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Posts from the ‘Ideas’ 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

Creativity, Innovation and Change

September 13, 2013

Chris Schmitt

Whether you’re starting a new business, or improving an existing one, coming up with creative and innovative approaches is a necessity. But there’s no secret formula that you can apply that takes business problems as inputs and then outputs the ideal solution. Rather, there are endless possibilities, and as we’ve learned from the Lean Startup approach, you need to try, fail and adjust in a never ending cycle that produces measurable results. So you’re constantly reviewing the data to come up with innovative approaches. You’re engaging your prefrontal cortex to the max and frankly it “hurts”. It’s hard work and having a variety of approaches to employ helps to keep your ideas fresh, varied and diverse.

I’m in week 2 of the Coursera course Creativity, Innovation and Change and I’m already reaping the benefits of employing different techniques to generate fresh (divergent) thinking to generate ideas. In particular, I’ve applied a technique that I’ve never used before: Morphological Matrix. With this technique, an existing product or system is broken into attributes/parts/functions. Various ways of achieving each part or function are identified and then (re)combined to create new forms of the product or system.

For example, let’s say you wanted to develop a new candy bar, you might define attributes such as: ingredients, size, shape, texture, colour, and for each of these attributes come up with a variety of values. Then you start randomly putting them together to come up with new combinations that perhaps no one has thought of. Say, a small, purple chocolate shaped like brocolli. Ok, that doesn’t sound very appetizing but you get the idea.

Morphlogical Matrix

Applying this technique is not as easy as it sounds. The greatest value I got out of it was actually thinking about the “attributes/parts/functions” that I would use to generate unique combinations. The benefit from the approach was thinking hard about the different attributes. Back to the candy bar example, think of packaging as another attribute; what kind of package could you use? Why limit it to a traditional wrapper. Perhaps the package the candy comes in is more fun than the candy itself? Focusing on one attribute at a time frees up your mind to brainstorm different approaches that you might not have considered otherwise.

You can see how this technique would be useful for a lot of things: developing a new product; coming up for an idea for a company outing; thinking of different ways to organize a company; mixing up your exercise routine, what to have for dinner tonight. The possibilities are endless.

Give it a try!

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?


Pitching Your Idea

February 24, 2012

Chris Schmitt

I love the video Viafoura has created for pitching their idea. They use a classic approach that you can use for your own pitches:

  1. The problem – What problem does your service solve from your customer’s perspective? (Digital publishers premium content is been used to build social media communities on someone else’s platform)
  2. The solution – How does your service solve this problem? (Viafoura helps digital publishers create the same sense of community that users find compelling on social media platforms)
  3. Features – What are the technology attributes of your solution that solve this problem? (Conversation widgets, curation widgets and reward mechanics)
  4. Benefits – What are the benefits of using your service? (Increased customer loyalty – more page views, longer tome spent on the site, more return visits – leading to more revenue)

You can use this same methodology to pitch your idea:

“Our customer’s _______ (problem) will be solved by our ______ (solution) because of our _____________ (technology attributes) which leads to  ___________ (benefits)” (fill in the blanks)”

For example,

Digital publishers premium content is been used to build social media communities on someone else’s platform. Viafoura helps digital publishes create the same sense of community that users find so compelling on social media platforms through the use of conversation widgets, curation widgets and reward mechanics. The use of our Viafoura will increase customer loyalty: more page views, longer time spent on your site, and more return visits leading to increased revenue.

Get this pitch right and it should lead to more questions, like, what the heck is “reward mechanics”. But that’s what you want: more questions.

If you want you embellish your pitch even more, consider how you could add “proof points”, i.e. examples of how your solution (or maybe someone else’s solution in a similar context) actually produced the benefits described in your pitch.

Got an idea? Try to express it in the format above. The process will help you to flesh out your idea.

Next up: taking this one step further by structuring a hypothesis for your lean start-up.

– Chris

I was starting to get a little discouraged…

January 12, 2012

Chris Schmitt

I was starting to get a little discouraged about the new apps being launched lately. They all seem to be so “me too” and narrowly focused. That is until lately.

