Free Product Idea: One Fine Day


I travel quite a bit for work.  

I'm also mildly OCD, so I have a mini-ritual of sorts whenever traveling to a new city of buying a new Lonely Planet "Encounter" travel guide for that city before traveling there.

They're handy little books, pocketable at 6x4 inches.  They contain a condensed listing of major sights, restaurants and the like, with a decent detachable map at the back.  I appreciate the density of the information and also the slightly offbeat selection of places each editor includes which a more conservative guide might skip over.

The ritual part is that I enjoy adding a new book to my collection slightly more than I do using the things.  On my bookshelf, they are a visual representation of where I've been and gone, all in a nice orderly set, each city marked by a unique color on the spine.  When I arrive back home, I take the book out, place it next to its brethren and stand back to admire the set and reflect a bit on my trip.

I've gone so far as to buy a book for a city I've visited in the past and don't necessarily intend to visit again, just to pad the collection.  Some of the places I visit don't have a book in the series and so I am forced to buy one of their larger books as an ill fitting substitute, and this irks me more than I care to admit.  

Many people have this sort of relationship with travel.  One of the most cliche visual representations of a traveler is a weathered suitcase covered with stickers from various locales.  I know fellow travelers who collect kitschy souvenir spoons or refrigerator magnets in a similar way.

Ultimately, what we traveler/collectors are attempting to do is collect experiences, and yet, the actual experiences are often much more mundane and anti-climactic than our collections might belie.   

To the Product-mobile!

There are any number of travel products in the world, from television shows to books to websites.  All effectively seek to create a repository of information about places one could visit.  The good ones winnow down the vast world to a manageable list of places one should actually visit.  The best ones offer a glimpse into the experiences of people in those places, be they visitor or inhabitant.

That's all well and good, but in my experience, the place is really not the thing I'm after.  I often arrive at a location I've heavily circled in one of my trusty travel guides, only to be profoundly disappointed because it didn't match my imagined expectation of what it would be like to be there.  

It's the experience rather than the place that I'm after, and travel guides often lack clues as to how a traveler should engage with a place once they've arrived.  Also, some experiences worth having don't really have a locale at all.  Some exist in time.  Others can only be had by being with people.

So, how about a travel site that is focused on these experiences instead of just places?

What does an experience look like?  To me, the format for sharing an experience is a narrative and chronological description of a span of time.  Something like:

"I woke up in the early dawn, still acquainting myself with the time change, and bored, I grabbed my camera, hopped a train to Shinjuku station and walked around the neighborhood.  Tokyo is a very different place at 5am.  The bustling crowds are replaced by occasional pairs or threesomes of still drunk stragglers from the izayakis, squinting at the daylight as they stumble to their beds.  An army of somber men in little helmets and orange vests comes out to clean the streets and pick up bags of garbage set out the night before by the businesses and homes.  Most of the shops are closed and their garish displays of baubles shuttered behind steel doors."

This content should be richly linked to locations on a map, business listings, photos, and other related content.

The core use-cases for a minimum viable product would be something like:

  • Contributor posts new experience. 
  • Traveler searches for experiences related to a place, time or person. 
  • Traveler "pins" an experience.

I'd eschew a commenting system in favor of a more simplistic bookmark/like system.  I think that provides the right degree of moderation without distracting from the content.  It may later still be worthwhile to provide a feedback mechanism for readers to interact with contributors, though I envision this as being a private exchange.

This "pin" system could also serve as a way for travelers like myself to collect those experiences that I've already shared with the author.  This may require a second "done that" pin that segregates future vs. past experiences, though I'd want to observe how people use a single "pin" feature before deciding on that.

Advertising is an obvious source of revenue, high-traffic travel content is generally quite valuable, though incorporating it would need to be done with some care lest it cheapen the experience.

It might also be interesting to consider a "pay what you want" or even fixed subscription model with revenue sharing amongst the top contributors.  This would greatly encourage contributors to post high-quality content and would foster a sense of innate value in the community that would lead to a more engaging experience.

To go to market, I'd begin by launching a closed beta, inviting notable travel writers/bloggers to try out the platform.  This would serve to create an initial nucleus of high-quality content and would accelerate the iteration of the design and function of the site towards the easy creation and beautiful presentation of that content.

The rest is left, as they say, to the reader.

Organizing Ideas

I am a voracious, probably pathological, hoarder of ideas.  I write little notes to myself about them, I lovingly organize and re-organize them and crumple them up into balls and hurl them into the trash bin, only to haul them out 30 minutes later "just in case".

I have at least a dozen different idea caches in various physical and digital forms.

First and foremost, a chaotic stack of notebooks, of many sizes and variations.  A geological strata of ideas going back to spiral bound high-school notebooks to leather bound action item logs.  

