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Great ideas always sound like they’re far too soon

Good ideas feel early.

And late ideas are acclaimed by most of the reviewers with opinions that don’t actually matter.

Part of our challenge is that the lousy ideas get a very similar pre-launch response as the great ones.

If you wait until the market is telling you exactly what it wants, you’re almost certainly too late.

On the other hand, if you can find the resources to stick it out through the trough of skepticism, you’ll be around to discover if your idea was any good or not. The best shortcut is the long way forward.

How’d they do it without you?

Somewhere, perhaps nearby, it went well.

A family gathering happened and all the details were right.

A project launched on Kickstarter and it succeeded.

A person was hired and they were a good choice.

The terms and conditions were updated, and no mistakes were made…

It’s easy to use our indispensability as fuel. Fuel to speak up and contribute. That’s important. But it’s also possible for that same instinct to backfire, and for us to believe that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done right.

That’s unlikely.

Is TikTok powerful?

To be powerful, a medium needs two things:

  • The ability to reach people who take action
  • The ability for someone in charge to change what those people see and hear and do

The telephone reaches a lot of people, but AT&T has very little power because they have no influence over who makes phone calls.

Lots of people have Sony TVs, but it’s Netflix that has the cultural power because they decide which shows are promoted on the start screen.

People in the music business are flummoxed by the number of new acts that are showing up out of nowhere and becoming hits on TikTok. They’re talking about how powerful this company is.

But it’s not. It’s simply reporting on what people are doing, not actively causing it.

The folks with the power are the anonymous engineers, tweaking algorithms without clear awareness of what the impact might be.

Google and Amazon used to invite authors to come speak, at the author’s expense. The implied promise was that they’re so powerful, access to their people was priceless. But the algorithm writers weren’t in the room. You ended up spending time with people who pretended they had influence, but were more like weatherpeople, not weather makers.

Reporting the weather is different from creating the weather.

There are still cultural weather makers, but they might not be the people we think they are.

Feature requests for monopolists

I’d like Gmail to be smart enough to automatically skip the spam folder for any mail that’s coming from someone I just wrote to.

I’d like my Apple calendar to know that I never, ever schedule meetings at 3:30 am and to guess that I mean PM. And I’d like it to not only know what time I typed in, but to not make me hit an extra button every single time to change the time from the default.

I’d like Final Cut Pro to allow me to watch the video I’m editing at a faster speed, the way all modern video playback permits these days. It would save hours and it’s got to be easy to implement. (Update: Fixed!)

I wish Fedex had phone service like they used to, and that UPS would make it easy for me to let the driver know where packages go, even (especially) since driver turnover is so high.

I’d like Netflix to offer much smarter sort mechanisms for discovery.

It would be great if Google stopped acting like an evil overlord when it comes to search, discovery and their relentless obliteration of providers they decide are competitors.

I have 80 more, but what’s the point, really? Without adversarial interoperability, monopolists don’t listen.

They don’t have to.


Soon after the invention of the wagon, someone was able to move logs around much more easily. And shortly after that, someone had a wagon run over their leg. Wagons were used to deliver food but they also were put to use hauling weapons around.

The cyber-optimists believe that the wheel of technology turns towards progress, perfecting our life a bit more each day. In which prior century would you rather live?

The cyber-pessimists view technological change as a threat, to be examined daily and guarded against with vigilance.

Neither default position is defensible or sustainable.

Technological change doesn’t always make things better. It often comes with significant side effects and costs. And yet, thanks for the vigilance and hard work of some folks, technology also has a long track record of making us safer, healthier and even happier.

The cyber-realist sees both and is focused on being careful about systemic change and lock-in, especially for cultural and organizational changes that are hard to walk away from.

The nesting bowls

Seven bowls might take up an entire cabinet.

But if the designer slopes the sides of each bowl just so, they stack. The amount of space required to store them goes down by 80%.

The hard part isn’t figuring out how to stack them. It’s realizing that stacking is an option.

The inevitable decline of fully open platforms

The spammers have found Substack.

There’s a long history of useful tools on the internet attracting selfish con men.

Substack is a platform for bloggers who want paying subscribers. They’ve done the technical work and quiet lobbying to get past the promo folder and the spam filters, and as a result, a blog on Substack is going to reach more people and come with a veneer of respectability.

One option a company with a useful network has (whether it’s an email platform or a social network) is to curate what they feature. They’ve built an asset and that asset goes up in value when it attracts thoughtful users.