I’ve recently been hacking around with a couple of applications, or platforms if you will, that look really interesting and got my creative juices flowing: Twilio and Trello (and yes, they sound a lot alike but that’s just a coincidence).

Twilio provides infrastructure APIs for developers to build scalable voice and text messaging apps. Think of Twilio as cloud-based telephony. They’ve built a very easy to use and flexible platform for developers to dream up all sorts of applications. It took me a while to “get it”, but here’s how I see it: Twilio approaches telephony from the perspective of what a user wants to do. It’s not really for making simple telephone calls – although it can do that – it’s more for building integrated and interactive apps that use telephony as a feature. I see this user-driven approach as refreshing from the traditional telecommunications company.

Trello is a very flexible, multi-purpose collaboration tool. Two things really impress me about Trello: first the incredibly responsive and dynamic interface. The developers, Fog Creek Software, have deployed the latest bleeding edge technologies to build Trello: node.jsCoffeescriptWebSocketsMongoDB, HTML5 and CSS3. I can make a change on the screen of my laptop and see the change propagate to my iPad in less than a second. No need to save and update. Trello gets me dreaming about the whole new generation of web apps that these technologies could spawn.

The other thing that’s impressive about Trello is its multi-purpose functionality; you could use it for anything from keeping a personal todo list to managing a complex business process to building a house to designing a new product. Trello is working on an API and I could envision integrating Trello with other business applications.

Hopefully you’ll share my excitement.

What new platforms have you looked at lately? I’d love to hear from you.


Make something cheap or make something easy?

September 2, 2011

Chris Schmitt

I was struck by a statistic in a very good post by Kapil Kale, co-founder of GiftRocket, on the OnStartups blog. Kapil noted that 83% of the ideas in Y Combinator’s W11 batch fell into the category of Making something difficult easy. The other 13% of submissions fell into the other 2 categories of: Making something expensive cheap; and, Making something that entertains. 

While I wasn’t at all surprised when I saw that statistic, I still think it’s interesting and worth talking about, in particular, why are so many web developers working on services that make things easier – which is a hard sell if you want to make money – as opposed to working on a service that makes something expensive cheap, which at least has a clear justification for paying for? I think the reason is twofold:

1. Techies are good at making things easier – if you’re a software developer it’s “hardwired” into your brain. You build some code that helps you do something faster and the thinking is that others will find it easier too.

2. There’s a lot less risk involved in building a product that makes things simpler than ones that make expensive things less so. If you make something easier, and folks don’t agree with you, well they can just go back to the way they were doing things before. If you make something expensive cheap, my bet is that they’ve justified the purchase of your product based on future savings, and probably went to some trouble to switch to your product, and if they don’t get those savings you will have one unhappy customer who will want their money back and maybe some of your blood along with it.

What’s the best type of idea to go with if your trying to build a viable, money-making service? I think the latter: making something expensive cheap. The greater the risk, the greater the reward. Plus charging for said service should be an easier sell.

Now, one could argue that making something complicated easier is the same as making something expensive cheap on the basis of the axiom “time is money”. But I don’t think that’s what Kapil is talking about here. For one thing, people tend to undervalue their own time (otherwise we would all have personal assistants) and second, if there’s a direct relationship to money it really belongs in the second category, making something expensive cheap.

There’s too many developers out there working on applications that make things easier, and not a enough working on things that make something expensive cheap.

If Y Combinator has 83% of their participants working on this first kind of idea – and I think Y-Combinator does a pretty amazing job at weeding out poor ideas – then think about how many developers are working on “making things easier” as apposed to “cheap”. That might explain why there are so many free apps in the app stores.

I believe the future of the North America’s competitiveness depends on the latter, i.e. making things that are costly less so.

I’m not saying that you should drop whatever you’re working on and look for ways to save people/businesses money. Go ahead if you want: it’s less risky and probably a lot more fun;  and you’re gaining good experience. But if you want to earn a living out of your business, I suggest you focus on the latter.

