If you were asked to evaluate a newly built app by walking around a city or a school campus and taking pictures of buildings, hit a submit button, and some server up in the cloud somewhere would almost instantly beam down a description and other information about the edifice in front of you, would this tech be surprising? Would it seem magical?
Right now, today, we are at the precipice of an augmented world. There are already people taking this initial concept of image recognition and not only pushing back information but actually overlaying digital images that you can interact with in that blend of reality and virtual interfaces together on your device. The potential applications for this technology are huge.
Thinking about new technology, have you ever taken a moment to think through missed professional opportunities in your life? The reflection back on the moments and ideas in your career that if you had just realized what you had in front of you at that singular moment in time then it would be you in charge of the big social media company or presenting the next big thing onstage in front of the whole world.
Would you believe me if I told you that I experienced the big tech idea in 2001 and it wasn’t until many years later that I realized and acknowledged the giant missed opportunity that it presented?
Back in 2002 I was in college attending a course in mobile software engineering. Smartphones didn’t exist at the time. The first iPhone wouldn’t even come out for six more years. It wasn’t even until early 2002 that the first tablet PC was launched by Microsoft after being designed and built by HP.
The course was structured around these brand new tablet devices and what they could do. For the group I was in, the main project was centered around building an app using these devices. This professor also happened to run the software imaging lab and from this overlap we decided to build an accessibility app that would leverage tech around image recognition. This would involve using a Pocket PC/PDA or the tablet PC to take a picture of a building on campus, transfer that image back to a server, run image processing to identify the image against a database, and then provide information about that building back to the client app.
While we never had the time to put polish on the solution, it did work. In 2001.
Six years later I purchased one of the original iPhones. The sheer audacity of the phone still blows me away. If you are younger and don’t really realize what it was like to not have a smartphone to answer any question or to listen to any song or to view any map, well the world was a totally different place back then. That original iPhone was a momentous device. It opened the doors for so many ideas, apps, and social change.
Yet, the first three apps that I remember getting excited about were an app simulating a glass of beer that when you tipped the phone the liquid would ‘pour out’, a flashlight app that would light up your screen with a solid white background to act as a flashlight, and the third was a fart app. The pinnacle of personal technology to this point in human existence and we all ran around lighting our way pouring fake liquid from our phones and simulating fart noises…
Looking back at these events now, the hindsight is both blindingly obvious and somewhat frustrating. Focusing on mobile development and then being able to transition those skills into smartphone development in order to hit the ground running in 2007 with the launch of the iPhone would have been an amazing and wild ride. Who knows where it would have led. The tech that I was working with in 2001 seems orders of magnitude more complex than the simple apps that I remember getting excited about. What could I have made and been a part of if I had continued to explore that area of technology? Where would that put me professionally right now?
What if I had been able to recognize the opportunity right there in front of me?
“If wishes were horses then beggars would ride” is a quote that I remember hearing at home often while growing up. The fact is, wide open big opportunities are all around us every day and we routinely miss them each and every day. We all have thoughts and dreams and random shower thoughts. The gap here is whether or not each of us can first envision how that one big idea would grow into a viable business and then find the motivation to take the first steps down that path and start doing something about it.
Therefore, in order to carpe diem on a Big Idea we need three key elements: Identification, Vision, and Motivation.
The Identification of a Big Idea
How does one identify a Big Idea? Obviously, 18 years ago I did not have any clue how to achieve this objective. If wisdom is the accumulated body of knowledge that one builds up over time I am theoretically wiser while writing this than at any point in my life up to this point. Wisdom suggests that we start with a definition of a Big Idea:
An idea is “big” if it helps us make sense of lots of confusing experiences and seemingly isolated facts. It’s like the picture that connects the dots or a simple rule of thumb in a complex field… A big idea is thus a way of seeing better and working smarter, not just a vague notion or another piece of knowledge… If an idea is “big” it helps us make sense of things. So, an idea is not “big” merely because it categorizes a lot of content.
Grant Wiggins from the article “What is a Big Idea?“
Next, wisdom says we boil this definition down into even simpler terms in our own words because we aren’t focusing on philosophy here, technological Big Ideas mean products. Therefore: A Big Idea provides simple understanding of a confusing experience with a smarter way of doing things that makes sense in a new product that hasn’t been made before.