The other option is to believe that ‘open’ is the answer, the more open the better. As we learned when we launched Squidoo a decade ago, it rarely is. People in disguise don’t make good neighbors. A fully open platform inevitably attracts selfish jerks, who, without curation, begin to degrade the very asset that made the platform appealing in the first place.

Wikipedia used to be fully open, but persistent graffiti on useful articles meant that serious users were spending most of their time fixing what shouldn’t have been broken. Now, you have to earn the right to do certain edits to certain articles.

The tension is simple: If a platform is carefully vetted and well-curated, it meets expectations and creates trust. If it’s too locked down and calcifies, it slows progress and fades away.

Radio, TV and magazines have always been curated. Even the letters to the editor are read by someone before they’re printed. The magazines that went to the web and let just about anyone write on their sites ended up with sites that just about no one trusted.

Too much curation stifles creativity, opposing viewpoints and useful conversation. But no curation inevitably turns a platform over to quacks, denialists, scammers and trolls.

Over time, the value of a uniform, a brand or a platform is defined by the worst people who wear it or use it.

Trust and attention are in a long dance, but only trust wins in the long run.

Solving for stress

If we’re hungry, the obvious solution is to eat something.

If we’re restless, it pays to get up and walk around.

Is stress different?

Along the way, it seems as though we got confused about the best way to deal with the stress that comes from work and from the projects we work on.

“Push through the stress and on the other side, everything will be okay.”

Simply get all the details right, get an A, get into a famous college, make the sale, polish the logo, do the pitch and then… reassurance will follow.

The reassurance of success or even survival. The reassurance of external acclaim or simply relief.

Now that everything’s okay, no need to be stressed!

Until the next time. Which might be tomorrow.

Reassurance is futile, because there’s never enough of it.

Some folks manage to get their projects done without this sort of stress. They’re not using the search for reassurance as fuel.

The solution to stress isn’t reassurance. It’s accurately understanding the world as it is, and making choices about what we do and how we do it. But far more than that, we relieve stress by making choices about the stories we tell ourselves.

What’s the difference between giving a speech to your dog and giving one on the TED stage? It’s the same speech. The difference is in the story we tell ourselves about the stakes, the opportunity and what might happen next. If that story gets debilitating enough, it can paralyze us.

If you’re on a backpacking trip, there’s little doubt that ten more minutes of tired to get to the next campsite is a smart investment. A little more tired translates into a lot more rest.

But if you’re at work, there’s not a lot of evidence that more stress is the best way to have less stress.

Look for the story instead.

[PS It’s not easy to change your story. For some people, and in some situations, it’s almost impossible. But that doesn’t mean that more stress in search of reassurance is going to make your search for a useful story any easier. If others in your situation have figured out a story that works for them, that’s a good sign that you might find one too. If no one has, changing your situation (if you can) might be the best way forward. But we need to get unhooked from the cycle of reassurance.]

Which problem are we solving?

Solving a problem puts value creation first.

Who’s it for?

What problem does it solve?

Would we miss it if you didn’t build it?

At the beginning of the web, companies grew by focusing on the problems that their users had.

As a result, people found a partner, a place to chat, a way to buy a book they’d been searching for, and yes, a chance to sell their Beanie Baby collection. They listed jobs and found them, sent messages around the world and looked up information they needed. There wasn’t always a business model, but the successful startups got successful because they were relentlessly focusing on solving a problem for the customer.

If it was hard to explain why someone needed what you were doing, you had a real problem.

This was the single best use of the venture money that flowed into the web twenty-five years ago. Patient investors said, “solve a customer problem well enough and the profit will take care of itself.”

In just a few decades, a lot of the straightforward problems found profitable outcomes.

Many small businesses run into trouble because they start in a different place–the question they ask is: how does the owner make a living? Serving the customer comes second when the owner is focused too much on sunk costs and bills due.

Over time, successful businesses figure out how to align their goals with the customers they serve.

Even Beanie Babies solved a problem for someone.

“Can we get a puppy?”

The internet is filled with puppy quandaries.

You can get a puppy at a pet mill/pet shop in about an hour (please don’t). But over the course of your lifetime with that dog, you’ll need about 3,000 hours of time and money to take care of him.

The same time/money math applies to doing a good job on any social network. It only takes a few minutes to sign up for an account, but most users put in just enough time to be wasteful and not nearly enough time to generate anything of value as a result.

Accepting international orders, supporting a different category of industrial customers, putting your customer service phone number on the box, opening a conflict or litigation–these are all puppy questions.

The cool kids waste a lot of time because they forgot to think about them.