– Chris

Roger McNamee: Assume the Future will Be Different Than the Present

July 22, 2011

Chris Schmitt

Update: Roger now has a TED talk as well: Six ways to save the internet

There’s so much value in watching this video, I hardly know where to begin. Elevation Partners director and co-founder Roger McNamee gives The Paley Center For Media his 10 hypotheses for technology investing.  At his core of his hypotheses is that HTML5 will bring incredible changes to the web. Some highlights:


  • The way the world wide web is responding is to “out Apple, Apple”.
  • This is an environment where all of us have a chance to be market leaders.
  • In HTML5 everything is an App.
  • Instead of flitting around, an HTML enabled page becomes a control panel.
  • The message to media companies: “The time to diversify what your doing is right now.”

On the iPad:

  • If you don’t have an iPad yet, your job today is to get one.
  • iPad is as big or bigger than the introduction of the IBM PC

On arhictecture:

  • Cloud allows you to get access to content no matter what screen your using (a smart phone, your laptop, your TV etc.)
  • Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple have demonstrated no talent what so ever in exploiting this
  • This opens up opportunities for new companies that can exploit the cloud and HTML5
On Social Apps:
  • Investing in social apps is over; social is now a feature
  • Every product has to have social – you have to have it to play
  • Old Spice doubled deodorant sales in one month from their social campaign
  • The last 500 social companies funded by VCs are worthless
  • Stop focusing on new social apps – instead focus on creating something new using
On smartphones:
  • Apple makes more margin on each smartphone then other smart phone companies make on gross revenue
On content protection:
  • The amount of effort to duplicate something will be very hard due to the interaction from HTML5 enabled sites
  • It will be harder to duplicate than a song, a movie or a television show
  • Don’t worry about content protection – focus on content creation
  • If you’re worried about protecting something, you’re not putting the energy into creation
  • The Mona Lisa was created from paint; HTML5 is just the paint
  • Make something that works, get the revenue, then worry about content protection
Spend the time listening to this. It’s fun. His insights on where the money is in the music industry is fascinating as well.
It looks like we’re in for an exciting ride!
– Chris

Six ways to save the internet

Fail Fast or Start Right?

July 20, 2011

Chris Schmitt

Many “startup gurus” will tell you that if you’re working on a startup and things don’t look good you should “fail fast”. I like to look at it a little differently; I believe that rather than failing fast one should put more effort into starting right.

The word “fail” brings with it connotations of ‘F’ grades and wasted time on canceled projects. Fail is a negative word; it generally means “you suck”. That leaves us with a bad feeling. Having an objective of failing fast is simply another way of saying: give up when the going gets rough. In my view, if you start with the idea of failing fast you’ll lack the perseverance and tenacity you’ll need to make a go of it.

Instead, when developing a new idea for a startup set realistic goals and then test against them. In his book “Start Small, Stay Small” Rob Walling suggests setting a goal of generating $500 in revenue for the first year of your online startup. Five hundred bucks. How hard can that be? (Actually it is, but that’s a subject for another post.)

The point is, if you pick a number, it makes you think about what you would need to charge, how many customers you would need to sign up every month, and working backwards, how many visits you would need to your site and what channels will bring visits.

Now you can start forming a hypothesis, i.e. if I my product reaches a target market of x people and I spend y on advertising (or whatever) it will generate z in revenue. This is something you can literally do on the back of an envelop. It won’t take long for you long to see whether your idea is viable. If your hypothesis passes scrutiny then go for it.

Now you have an objective. Every website visit you get, every conversion that translates into a sign-up tests your hypothesis. From there you make adjustments, you tweak your idea, you work with your customers, you try different channels, etc., etc., but you don’t fail fast. You persevere.

I’m not saying you spend the next 3 years banging your head against a wall. Nor am I suggesting you mortgage your house trying to make a bad idea work. If you need 100 signups per month and you’re only getting 1, then you better rethink things, and perhaps abandoning your idea is the right thing to do.

