Many, many years ago I worked with a wonderful group of people. This is the type of group that you will always look back at fondly and miss spending time with them during the day. One of the activities that we would partake in nearly every single day was something we called “pop time”. Pop time was where we would walk down to a small kitchen area where there were vending machines and a coffee maker and everyone would get an afternoon drink and chat for a while before heading back to finish up the day. We usually had pop time between 2–3pm.
There was one individual in this group, Todd, that was just an all around great guy. He would usually have something fun to talk about. I would also go as far as to call out that he was usually on the glass half empty side of the fence. There were many rants about company decisions and sometimes how we all needed to get out of there. But he took it one step further. He kept a running total stating how much money he thought that he would need to just stand up and yell “Screw it!” and walk away. I remember that we would get usually weekly updates for this piss-off number. It was usually something like $1,442,350.00. While I am not sure how he calculated this number and what factors and variables he took into account here, he kept that calculation running and the number updated for years.
During these conversations, we would often talk about different ideas for getting there. While we would all put a dollar or two into the lottery pool anytime it became large enough, we knew that the lottery was not a way for Todd to hit his piss-off number. In fact, the most common phrase that everyone used for the lottery pool was that they didn’t want to be the only ones left there if everyone else somehow managed to get super lucky and hit the jackpot. So we would talk about ideas to get from where we were at to some magical number with at least 7 digits in it.
Thus was born the concept of the MDI. If you haven’t guessed by now, MDI is short for Million Dollar Idea. It only takes one and if you look at the number of actual millionaires that have achieved this through an idea and not through other means like inheritance or high paying jobs and investing over many, many years the number of these people is pretty small. There is also one other huge, giant, show-stopping thing to remember with a MDI. Anyone and everyone can have them. But just like that group at pop time, having an idea and doing something about it are two wildly different things.
We can all come up with a MDI. I think I had 2 of them in the shower this morning. But how do we take that idea and make it a reality? While writing this I am thinking back to a movie that I have seen many, many, many times. The 2005 movie Robots is all about a robot with a dream to go build and invent. If you are a parent, you may have had the wonderful chance to get stuck in a rut with your child when they want to watch the same movie over…. and over…. and over. Robots was one of these movies for us. It is actually a great movie. The incomparable Robin Williams voices one of the main characters which automatically elevates the overall movie. However, and I did not know this until looking it up for this post, the movie also features the voices of Halle Berry, Mel Brooks, Drew Carey, Amanda Bynes, Stifler’s mom Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Giamatti, James Earl Jones, Terry Bradshaw, Paula Abdul, Jay Leno, Greg Kinnear, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci… wow!
Anyways — in the movie the main robot, Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) is trying to meet his idol, the head of the big robot corporation and longtime inventor Bigweld (voiced by Mel Brooks). Bigweld’s catchphrase is “see a need, fill a need”. First go watch this movie with your favorite little inventor and small human. Then stop and think about this phrase. Find a need or a gap that exists and find a way to fill it. There are other ways to get there. I can think of a few off the top of my head. Go write a bestselling book. Go create a bestselling song. But this blog is all about Engineers. We create things. What gaps exist all around us that we need to go fill?
Remember — the idea part here is definitely the easy part. It is not hard to look around you and see something that you could improve upon. What software could connect 2 devices that couldn’t talk together before? What piece of equipment could make doing something easier? Are you having trouble finding something? Start thinking about successful companies that have grown from nothing to something big. Fortunately, most Engineers deal with technology and that is one of the easiest areas to observe this effect even though it happens in all areas and all markets. Uber? That bridges a gap between technology and transportation and giving people a way to work easily with what vehicle they already have. Amazon? At the root — Amazon is a technology company that also takes the model of making it up in volume to an extreme level and fills the gap of getting lots of stuff to you quickly, at home, without you having to leave the house. Need-fill-done.
Now the hard part. Implementation. I heard an awesome story this past week from my uncle. It involves an 8 year old girl who owns and runs her own business. As the story goes, her dad had helped out a friend with a flagpole business in another city. She would run around and help with cleaning up and assisting while putting up a new flagpole. The family moved to a new city and she had the bright idea that her dad should start a business putting up flagpoles. He was not interested but stated that she could start the business. Which he then helped her to do. They put up flagpoles at businesses and residential homes for good prices and she even pays her younger siblings $5 each time they come out and help her cleanup the work site during an install. The best part? Her dad did not start the business for her — she did it all herself, albeit with a little help. It was an awesome story.
That story puts our old pop time group to shame. That amazing 8 year old saw a need and then went out and filled that need. What need are you going to go out and fill today? What MDIs are you going to think of? Start writing them down. While I know I won’t make a million dollars from this blog, I am not only coming up with ideas, but I am writing them down and actually hitting my goals. While not technically a MDI, I absolutely feel that I am fulfilling the spirit of the MDI with this and all of the other posts I write. So go out and start documenting your MDIs. If you can start doing that and building up that habit then I can promise you it will keep getting easier and easier to do. Each post I write on here becomes easier and easier to write. Then, at some point, you will have an amazing list of ideas and MDIs of your own that you can really start looking at and thinking about how to turn just one of them into a reality. I promise you, it can be done, just get off your butt and go do it. What’s Your MDI?
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on October 16, 2019. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.