Sounds good, so let’s apply it to the project that I worked on back in 2001. Our use case was something like this: A freshman is trying to navigate around campus and is lost trying to find the building for their next class. With this app they can get information about each building that they are looking at and possibly even calendar schedules with class numbers and directions to individual classrooms. So does this pass the simplified Big Idea definition?
- simple understanding of a confusing experience: A lost freshman doesn’t know which building is which yet, so a way to identify what building they are facing hopefully simplifies their confusion
- a smarter way of doing things: remember there were no smartphones in 2001, so the only recourse here was to use a paper map or go in each building and ask someone
- new product that hasn’t been made before: to the best of my knowledge I was not aware of any products like this that were readily available at the time
Now that we have a full definition and method for determination of a Big Idea, it cannot be said with confidence that I would recognize one in front of me. There is also an argument to be made that the further along one gets in a career, even though the accumulated wisdom theoretically is higher than it has ever been, the tolerance for the risk associated with chasing a Big Idea also lowers over time. That is a big balancing factor when evaluating ideas and could even lead to some unconscious limits against the ability to adequately explore an idea to the point that the vision for what the idea could achieve is thoroughly conceptualized.
In the end, I believe that there are only two real ways to know if an idea is a Big Idea. The first is to do what I am doing here and look back in a few years with newly accumulated wisdom and evaluate then if it might have passed the test. The second is to throw caution to the wind and take a dive into the deep end and start creating a Vision around the Big Idea.
A Vision To Turn A Big Idea Into A Big Business
At this point most humans are familiar with the story of garage startups. Hewlitt Packard, Disney, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are all examples of Big Ideas that started in a garage and grew to massive, world-spanning businesses both in terms of products, money, and ideas. Whether it is luck, chance, or some incredibly skillful people, these are the biggest and brightest examples of Big Ideas gone supernova.
These examples also don’t provide a good template to follow to turn a Big idea into a Big Business. If one needs to wear a creative inventor hat to come up with a Big Idea, then that hat needs to be swapped out with an entrepreneur hat to turn that idea into a Big Business.
However, wearing an entrepreneur hat does not mean that you need to start spouting the latest business buzzwords and run around trying to create the next Spotify Model for development.
There is a modern day philosophy for embracing being an entrepreneur and attacking building something that can bootstrap your Big Idea into an actual business. Lean Startup is a methodology that borrows from lean manufacturing science and applies it against development of new products in a startup atmosphere. The practice focuses on value-creating functions during the earliest phases of a company “so that the company can have a better chance of success without requiring large amounts of outside funding, elaborate business plans, or a perfect product” (wikipedia, Lean Startup).
There are vast amounts of information on the web about this methodology and one of the foremost evangelists of the system is Eric Reis who has written about the core principles of the movement in The Lean Startup (Amazon link). These principles are not focused on business plans, but instead on wearing the Entrepreneur hat and working to determine who the correct audience is that will pay for the Big Idea through building Minimum Viable Products (MVPs), A/B testing, and collecting actionable metrics so that pivots can be made to better bring the assembled product in alignment with the ideal customer and create a business from a Big Ideal with greater efficiency and thus the need for less money.
While some adherents claim that the lean process can make individual start-ups more successful, I believe that claim is too grandiose. Success is predicated on too many factors for one methodology to guarantee that any single start-up will be a winner. But on the basis of what I’ve seen at hundreds of start-ups, at programs that teach lean principles, and at established companies that practice them, I can make a more important claim: Using lean methods across a portfolio of start-ups will result in fewer failures than using traditional methods.
Steve Blank from the article Why The Lean Start-Up Changes Everything
No matter the method to get there, the Vision for a Big Idea requires creation of a product in some form or fashion as well as a dependency on getting that product in front of people who might eventually give you money for that product. In this manner, the Vision is a business function. You don’t need to be great at business to be successful here — a lot of the famous garage startups were much closer to Engineers than they were to business people with a MBA — but there isn’t a way to turn a product into money without putting some sort of structure around the product and we usually call this process building a business.
However, there is one more critical element that is required to turn a Big Idea into a Big Business, and for this step we need to roll up our sleeves and take off the hats and grab a fresh tub of elbow grease because right now the element that is missing is Motivation.
Finding Motivation To Actually Execute On A Big Idea
The impetus to begin and then keep the ball rolling once started is one of the hardest challenges to overcome for a Big Idea. Coming up with a Big Idea is actually the easiest part of the whole thing. Building a Vision to support turning that into a Big Business is harder, but just getting off the couch and doing something is the hardest action to take. This key element is why so many people can talk about their big ideas but very few actually step up and do anything about them. While timing, circumstance, opportunity, and luck all play a part, the real fuel that drives a startup is the passion, drive, and motivation of the person or people grinding and fighting every day to make that dream a reality.
