The Power of Dumb Ideas I

I was just thinking.

So many business people, or those who want to be in business, are keen on that awesome big, sparkly idea that will make their business successful and themselves wealthy.

It’s got to be unique

and unheard of in the history of the world. It has to be something nobody else can do, or even think of. Its workings must be inscrutable. You need to patent it, or you need strict non-disclosure agreements, before you’ll talk to anyone about the details.

It needs a lot of infrastructure

If it’s web-based, it needs all new dedicated servers with real-time failover. It needs its own T1 or OC3 line, because it’s just too important for an established hosting cluster.

Most of all

It has to be impossibly great the first time out. There are no increments, no ramping up. It’s zero to World Takeover, or it’s not worth doing.

The problem with this

Here’s what’s wrong with the Big Idea idea. Well, there are a lot of things wrong with it, but I’m picking out one part in particular: it will never get done.

Have you heard the folk wisdom that if you want to force yourself to do something important, make a big change in your life, you should tell your friends? That way, the embarassment of failing to follow through on {losing weight, finishing school, cleaning the house, getting out of debt} will motivate you to get that thing done. Right? Sounds great.

Well, maybe not. As it turns out, this technique doesn’t usually work because it starts with a fundamental misunderstanding of why we set goals for ourselves. A lot of people think they want to accomplish things, but deep down inside they want to be things. I don’t want to read the great books–I actually want to be an intellectual. I don’t want to lose weight–I actually want to be slim or fashionable. I don’t want to clean the kitchen–I actually want to be the kind of person who has it under control.

So what? So what is that the being part is easy, at least on a surface level, and it happens the moment you make that vocal commitment. “Wow,” you say to yourself, “I’m so sophisticated that I have great art films in my NetFlix queue.” But you don’t have to do anything to be that person, in your mind. “I am so in control,” you may think, “that I have detailed plans for decluttering all of my home and yard!” You get to feel in control even when only a token amount of it got done.

What this has to do with anything

When I was just starting out as an independent consultant, the Internet was still new as a mass phenomenon. It seemed that everyone had a Big Idea, so on the one hand there was plenty of work to do, but on the other hand a lot of it was for mom-and-pop startups that didn’t have any money.

It didn’t take long to figure out that working for equity in an unfunded startup was almost always a mistake. Basically, if a bank or investor didn’t want to buy their stock with cash, why would I want to buy it with my limited labor?

But oh, did those startups have ideas. They were full of ideas. One guy, we had one conversation after another about a new payment system that was going to take over “a third of the Internet.” I don’t know where he got the one-third number, but the little bit of shopping-cart application we did do… never got off the ground. It simply had to be the most amazing, feature-filled, highest-tech thing ever, and the basic design wasn’t so good to begin with, and it became unworkable under all that complexity. As far as I know, the payment system never moved beyond the blue-sky phase. Fortunately, I bid that project, and got paid, in cash.

You know what though? That client got what he actually wanted from the project, which was to be a player in the “gold rush” days of the Internet.

He didn’t make any money.

Another time, it was an existing barter auction site that needed some enhancements to support the coolest business model ever. I pointed out to the client that her business plan lacked anything that looked like a revenue stream–no way to buy credits, no concept of user fees, nothing like a percentage of transactions… nothing. But the site concept was awesome. She said never mind, the business issues weren’t mine to worry about, and paid 50% in advance.

My code was good. The users loved the site and had a lot of fun. It was active and efficient. Unsurprisingly, though, I never got the other 50% of my money. (Oh! That’s the business model!)

You know what though? The client got what she really wanted, which was to host a community of traders.

She didn’t make any money.

Your need is not their need

The thing about running a business, though, is that it’s not about what you want. It’s about what the clients or customers want.

That’s why, in the hopes of pinning down what my ideal clients want, I hosted a conference call with some truly awesome friends who agreed to help me talk though some very simple ideas. Pushing bits around? I love it to death. Finding clever solutions to complex software problems? That’s not just a lifestyle, it’s a hobby. Sharing some of my “just like home” aloogobi with the Punjabi guy? Fun and nutritious!

But that’s not the same as offering the things that real people (with real budgets!) want to pay real money for in the real world. Next Friday, I’m going to give examples of really dumb ideas that have been incredibly profitable for some of the smartest and hardest-working people I know.

Okay, that update turned out to be three Fridays later, and there’s only one really big example, but you should read it.

They’re not paying you to express your brilliance; they’re paying you to make stuff work, and often the simplest outcome is the best one. Tune in next time for more!

The plug at the end

You totally want to read more about dealing with Projects That Suck! And you will, if you get onto my eZine mailing list. That gets you a complete mailing about once a month, with articles and links and special offers that help you do your job, a vegetarian recipe now and then, and a quick note every week or so with something funny or interesting. Always spam-free, always entertaining and friendly.

4 thoughts on “The Power of Dumb Ideas I”

  1. I wonder if the people in your examples *really* got what they wanted from those projects, or if they just convinced themselves that they got what they wanted after the fact. I’ve often seen people adjust their definition of success so that they can convince themselves that it was totally worth all the time and money.

    So I guess I’m wondering: did they really get what they wanted after all, or did they just rationalize it after the fact?

    Very interesting post.

  2. Hey Avonelle!

    In these stories, the overt goal was to make money, but the clients’ contrary actions indicated otherwise. On the surface, the projects failed. In actual business terms, they failed. In terms of maintaining a life narrative, well, the projects failed that way too, but only because the clients probably weren’t doing it consciously.

    It’s kind of like wanting to be a famous author, so you wear something that looks authorish and hang out with literary people and keep up with the New York Times book review and so on… but you rarely get around to any actual writing. You must not seriously want the book to get published, because if you really wanted that you’d behave differently. What you actually want is to feel ambitious and sophisticated, and in those terms it’s working.

    This is kind of related to (but not exactly the same thing as) what Mark Silver wrote about passion in business. “Surprisingly, your business can do better with less passion,” he says, because passion can be misleading.

    I guess I’m saying to be clear on why you’re in business, and why you want to do a certain project. If it scratches an itch or fulfills an emotional need, fine, but it works better if you’re clear about that. Maybe you have to start by giving yourself permission to say, if it’s true: “Self, it isn’t going to be profitable, but I really feel a need to [for example] host this community.” Instead of lying to yourself by saying, “Self, hosting this community will make me a lot of money in the long run” when the business reality doesn’t support it.

    Being clear with intentions is a big deal, but sometimes it’s kind of difficult.

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