The Power of Dumb Ideas II

Recently I wrote about some of the Really Big Cool Commercial Things people tried to do on the Internet when it was still kind of a fad. These Big Things tended not to work out either because they didn’t make sense to begin with, or because their perpetrators could never settle for something that actually worked and delivered value.

I think (and said then) that this is probably because people often enter into business for reasons other than doing stuff that works and delivers value. If, on the other hand, you *cough* do stuff that works and delivers value it’s a lot more likely your business will do well. Notably, it doesn’t have to have an amazing idea behind it.

My favorite example of this is those nifty little PC-based cash registers. I’m a bit out of date on who has what these days, but back in the early and middle 1990s it seemed like one out of four mall stores had something from Systems for Today’s Retailer, which went by STR most of the time when I worked there.

STR started a little like this. Scott and Chuck what I call a dumb idea: to mimic those $10,000 intelligent cash registers that know how much everything costs, calculate discounts, print time cards, keep inventory up to date, and send sales data back to the corporate offices. Except they would do it for around $3,000 on an industry-standard PC.

That’s all. That was the big idea.

I’m sorry, there just isn’t very much to it.

It hit big. Everyone wanted this. They made their first sale to a small chain of jewelry stores headquartered in California. Then there were a couple of local Ohio customers. A place that sold swimming pool supplies, stuff like that. There was a chain of pet supply stores. And a nascent chain of computer superstores. None of these were gigantic wins, but they were mostly solid customers who paid a fair price for a good product.

Hey, there were a lot of problems with the software. By the time I showed up as the fifth employee, Scott’s office contained a clear box of 5.25″ floppy diskettes, generally three for the uniquely copied source code for each client’s custom applications. “Source control” was pulling things out of the box and putting them back.

What we considered the “base” application was about 160,000 lines of Clipper code, largely cut and paste from previous versions. In fact, one of my first really big refactorings involved merging eleven slightly different versions of the main item entry function into one, with just a little branching to distinguish the eleven kinds of transactions. It wasn’t the best code base to work with.

But it didn’t matter, not then, not really.

The key thing Scott and Chuck did, and this was seriously brilliant, was to figure out what people wanted to pay money for and making it work well enough to use. (Well, that and hiring me.) In a few years, STR had become fairly stable and rather profitable. We had matching 401(k) plans and good health insurance. It was a good place to work, and the software itself got quite a bit better as we improved our code and project management practices.

I started working with those guys almost twenty years ago now, and I still keep thinking… wow, it’s just a cash register with a regular computer in it. That’s all.

What’s the difference between a Great Idea and a Great Business?

One is fun to think about. The other is a lot of hard work.

And what do you know, tonight begins Startup Weekend Cleveland. In about five hours, I’m going to join about seventy other business and technical people to talk about ideas, pick a subset that the group will develop into products, and personally contribute to one of those. Which ones will be most successful? I’m betting on the ideas that make people say “I need that!” not “Oh cool!” In other words, the stuff that works and creates value.

7 thoughts on “The Power of Dumb Ideas II”

  1. Can I just say “amen” “duh!” and “cawabunga!” all at the same time? “adubunga!”

    Just sayin’.

    And I’m really struck by “Startup Weekend.” That is such a cool thing.

  2. This is a trend I encounter quite often and it makes a bit of sense when you look at it blindly.

    “Let’s build a better X so that it runs faster, slimmer and gives us more information. Let’s not change the user experience at all, since our customers already intuitively understand how X works.”

    However, a quick user research study will refute this. Interacting with software that looks like and behaves like an old SRT cash register won’t be naturally intuitive as was originally thought. Our physical connection to the device influences our natural behaviors. We behave differently in front of a PC than we do in front of a cash register and we need to embrace that.

    Whenever you build an improved version of a system, you should dedicate time to some design research. After all, to your customers the user interface IS the product. Fail on that, and you fail completely.

    1. I forgot to mention, Josh, that the other part of the “dumb idea” was to replicate the “cash register experience.” It didn’t particularly look computerish–which was especially important in those days when a lot of people didn’t have their own PCs to begin with.

      End-user training turned out to be pretty simple. People caught on really fast. We did tend to spend a lot of time with managers because of all the cool new things they could do with an STR system. But the regular cashiers hit function keys for almost everything, no big deal.

      But I agree with your main point, which is that you can’t just mess with people’s experiences and perceptions. If it doesn’t make sense to the user, it doesn’t make sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *