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Dumb Ideas Look Dumb Early On. So Do Great Ones.

Watching a Future Billionaire (or, Very Wealthy Person)

I once watched a future billionaire (or, at least, very wealthy person), put together his company booth at a show. It was modest, maybe enough room for a couple of people behind a desk, with a banner above it, a couple of computers set up to show the software. He was a few booths away from us , in the downstairs room of a conference center — a typical gig, a few dozen companies repeating their patter, running their demos.

His demo didn’t work very well. It was a slow, buggy and unconvincing show of streaming sound across the internet (yes, this was a while ago). I felt pretty smug. We were a public company at the time, I was on the exec staff, the stock was doing great, and our demos were on point — smart, fast and cool to look at. I felt a little sorry for him.

He turned out to be Rob Glaser, founder of Real Networks. He got streaming to work, figured out how to make a ton of money from downloads, went public himself, rode his stock up to insane levels and back down again to something more reasonable, and became Rob Glaser, internet v.1 pioneer.

The fact of the matter is that if you’re building something new you’re going to feel exposed, things are not going to work, and you’re going to look dumb, more than once.

The question is, should you keep going? When do you ignore the signals? When do you carry on?

Successful Things Can Look Pretty Dumb

The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy”

Clay Christensen vi Chris Dixon

A friend of mine ordered the original Tesla Roadster. When he was invited to try it down at the factory, he was appalled. “It’s tiny, clunky”, he said, “they’ll never learn to make cars”.

I reviewed youtube a couple of months after it launched, and decided that there was nothing to distinguish it from the dozens of other sites that were around at the time that did the same thing. It was dead simple, kind of clunky, slow…

“The first telephone could only carry voices a mile or two. The leading telco of the time, Western Union, passed on acquiring the phone because they didn’t see how it could possibly be useful to businesses and railroads — their primary customers” (this via Chris Dixon)

Early 3D computer animation looked incredibly limited: endless scenes of regular shiny objects sliding around worlds of flat planes.

It’s a little early to declare bitcoin a lasting success, but it looked pretty silly five years ago, and closed $9,000 over the weekend.

Dumb Things Look Pretty Dumb, Too

The first startup I worked for basically went bust trying to sell a cut-down version of its highly successful personal computer. The damn thing had almost no functionality. But it was cheap! It had to sell.

The Apple Newton weighed a lot, was unresponsive and hard to use. For a short period, people would point them at each other in meetings to try and exchange contact information. It was embarrassing.

The Segway. Juicero.

There are dozens of these: Google Glass anyone?

How To Tell The Difference

I’ve been lucky. I was around enough successes to observe a couple of pattens (I learned early on that my strength was in making other peoples’ visions actually work):

  • if a product will benefit from a rapidly maturing technology, it won’t stay dumb for very long. Sound on the internet, the original iPhone, Tesla cars, many others, hit the development curve of fundamental technologies at the right time. Many others didn’t. The Apple Newton was conceptually correct, but off by at least at least a decade, probably more.
  • if the product is solving a problem that nobody wants solving (Segway, Juicero) it will remain dumb.

People who have a deep and fluent understanding of a particular technology set can solve for the first issue. If you’re building something that demands a technological shift (batteries, bandwidth, deep learning), you’d better have a strong grasp of the fundamentals of why that shift will occur now, for you to have a business.

People who are willing to listen, deeply and carefully, to potential customers can solve the second. Falling in love with a beautiful idea and ignoring whether or not anybody wants it, remains the single biggest failure mode of technology projects (the Internet Of Things seems particularly prone to this at the moment). Ask. Your prospective customers will tell you.

In both cases, conceptual thinking (“the world needs a handheld computer, let’s build one”) without detailed investigation of the underlying assumptions (“weighing several pounds is OK”, “battery life can be a few hours”) gets you in trouble.

How To Tell The Difference

Don’t be afraid to look dumb. Stuff won’t work. You will feel like a beginner, “doing it for the first time”, an amateur. You are learning, and you are discovering what your creation wants to be.

Keep going, but learn as you go. Keep yourself open to feedback from the world. What’s it telling you? Know your technology, deeply and fluently. Know your users intimately. Then you can answer the question.