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Build something yesterday

The way to get started is to quit talking and start doing.

Walt Disney

There’s this terrible myth that ideas just come to people as a stroke of genius. It’s this concept that if you think hard enough, these perfect ideas just appear in your head. But that’s not how it works.

Ideas are messy. They’re the result of creation and cross-pollination. The more you create, the more ideas you have. The more you chase down those ideas, the more they spawn new ideas. Eventually, the ideas start interacting with each other, and you start seeing things others can’t because you’re looking at them from a different angle with context that’s unique to you.

There’s one sentence you’ll hear that almost immediately lets you know someone isn’t creating anything. You might have even said it yourself. I know I did at some point.

“I just don’t have any ideas.”

If you’re sitting around waiting for an idea, you won’t ever have one. Not unique ones, anyway. You’ll get some simple ideas, but nothing special. Ideas are cultivated, not discovered.

Ideas can seem like strokes of genius because they often manifest themselves subconsciously and then show themselves in a flash. But that’s not really how they come about. An idea can occur because you were experimenting with your guitar while studying physics and learning to program. And if you left out one of those things, you may not have had the idea at all. Or you may have had a different idea.

There’s a relevant parable here. It’s about a college course on making pottery, led by a wise teacher. At the beginning of the course, the teacher divides the class into two equal groups. The first group of students each have to create one perfect pot, and they have all semester to do it. Their grades will be based on the quality of the pot. The assignment for the other half of the class is simply to create as many pots as they can. Can you guess which half of the class creates the more perfect pots by the end of the semester?

The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t sit around trying to think of a perfect business. Go out. Create things that help people and make their lives easier. The more you do this, the more you’ll learn about creating things and helping people. You’ll learn about providing value and pricing for value. At some point, you’ll create something that’s so clearly valuable, you’ll know to focus on it.

Before you do anything drastic–like quitting your job–it’s worth building or designing a prototype of your business in your free time. This works hand-in-hand with building the small-enough core to validate your idea. This serves several important purposes–it’ll force you to learn about the problem you’re trying to solve, expose overlooked details in your solution, and test your commitment and passion.

By the time you’re done, you should have invested 100–150 hours of effort and thought into your idea. It might not sound like much, but if you’re scraping that together in your free time, you’ll quickly find out just how significant it is. Even if it were to be just some comps or a clickable prototype with no real functionality, that may be enough. Just put some time and deliberate effort into it.

It’s the progress and action of creating that helps you iron out the wrinkles in your idea. If you’re doing this while simultaneously talking to potential customers, or even doing productized consulting for them, you’ll eventually develop a crystal-clear picture of what they’re looking for.

If you think you understand the problem your business would solve, you probably haven’t thought about it enough. No amount of daydreaming or conversations over lunch can compete with actually trying to design and build a product.

Once you start interacting with your own software, you’ll begin to uncover rough spots and opportunities that you wouldn’t have been able to see had you only been thinking about it. You won’t be able to gloss over the hard parts when they’re staring you in the face. That’s when you’ll truly start to understand what you’re creating. Once you start to unwrap the subtleties and complexities of the project, the desire to continue unraveling can be intoxicating. You may find that you can’t stop thinking about it.

Of course, all of this takes time and effort. Think of the time required to build the prototype as a weight on your back, working against your passion and motivation to move forward. No matter your idea or solution, your passion and perseverance toward solving the problem will be among the most significant factors determining your success.

By forcing yourself to find time to build a prototype, you’ll get an idea of how well you’ll be able to find time for it once you commit to the project. If finding the time is a struggle, either your passion will help you find the time, or you’ll discover that maybe you weren’t quite as passionate about the idea as you had thought. Better to know that today than tomorrow.

At some point, you need to share that work. Whether blogging, presenting, or letting a few people take a test run, sharing your prototype will help further your understanding of what you’re up against. People will question and challenge your assumptions; they’ll offer different ways to look at the problem, and you’ll have to choose whether to make adjustments or stick with what you have.

