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Posts from the ‘Entrepreneurialism’ Category

Too Much Structure Can Kill Creativity

September 30, 2013

Chris Schmitt

When I think about the best collaborations I’ve been involved in with TeamCamp, the collaborations where we ideated, prototyped and produced something, were by far the best.

The richest collaboration was definitely on a web service we developed called Twegather. The idea was born from a problem that we personally experienced, and it allowed our diverse group apply our skills. We rapidly prototyped a service, from a quick and dirty MVP, to a full fledged service. We pivoted through three UI designs, and constantly innovated to make the service easier to use. Ultimately, we closed the service down because we really couldn’t see a way to monetize the service and we all got busy with other things. But it was an incredibly fun and rich learning experience and I never regretted a minute of it.

On the other side of the coin was the 3 months we spent trying to find a niche market. In this case, we followed a set process to test ideas and determine of there was a sufficient market to turn the idea into a business. We rushed the ideation stage and hurried to get to the point where we could test the idea through Google Adwords. Despite meeting weekly, we never did come up with anything and while we learned a lot, it felt more like drudgery than fun.

I think what killed our enthusiasm was quite frankly the focus on finding a way to make money online, rather than serve an untapped customer need. Searching for a niche market isn’t always about doing something you love; it’s more likely about solving a grinding problem, something that people are will to pay for, but not necessarily something that you’d be excited to wake up for every morning. All of the niches we stumbled across seemed mundane; it was simply hard to get excited about it.

For me, it isn’t just about making money. If that were the case, then there’s far easier and less risky ways to do that. I already have a great job at a great company. I love web developing because you can create neat and innovative things. Some of those things might not be practical, but who cares if your doing it for the enjoyment? I think the other TeamCampers on the team probably felt the same way.

A main theme of the Creativity, Innovation and Change course is getting to know yourself. Personal reflection tools like CENTER add a character development dimension to the course that is an important first step towards unlocking your creative potential CENTER is an acronym, that stands for Character, Entrepreneurship, owNership, Tenacity, Excellence, and Relationship. For me, my CENTER is:

  • Character: I love learning about new ways to do things and trying them out;
  • Entrepreneurship: I’m unhappy with the status quo (especially when it’s not working) and I like to change things up (even if sometimes if sometimes it doesn’t work);
  • owNership: When I choose to do something, I learn everything I can about it to do it really well, be it cycling across Canada, learning to program in Rails or R, or oil painting;
  • Tenacity: I tend to get discouraged easily, so I need to put negativity and setbacks behind me and just keep going. Intelligent Fast Failure is helping me to overcome my fear of failure. In fact, it’s kind of find it fun to try things that have a slim chance of succeeding just to see what happens;
  • Excellence: I plan to keep learning and creating and staying healthy for as long as I am able;
  • Relationships: My family is my wife and my kids who mean everything to me; my community is the Ottawa startup community who are always enthusiastic, supportive and creative.

Before you try something new, it’s important to understand yourself and what motivates you. It’s easy to get distracted from that and occasionally follow the wrong path.

Learning from these experiences I now know that for TeamCamp to be successful we need to:

  1. Brainstorm and constantly come up with many, many more ideas;
  2. Follow-through on the ones that have a high interest level for yourself and are aligned with our collective CENTER;
  3. Build it! Don’t worry about whether it’s going to make money. Rather, focus on making people happy through what you create (the money will come);
  4. Lead or join a team that has similar values to yourself.

– Chris


Doing the “Impossible”

September 16, 2012

Chris Schmitt

This post was partly inspired by an article by Seth Godin entitled Risk, Fear and Worry (and they’re not the same). I was having a particularly stressful week and getting into one of the “I don’t know where to start” moods. Reading Seth’s post made me realize that I was having troubles telling the difference between risk, fear and worry. As a result, I developed this simple approach that can be applied to anything: work, home, a new idea, a big project, starting a business, climbing Mt. Everest; whatever tickles your fancy.

The Technique

Here’s how it works:

  1. Take blank page and divide it into three columns. At the top of the first column write “Worries”, on the second write “Fears” and on the third write “Risks”
  2. In the Worries column right down everything that’s keeping you up at night.  Don’t worry about whether it’s rational or baseless. Just right it down. If it’s on your mind then it’s real and must be dealt with.
  3. In the Fears column write down what you are afraid of, i.e. what’s the worst thing that could happen if you don’t deal with those worries?
  4. For each item in the Fears column, in the third column write down the risk of it coming to fruition. How likely is the risk (high, medium or low) and over what time-frame (urgent, non-urgent).

You now have the basis of an action plan. Take all the high and medium risk items from the third column and add them to your ToDo list as either “today”, “up next” or “some day”. Make sure you are doing something to make progress on all of the high risk items. If something needs immediate attention, deal with it as soon as possible. If it’s a high or medium risk item, but over a longer term, break it into smaller bite-sized tasks and tackle it over time, before it becomes an urgent problem. For things that are non-urgent and low risk, forget about them! Go through this exercise at least once a month or at the beginning of a large project.

You will be surprised that many of your fears and worries really low risk or things that you are really powerless to change.

How it works

Risks that have not been identified, quantified, and when necessary, actioned, create debilitating fear, and debilitating fear will turn into obsessive worry. This a natural phenomena that all of us humans experience and it’s a normal physiological response mechanism.

This technique works because you start with the often irrational worries, which are easy to identify. Then you pinpoint the real risks that can be addressed in a sensible manner. Going the other way, i.e. starting by identifying risks fist, doesn’t work as well because you really have no sense of prioritization or weighting. It’s kind of like packing your bags before you know where you’re going.