Being an entrepreneur and running your own business is one of the hardest things you can do. It will tax every fiber of your patience, your finances, your family, your health and even your sanity.
It would be really easy at this point to throw a couple of motivational links and some perseverance quotes up here and call it a day. I am reminded of Dori from Finding Nemo: Just keep swimming. This would be great advice if this was a straight and narrow path and no matter if the path went uphill or down, it just kept going on in front of you and the main think to remember is to keep going no matter the grind needed to continue. This scenario implies that the path is leading somewhere.
I am very sorry to burst this bubble, but the issue here is not the belief that the path leads somewhere.
The reality is that there is no path.
Have you ever driven cross country? If you ever get a chance to just drive for hours just watch out the window while driving at the landscape around the vehicle, the geographical area doesn’t matter. Take a moment and consider how you would traverse all of that distance if there were no roads, no paths showing you the way. Are there hills or mountains in the way? Are there streams or lakes or rivers to navigate over or around? Are you crossing bridges that in a few seconds get you over ravines or gorges that would take hours to climb down and then back up the other side? This is a much better scenario to describe a start up. Even if you are lucky enough to have a piece of paper with a map on it at best you might have some landmarks to follow from that map. But still, there is no path. This is why people following the Lean Startup methodologies have more tools at their disposal. These are the people that come prepared with not only a map, but things like a compass and a hiking stick. Yet many of these people still fail.
The article referenced above (The Art of StartUp Motivation) calls out lots of ways to keep the momentum going once things have started moving. Finding Purpose. Stick to a routine. Get enough sleep. Watch motivational videos. These are all good tips from a good article, but these are all habits and skills that help keep the fires going. There is nothing here explaining how to start that fire in your gut to get things moving. There is nothing describing how to get some of the passion needed to convince others that your Vision is the right one. This is a deeply personal effort and it will be different for each person. There is no common statement, method, or idea that I can put here that will light that fire in every person that reads these words.
It is possible that solving the problem of how to light your own internal fire is the key to launching a Big Idea…
However, once you figure out what drives you to take on the challenge of a Big Idea, you need solid habits and goals to keep things moving. While Apple is one of the classic garage startups, the company also shows how the drive of one individual can make or break a company. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak came together in 1976 to start Apple Computers. These two were the main drivers behind the early success for the company and led it until 1985 when they both ended up leaving what had turned from a Big Idea into a Big Business. The leadership in place kept going but over time started struggling and this resulted in Steve Jobs re-joining Apple in 1997 and leading the company into building a second Big Idea in the first iPhone. Without Jobs and his Vision, the company struggled to continue to grow.
The point here is that the drive and vision from one person is hard to replicate and continue in other people. It takes that inner fire from the person with the Big Idea to turn the dream into a reality. It takes perseverance, determination, and lots and lots of motivation, especially when things get tough.
The early explorers, trappers, and pioneers seized upon this motivation to travel out west and build up America. In the book by Peter Stark: Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival (Amazon link) the author talks about the trappers traveling without a path or a map and often without food across the wilderness. They even tried to eat the leather from their boots to survive.
In the book Lean Startup, Eric Reis talks a lot about making pivots early and often to better bring the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) better in line with customer expectations and needs based on validated learning techniques. If the trappers had pivoted then they might not have needed to try and eat their boots to survive, but then again, they wouldn’t have had boatloads of furs to make them rich when they got back to civilization.
No matter what methodology, challenges, terrain, path (or lack thereof) you traverse when pursuing a Big Idea, your own motivation is key to finding success. It will not be easy and often will not be fun, but remember that you can’t find your own way to just keep swimming unless you first jump off the dock into the water.
As for me? I have zero regrets. If given the chance to go back to my college days I think I would turn it down. There is too much fun to be had in doing what I am currently doing building products and in the potential for a burgeoning writing hobby. Besides, there is no guarantee that if I went back I would be able to gain the wisdom that I have accumulated to be able to write these words and help others realize their own Big Ideas. That possibility provides more than enough fulfillment and satisfaction to obviate any desire I have to go back and do it all over again. Thanks for reading!
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on December 13, 2019. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.