you share your interests? Oh yes. Can you visit other people's pages and leave a comment? Absolutely. As a bonus, can you make your own page look like Mariah Carey's wardrobe after she's had a big night out and fallen into a hedge? Yay! You've made MySpace… oh hang on, it's 2012.

Ticking boxes is not how good stuff gets done. You can't make a list and leave it with someone. That's no way to treat them and they won't care as much as you. Good stuff gets done through an ongoing process of observing, responding, refinement, adaptation and staying true to a clear vision.

Second: when you've built it, they probably won't come.

So you climb the mountain. You commit to the idea. You work your butt off building whatever needs to be built. You adapt. You think on your feet. You stick with it. You get to a point where there's finally no excuse not to put it live. You flick the switch, equally scared and excited to see what real people will do with - and say about - your new product.

And your reward for climbing the mountain? A flag planted reverentially at the summit, perhaps? The pure clear air of achievement? Umm… actually no. That'll be the dawning realisation that you've merely climbed Snowdon, and K2 is right there in front of you.

The bigger mountain is encouraging people to use your new invention. At least 50% of the work of invention on the Internet is persuading people that your invention is worth a second glance. Sales. Marketing. Driving traffic. Grabbing attention. Persuasion. Evangelism. Confidence. Boastfulness. Doggedness. Relentlessness. Unshakeable determination. Air kissing.

For inventors, this can be more than a little off-putting. The qualities required, and the objectives to be achieved, are not comfortable ground for your average mad scientist. This is salesman territory.

Suddenly, you're not in your comfort zone. And it's all the more of a shock since you've recently been comfortably buried under a tonne of development work.

Third: be prepared to reinvent your invention at the drop of a hat.

The Internet is a hyper-evolving medium. Things changing makes other things change twice as fast. Everything is whizzing about and switching direction faster than a school of pilchards in the midst of a dolphin frenzy. No-one is waiting for your idea to be dropped into the water.

So once you're in, if you don't start whizzing about too, then… just to follow the metaphor through… you'll be dead in the water in as short a time as you can hold your breath.

You need to be gathering feedback and looking with wide open eyes at exactly what's happening. There's no room for thinking "they're idiots - they'll come round eventually", and there's no room for thinking "I should've known it would never work". Leave the ego out, it'll only slow you down, and observe all like Buddha's favourite little monkey. Every single movement is evidence of the physics at play, and you need to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can to have a hope of spotting a useful pattern.

Adapting and learning are probably the only really reasonable goals to set yourself. That's certainly crucial for keeping up, and beneficial for whatever you do next.

You can't afford to be precious about your product. If it doesn't need to change, that probably means it's broken.

There shouldn't be anything off-putting in any of this. It's exciting, and it's endlessly challenging. You learn, you learn, you fall over, you learn some more. That's the Internet imitating life, which it does very well these days.

We will certainly keep trying. And so should you. Grab your idea by it's scruffy bits, down your pint... maybe have another one. And then let's go.