The technique works particularly well for teams. When you’re first starting a challenging project everyone has worries, but not everyone will express their worries because they may feel it’s a sign of weakness. Getting everyone to express their worries and fears helps to identify and prioritize the real risks and put actions in place to mitigate those risks. The key is never to criticize anyone (including yourself) for expressing their worries; they are real and founded. They just need to be quantified and actioned appropriately.

From my observations, the most successful people and teams not only identify risks early on and do something about them, but they also have a sense for things that they really have no control over in the immediate sense and decide conscientiously not to deal with until truly necessary. They are able to separate important and likely risks from non-important and unlikely risks and better able to execute and tackle long term goals.

Great, but what does this have to do with doing the “impossible”?

This technique can literally be applied to anything. Fear of failure is the #1 reason people don’t start something new (and risky). Whether it’s improving an existing company, starting a new company, cycling across Canada, changing your career, or landing a robot on the surface of the moon. Until you rationalize your fears it will never happen.

What’s keeping you from starting something new (and risky)? What’s keeping you from pushing your boundaries? Are you worried you’re not skilled enough? Are you worried you don’t have time? Are you worried your idea is not good enough? Each of these worries are just that: worries. You can learn. You can find the time or join a team. You can validate your idea.

One thing for sure, no one ever gets anything done by worrying, right?


Back from my Cycling Trip with New Ideas About Starting Things

June 20, 2012

Chris Schmitt

I returned from my cross-Canada cycling trip on Saturday, June 16th, in one piece, with all body parts still connected and no tire marks across my back. It was an astounding trip with two-thirds of the distance getting completed in the last half of the trip. You can read about it here.

I learned a lot of things about this great country, but there’s one that I want to share with you that specifically ties into the start-up world: you can’t begin any new project or enterprise with even the slightest expectation that you’re going to fail.

I’m not saying you foolishly go ahead with something as big as starting your own company without being prepared, or assessing the risks. What I’m saying is you start by envisioning what you want by assuming that you can’t possibly fail.

This isn’t something that’s easy to do. It’s been drilled into our heads since early school years that we must expect to fail. Every newspaper article or popular TV show is about people that fail. That’s what makes news afterall. It’s hard to find stories about people that were successful, and even when you find one, someone will be quick to point out why that couldn’t be you.

But for one moment, try this: you can do something and you will not fail. What comes to mind? For me, it was going on a 6 week cross-Canada cycling trip. It was something I has always wanted to do. Of course there were lots of challenges but in the end I did it.

Back to start-ups.

If you knew you could not fail at creating a start-up what would it look like? Would it be a “one-man” show or would you employ hundreds of people? Would if be a life-style business, one that would allow you to live anywhere in the world, take vacations when you want, perhaps supplement your current income or would it be an all out, go big or go home kind of venture? Maybe it’s the next Facebook? What kind of business would it be? One that requires you to interface with real people, selling door-to-door or one where there’s little interaction and everything is automated?

All of these are possible and neither is right or wrong. It depends on what you want and you need to figure that out beforehand. Maybe you really don’t want to start you own business. Maybe something else comes to mind, and that’s ok too.

Once you’ve envisioned what it is that you want, and it’s something that makes your heart beat a little faster and it’s something that gives you butterflies in your stomach, then it’s time to identify your fears. What are you afraid about that would keep you from attaining your goal? List them down. Then start thinking about how to overcome those fears.

Some of your fears will be unwarranted; they’re in your head and aren’t real. Some of your fears will be warranted, and that’s stuff you need to get to work at. Like making sure you have a good idea, one that has true value that customers would pay for. Do you have the time and the skills? If not, how do you get them? Make a plan and set a time limit. Of course, all of these things can be overcome, as they have for thousands of years by entrepreneurs just like yourself.

Everyone you know will tell you what you’re trying to do is going to be hard, if not impossible. Many will say it’s been tried before and they failed. People love to give advice, even if they have no personal experience. Thank everyone for their input and get back to your list of things you’re worried about, the valid ones that need to be addressed. And when people tell you to “fail fast” or “start with failure in mind” politely tell them to go to hell. No one ever accomplished anything worthwhile by starting with the notion they were going to fail.

Try this little exercise. It doesn’t hurt a bit. What possibilities do you envision? How will you make your dream a reality?

The next TeamCamp is tomorrow, June 21st at 6pm and The Code Factory. Hope to see you there. RSVP here.

– Chris

Entrepreneur or Employee?

February 20, 2012

Chris Schmitt

Some people know the answer to this question without even thinking about it. For others, it’s not so easy.

Being an entrepreneur is awesome! You’re your own boss. You’re in the drivers seat. You pick what you want to do rather then someone else. There’s an opportunity for great success.

Being an entrepreneur sucks! You’re your own boss: if you screw up there’s no one to blame but yourself. You have decide what to do every step of the way; no one’s going to help you (other than advice, of which over half will be bad anyway). There’s the chance of great failure: financial disaster, marital problems, stress.

Being an employee is awesome! If you screw up, the company will likely survive, and you’ll probably get a second chance. You get to contribute, perhaps in a big way, but someone else is taking all the big risks. Do your job well and you’ll continue to get paid. If the company is in trouble, you can always work somewhere else.

Being an employee sucks! No matter how great your ideas are, someone else is making the decisions. You do what you’re told; there’s little room for creativity. If the company is in trouble, you could loose your job, and you may have trouble finding another one.

What do you want to be when you grow up?