Whichever path you choose, you’ll do so with more information than you had before. Simply put, nothing helps clarify your thinking more than having to explain and justify your decisions to others.

Creating a prototype is one of the key steps in validating an idea. And there’s nothing wrong with deciding that an idea doesn’t hold up–in fact, if you can make that call early on, you’ll save yourself an incredible amount of pain. Do what you can to find the holes in your idea and force yourself to look at the problem from different angles. It’s easy to talk, but it’s another thing to make the time to try to do something about it.

In some sense, you shouldn’t set out to create a business. Instead, see if you can create something that solves a problem, and try to resist the temptation to turn it into a business right away. If an idea has the possibility of becoming a business, you’re on the right track.

On the other hand, if you decide to start a business first and only then try to find the idea that can support that business, you’re swimming up stream. Focus on creating something first and let the business become the framework in which the idea can grow and thrive.

This is exactly how Sifter happened, but it’s not just Sifter. The more I’ve talked to founders and read books by founders, the more apparent it is that their businesses were almost accidental. Sifter was absolutely accidental, and I fought hard enough that it almost didn’t become a business.

Around 2005, I sat down with Keith Jacobs, a friend and mentor, to talk about whether it might be worth creating a hosted bug and issue tracking application within Bright Corner, the small consulting company we worked for at the time. We didn’t have a prototype or any comps–just an idea. We plugged some numbers into a spreadsheet, but the idea never really went anywhere because it wasn’t real.

Years later, when I set out to design some screens for what would eventually become Sifter, I had no real vision for it. I was maybe going to create an application and maybe open-source it for fun. I had been talking for years about creating a bug and issue tracker, and no one had ever paid that much attention to the idea. But after creating and sharing some comps, something unexpected happened–people started expressing an interest.

I had been sketching, wireframing, and designing issue-tracking interfaces in my free time for years prior to launching Sifter. Almost every time I had a flight, I’d just sketch. Once I started giving serious thought to the project, I spent about three months designing medium-fidelity comps at night and blogging about those ideas. At that point, I didn’t have any plans for the idea to become a business–it was just something that fascinated me.

Dan Benjamin was the first person who tried to convince me to build a business around the application. I had contacted him for some general advice about open-sourcing the application, and he almost immediately told me what a terrible idea that was. He explained that if I were to open-source it, I’d likely give up on it after a short time and the project would die.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the prospect of open-sourcing the application was my lizard brain’s way of letting me create the application without incurring any real risk. I could walk away at any time. I wouldn’t have to take money from people or deal with credit cards. I wouldn’t be obligated to support customers. It was all the fun with none of the pain, but Dan was right–it wouldn’t have been sustainable.

I used my initial comps as the foundation for a presentation about creating interfaces. Not long after Dan had tried to convince me to build a business around Sifter, I did a test run of the presentation for some colleagues, and Keith happened to attend. Afterwards, he asked me if I had thought about launching it as a business. I passed on the idea at the time, but we kept the conversation alive. A week later, we ran the idea through our spreadsheet again and decided that it was worth a shot.

A couple of weeks after that, I quit my job so that I could begin working on Sifter while I continued to do some freelancing on the side. Keith agreed to write a check for $16,000, and we were up and running. In a matter of weeks, I went from dabbling with some comps to quitting my job so I could focus my time on building a business. I had always thought I would want to start a business someday, but I never anticipated it being almost accidental. If I hadn’t created the comps or the presentations, none of this would have happened.

Version 0.1 = Start lo-fi. Derek Sivers provides a great example of how a lack of funding shouldn’t stop you from moving forward with an idea.

That’s version ∞. First launch version 0.1.. Derek Sivers talks about the value of launching something around the one crucial part of your business and then iterate.

Show. Don’t tell. Spencer Fry explains why building something is always more powerful than simply talking about it.

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