Over the last year or so I have have attended a number of meetups, conferences, camps, seminars and a tweetup or two in the UK, Ireland and the US. All of them have been concerned, one way or another, with developments in the Internet world and how to take advantage of them.
As one would hope and expect, all this discussion led to people taking action and embarking on projects of their own. However, nearly all the projects (there have been honourable exceptions) have pretty much looked and sounded like things that existed before. Lack of originality would be the most apt characterisation of all this ‘creative’ activity.
I am not alone in this observation. In an excellent and well-sourced article titled “The Big Idea: How to Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution” in the Harvard Business Review, the very first injunction from the author Daniel J. Isenberg is to “Stop Emulating Silicon Valley”.
He gives a number of very good reasons not to do so including pointing out that the tendency is for the Valley to nurture only experienced entrepreneurs who already have some kind of track record. That is some serious cutting of wheat from the chaff.
Away from the Valley it is easy to assume that the ideas and work that are coming out of there are somehow more cutting edge and more important than ideas coming out of elsewhere. This is a very distorted view. It ignores the how the Internet has eliminated time and distance barriers.
The Valley VCs know may know what they are doing, but there is a misleading assumption that they get it right everytime. Physical proximity and access to venture capital can mean that otherwise dubious ideas get funded. From afar we see the pizzazz of success while not always catching the crash and burns which for some peculiar reason never get much play in the press releases.
Silicon Valley can afford the attrition; attrition is vital to the ecosystem – kill bad ideas quickly so good new ideas can flourish. It is a numbers game, but a very unpleasant one if you happen to have the wrong number. Outside the sandbox and across the sea, the impression is that new markets are being brought into being when in fact there is nothing but a room full of laptops and a stack of empty pizza boxes. Clearly emulating what we think is going on over there is not that smart. There is no need to anyway.
So what’s the alternative? Well, if you are not going to copy ideas (getting inspiration from ideas is fine, in fact, it is to be encouraged), you are going to have to create your own. If you want to partake in the accelerated evolution of technical development and the benefits derived, then come up with something original that is true for you.
This tallies with Isenberg’s second piece of advice which is to “Shape the Ecosystem Around Local Conditions”. He is an academic giving advice to governments so not everything in his article is applicable to the small startup, but he does have some vital gems. Just a paragraph or two later he states more concretely “that leaders can and must foster homegrown solutions”. (In case you are wondering, if you are trying to create something in this world then you are a leader too. Get used to it. You cannot create something without being inherently responsible for that creation. Responsibility is the cornerstone of leadership.)
Before researching this article I had not heard this Richard Feynman quote. “The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. […] No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”
When confronted with some new and wonderful innovation or idea, instead of asking how can we do something like that, or how can we use something like that, perhaps it would be worth going after the problems you feel you can really solve. That can’t be hard as we are all surrounded by problems. And each problem regardless of its individual form is saying just one thing. Solve me, make me a non-problem, make me go away.
John Breslin, the editor of this site, suggests that a very good place to start is to switch off the computer for a week. Take yourself off the grid and have a really good solid look at the world around you. Don’t worry: Twitter and Facebook will still be there when you get back. I agree with him. Start with a blank sheet.
So maybe, just for this week of internet silence – I am suggesting something here, not giving advice – every time a problem comes up write it down. As Feynman says in the quote: “No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.” Of course, there are problems that will need the combined entire willpower of humanity to solve, but there are plenty of everyday things that will make your list that you can ponder over. How can I make this better? And, how can I make this go away? These would be two useful questions to ask yourself during the process.
If readers want, I can make some more suggestions on how to think creatively and originally in another article. Let us know and we will go and find out what we can about the current state of research and report back. If you have any suggestions of your own, even better.
But finding your problem to fix, deciding upon your subject or accessing your muse is not the interesting part. After all, if you can’t find any problems, just keep breathing long enough and they will come to you. The interesting bit is the creation of a solution. Assuming you have defined the issue correctly, it is then time to get out the tools. Know that your imagination is inexhaustible. Really it is. Know that you have experience and knowledge. And also know that is really easy to acquire more of them.
Don’t forget about that we have the internet, the collective mind of the world. That’s a formidable line-up. How can you lose?
Well, chances are you will. But the difference between being a number in someone else’s game and having your own original idea go down in flames is the nature of the learning experience and the lessons learned. Also, you will be so much stronger and more capable when like a phoenix you rise again.
As your project was your own original creation, you will have derived lessons from its lifespan, regardless of how brief that may have been, at so profound a level in a manner that would never been possible by any other means. And although successive projects may fail, it will be the hard-won accumulated knowledge that will eventually result in your success.
P.S. The reason I have written this article is that it was my original tweet with the link to the HBR article that had the greatest response I have ever had on twitter, by hundreds of percent. I know this isn’t for all the readers of Technology Voice but there does some seem to be significant amount of you who really care about this stuff.