On my computer, a semi-haphazard collection of files in folders:  ./writing, ./blog, ./fun/ideas, ./fun/ideas/blog, ./fun/ideas/projects, ./fun/writing, ./dev./projects

Online, I have notes stashed in Remember the Milk (RTM), Evernote, Google Docs, Gmail (3 accounts), Yahoo Mail, this Blog, and an older blog that I keep hidden (because I was stupider when I was 20).

They're on sticky notes on the wall, text messages to myself, they're in the margins of magazine articles, on the back of envelopes, notes scribbled into the wee bit of space on other notes, and on and on and on.

Organizing them is a hopeless endeavor.  After starting an organizational jag, I'm as likely as not to instead find myself writing yet more thoughts about the organizational process itself.

After some self-examination, it occurs to me that perhaps I don't care about the ideas at all.  I'm really only interested in the act of creating them, from thence to be cast off into the nether-regions of a notebook or hard drive.

And yet, there have been times that, moving an old notebook somewhere, a lonely little scrap of paper lofts into the air and upon re-reading it, it ignites a real project.

So, how to wrestle with this beast?

To be perfectly fair to myself, much of the cacophony is caused by my repeated failed attempts to tame it.  

I dove into Evernote a couple of times, in the hopes that digital storage/mobile apps/search might be a solution, but each time gave up on the terrible rich-text editing and cumbersome chore of managing a large note hierarchy.

I started using, and still actively use, RTM because I like the notion of ideas being actionable, but I'm not entirely happy with the number of steps it requires to keep any deeper level of detail about an item.

I tried, but ultimately disliked Google Docs because the data types it supports have many of the downsides of maintaining a folder of documents, but without many of the upsides.  Google Drive might solve some of those issues, but I'm already using Dropbox.  Most of the rest evolved out of moments of immediate convenience, rather than any earnest attempt to use them for storage.

So, what is my product wishlist?

  • Ideas should be like files.  I should be able to send them to someone, copy them, back them up.  I should be able to use any tool I like to produce them, Gimp, Sublime Text, Eclipse, PowerPoint  Lightroom, Excel, etc.
  • Ideas should be relatable to other ideas.  If I have two very similar ideas, I should be able to connect them together so when I find one, I can also see the other.  I should also be able to fully encapsulate, and thereby hide, an idea inside a higher-level idea.
  • Ideas should have flavors.  I should be able to lasso a bunch of ideas together and color them purple.  I should be able to endlessly sort and re-shuffle them whenever my worldview changes.
  • Ideas should be concise and compact.  There should be a constant pressure to shrink and boil-down ideas into concepts that can more easily be kept in human memory and considered when making decisions.
  • Ideas should have a lifecycle.  New and nascient ideas should undergo a churning process of honing/refining.  Older untouched ideas should sink to the bottom. 
  • Ideas should have value and urgency.  You should be able to rank and prioritize your ideas, potentially in different dimensions.  You should be able to look at a pile of them and get a sense of what is important.
  • Ideas should be templatized.  The general structure of ideas should be a thing in itself that you can use to efficiently capture new ideas or help refine old ones.  Creating a new idea take as little time as possible and should provide a skeleton to encourage turning fuzzy ideas into realizable ones.
  • Ideas should be sharable.  Both in the sense of collaborative, but also the sense of extensible.  Another person should be able to expand and pivot an idea without interfering with the source.  The default should be that ideas are private.
  • Ideas should be narrative.  They should be internally organized into a temporal structure where one part leads to the next.  They should be lists.  They should be stories.  They should be slide show presentations.  To be communicable, to others or a disconnected future self, ideas must provide a road map through the information.
  • Ideas should be lovely.  Anything you touch many times repeatedly should be lovely.

I've really no idea how to gel these together into a cohesive product.  Some of these wishes seem mutually exclusive.  Perhaps, being my own customer, I can't see the forest for the trees.  

If I figure it out, I'll let you know...

Free Product Idea: Skill Hub

My first job was with an ambitious managed service consulting startup called Quidnunc.  They had an interesting mentorship system, wherein, new employees were assigned a seasoned consultant to act as a mentor and given a stack of "competencies" that they needed to attain in order to progress in their career.  

It sort of worked like the merit badge system in a boy-scout troop.  Each competency had a page on the intranet that listed a set of skills associated with it and a test of some sort that you had to complete to prove that you'd achieved it.  Your mentor would work with you as a coach, cheerleader, and eventually, examiner.

Many of these competencies were hard technical skills, like:  Java, HTML, Bug Tracking.  Others were soft ones, like:  Task Management, Document Writing, Giving Feedback.  Even a few recursive ones, like:  Mentoring and Writing Competencies.

The tests to achieve a competency were generally focused on actually doing whatever the competency was about.  Need the Object-Oriented Design merit badge?  Produce a UML object diagram for an online web store.  Need Document Review?  Go review three documents.

HR maintained an online database that tracked what competencies each person had gained, and you could search for people by competency to find someone to mentor you or sometimes just because you needed someone who spoke German for a meeting with a client.  It also provided a sort of career progression tree that listed the required competencies for a given title. 