But even then, you haven’t failed. Think of what you learned from your mistakes and how you’ll be able to apply them next time. That’s what they mean by the “school of hard knocks”. But it’s not failing.

So abandon the idea of failing fast. Instead, think about starting right: have a hypothesis, test against it and adapt.

– Chris

PS – thanks to Ian at The Code Factory for inspiring this post.

Customer Development is About Customers

July 18, 2011

Chris Schmitt

I really liked Robert Graham’s post on cold calling customers for customer development. Talking to people you’ve never met before within your chosen niche market to get ideas for developing a product or service can be really tough. Too often, we get overly focused on making a quick buck and we forget that what we’re really trying to do is help our customers to be successful.  It’s also why so many mass marketers  (i.e. “make money online!”) make us developer types sick to our stomachs : they’re really out for themselves, not their customers.

Robert tells how he first started his cold calls by asking for a 10-15 minute interview as someone who had a business idea around solving their problems. People smelled a sales pitch and “checked out”.

Then he changed his script. Robert decided he need to understand his customers better and that a better way to do that would be to write a blog on the subject.  When he explained to people that he wanted to know more about what they learned through running their business, every person he spoke with said “yes”.

Why? Because people love to share their successes, and their problems, along the way. Robert’s approach allowed him to first gain trust that he was truly interested in their business and not just out to make a quick buck.

As software developers, and entrepreneurs, we need to “get into our customers’ heads” to really understand how we can use our skills and expertise to help make our customers’ lives easier.

Stop thinking about the “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow and start thinking about helping your customers to be successful and you will automatically create value. In turn, people will be happy to pay you fairly for your services.

– Chris
PS – don’t forget about the TeamCamp meeting this Thursday: Bootstrap of Fund? Who cares – just do it!
Where: The Code Factory, 246 Queen St., Ottawa, 2nd floor (ring the buzzer to come up to the 2nd floor)
When: July 21st, 2011
RSVP: on Twegather – a TeamCamp product :-)

Bootstrap or Outside Funding? Who Gives a S@%t – Just Do It!

July 8, 2011

Chris Schmitt

I can’t count the number articles, posts and books I’ve read on whether you should “bootstrap” an idea into a business or whether you should seek outside funding. As with virtually everything I’ve come across over the last 2-years, the answer is: “it depends”.

Clearly, if you have a good idea and the resources – tenacity, knowledge, time, skill, a source of income (or perhaps very forgiving parents) –  you should try to bootstrap your company. On the other hand, if you lack one or more of those above attributes there are some fantastic angel investors and incubators out there that are willing to invest in your start-up, even before you get your first paying customer – usually for a substantial cut of your business (think of Angels as highly-paid consultants).

However, either way the principles of starting a business are the same no matter which direction you decide to take:

  1. You need a good idea: one that’s easy to understand and  solves a real problem (notice I didn’t say a “great” idea);
  2. You need to find your target market and validate your idea before you invest a lot of time and money into into it; and
  3. You  need to execute, i.e. build it and sign-up some customers – preferably paying customers.
The rest are all fine details. Really. Hundreds of little details that will help you to perfect your idea (i.e., “pivot“), segment and target your market, and sign up profitable customers. But it still get’s back to these three basic concepts. The further down the path you go, the better position you will be in whether you bootstrap or find an investor.
The simple truth, however, is that most people never get past step 1. It’s a lot of work and it’s even harder if you try to do it yourself. And you’ve got to push way beyond your comfort zone.
TeamCamp brings an environment that can help you execute on those 3 basic principles. You’ll meet other people just like you and you might even find yourself a co-founder.
Next TeamCamp meeting we’ll be discussing plans for the next “pivot” for TeamCamp:  a 3-step process that will help you turn your idea into start-up. But even more importantly, you’ll find a community that is both supportive and fun.
Care to join us?
Where: The Code Factory, 246 Queen St., Ottawa, 2nd floor (ring the buzzer to come up to the 2nd floor)
When: July 21st, 2011
RSVP: on Twegather – a TeamCamp product 🙂