Want to get rid of the Junior part in your title?  Then you need to go get:  Java, Code Review, Document Writing, Task Management, etc.

At first, it felt a little silly.  But after the kool-aid sunk in, it turned out to be absolutely brilliant.  

You see, there are a lot of things that people desperately need to know to be successful, but are embarrassed to ask about or don't even know they need.  Most companies either try to hire people outright with these skills (see, tragedy of the commons) or toss people into the water, ass over teakettle, to find out if they sink or swim.

The Quidnunc system gave you a simple structure to follow with clear sign-posts to where you should be heading next.  It provided a support system studded with people who were genuinely interested in your progress.  It also established a type of meritocracy that strong technical folks thrived in.

My favorite thing, is that it gave teams a set of common experiences they could draw on to communicate.  I'm still appalled by how many leads/architects don't know UML.  I hated every bit of learning it, but when two people who understand the same visual language for expressing programming concepts get up to the whiteboard, everyone else stand the hell back, you are about to get a bunch of work done really fast.

So Where's the Product Idea?

Gamification, like any buzzword, gets thrown around quite a lot.  It's a gorgeous idea, but hard to pull off.  

Often, it's misinterpreted as making something that is dull...FUN FUN FUN!  But, anyone who's played a Zynga game knows how soulless gamification can feel to a user.  

My interpretation is that it's about leveraging the innate human need to complete patterns and make tangible progress to meet a succession of short-term goals with a long-term payoff.  

So here's the pitch:  Create a trusted online community for skill sharing.  

The core functionality:

  • be a repository for detailed self-guided tutorials on how to master a skill
  • be a social lobby for people to find and interact with mentors for those skills
  • be the authoritative source for finding out what people are experts at

Breaking that down a wee bit, the primary use cases might be:

  • Skill Seekers discovering new skills and connecting with Experts to mentor them.
  • Experts providing advice/answers to Skill Seekers, encouraging their progression and ultimately evaluating them in tests to award them Expert status.
  • Experts proposing new or amended tutorials for skills with an approval flow that involves the other Experts of that skill.  
  • External Users searching for Experts in a particular skill to hire or consult.

Here's a mock-up of what the homepage might look like:

How to Make Money

One way to monetize would be with pay-to-play participation from Skill Seekers, with a cut to the Experts and to the house.  This has a couple of up/down-sides.  The key benefit would be greater engagement from all parties.  The main drawback would be people trying to game the system. 

Another vector could be paid access to searchable user profiles.  The benefit of this would be that outside companies could subsidize the community, while the drawback would be limiting the value to skill seekers who want to maximize their skill profile. 

First Steps

First, you need to build some product, with an initial backlog that looks something like:  

  • a collaborative workflow for creating a tutorial
  • a catalog of tutorials
  • a searchable database of user profiles
  • a collaborative workflow for progressing against a tutorial

Secondly, or actually in parallel as this will be the hardest part, is establishing a small network of experts who will form the nucleus of the community and create the initial tutorials.  It's important that this network be well respected and prepared to actively engage with new users.

Thirdly, time go to to beta.  Use the network of experts to create the seed content and use their stock of friends/colleagues to get the word out and build some buzz.

Fourth...profit!  Okay, there are a thousand details I've left out, but go re-read The Lean Startup and figure those out for yourself.

Constraints are a Good Thing

Creativity is a process of making mental connections between disparate ideas.  It's often born out of errors, the creator unintentionally connecting two things that a more objective viewer would rule out as unrelatable.

Being a network process, as opposed to a procedural one, the difficulty of the problem increases as the number of degrees of freedom increase.  The classic example of a network process is the "Traveling Salesman Problem".

This is why art teachers don't assign their students problems like:  "fill this blank page with something beautiful".  Instead, they give them a set of constraints to work within, they dictate a theme, an artistic style, and a time limit.

In another sense, constraints give a creative endeavor a finite set of tractable starting points.  They imply a form for the eventual solution and provide strong foundation points that can be used to underpin a more fanciful idea.  

Twitter's 160 character limit is an example of this.  Initially a mere technical constraint of SMS, it now serves as the boundary condition for a whole new mode of communication, that, without this constraint, might have reverted to yet another blogging service.  

When confronted with an intractable product decision, I first attempt to layout the forced constraints:  

  • How much product investment can we afford?  
  • What kind of timeline should we deliver it in?
  • What is the technology we're using especially good/bad at?
  • What is the user's problem that we're solving?

If I'm still stuck, often because the true constraints are still too broad, then I try to apply artificial constraints that force me to think about different aspects of the problem:

  • What could we do in a single day?
  • What if there was no UI at all?
  • What if our customer's were end-users instead of enterprises?
  • What if we could only charge half as much for the service?

I often discover that such artificial constraints help clarify what the real proposition is, assist in searching for ideal solutions instead of merely adequate ones, and reveal orthogonal ways around obstacles.