Friday, November 5, 2010

The Value of an Idea

Several months ago, me and some friends were talking about Chatroulette and how frustrating it is that, we never thought about doing something so damn simple. A friend ranted that it was just some dumb randomizing algorithm then outputs two different people with their webcams on. Around that time, the founder of Chatroulette was already headed for New York to meet with investors or with people interested in buying his company.

Fast forward to several weeks back, I met with two other people who wanted to throw in some ideas at the table and start brainstorming and getting feedbacks from each other on how to proceed with the idea.. We all said our take regarding each others idea and decided on how we should proceed. Fast forward to today, I received an SMS from one of the two which reads that his idea was already launched by some local company. At first I shurgged the thought and told myself "Hey, whats the worse that could happen? They probably built some sucky product that would probably just wither and die after a few weeks." As I got to the office and checked my mail, I read something about that site and when I checked.. I clicked the link and at one glance.. My head was like.. "Oh shit."

Its not the first time these things happened to me, or my friends. We have these great ideas which eventually loses steam after encountering roadblocks or after consulting with other people who greatly discouraged our way of thinking about the project. Being in the field of I.T., these ideas, given the right people could be easily done by someone or a group with the right amount of motivation. At the end of the day, being at the losing end, I guess we could all say what my friend replied to my email awhile ago: "I feel agitated and amused all at the same time."

Perhaps, to those who have great ideas and wants to make it happen, I would like to share some thoughts which some might, or might not agree with. Having several of my ideas screwed over because I was too slow to act, maybe others would benefit from the things I'd share below.

Importance of your idea

Most of good ideas come from either a need or a want. You know those times when you come across those minor annoyances and thought to yourself, "Maybe theres a better way to do this" or "Probably if they changed that, they could get more people." If your suggestion or idea could be implemented with the right people, then pursue it quickly.

Gather up the people who you think could help you with your idea and once you get the thing running, even at the bare minimum, provide a disclosure with one of Google's favorite word: "Beta". But remember to keep building until its like what you've initially imagined (but don't stop there --read on below). Its really important to have the right people with the right attitude to work with you, getting the wrong people who lacks the drive or motivation to finish what your group has started will just drag your little project a bit longer. Dragging it longer means a bigger window for your competition to either get wind of your idea and launch a quick release and in the end, you just wasted time developing your idea.

Know when to reinvent the wheel

Competing with an existing product or service is not always a bad idea. When Google started, there was already Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista, and all those other search engines. When Facebook started, there was Friendster, MySpace, Multiply and other social networking sites. Being innovative doesnt necessarilly mean being the first. Sergey and Larry knew that the old wheel (other search engines) lacked accuracy, slow, very much cluttered, and most of the time returned irrelevant results. Zuck knew that the old wheel (other social networking sites) lacked the ability to let other people know what you're currently doing, or share a cool site you came across. Case in point, they reinvented the wheel because the old wheels suck. The old wheel sucked bigtime.

Dont be afraid to take on existing products or services as long as you analyze who or what you're competing with. If you know that a certain product or service lacks the thing your product or service has, then its a good direction to take.

Know when NOT to reinvent the wheel

You know you're taking the wrong path when you realize that your idea is just like the other 1,000,000 other product or service you have seen. Trust me, I already encountered people who like, want to create an instant messaging client because the existing instant messaging clients has an ugly name. And sometimes, their idea is suckier than whats already in the market. We all have bad ideas, sometimes, it just takes common sense to know that its really bad.

Perhaps a good example on when NOT to reinvent the wheel is developing a blogsite. Back when I was in starting college, I wanted a blog site which I could fully customize. I know a bit of PHP and some HTML which I could use to create my own blogsite from scratch. Whats my premise in doing this? I was silly to think back then that (at that time the "in" thing was LiveJournal)  LiveJournal would just suddenly declare bankruptcy and close down along with all my memories (blog entries) with it. I was so paranoid that LJ would just pop out of existence after a decade or so, that I did create a blogsite from scratch. I was also worried about the time when internet was not available, that if I keep my own blog locally, I could update anytime and just upload when I have a connection. Boy I was DAMN WRONG. Right now, that self made blog has entries from the year 2003 to 2006 and I would take time to move the entries bit by bit to a new home in Blogger.

Another good example on how NOT to reinvent the wheel is with those quick and dirty website requirements which non-technical people could use. I've learned to appreciate those pre-packaged content management systems (CMS) available for download because of the work I've done years back. Back then, my boss would want a simple site which someone without programming background could update easily. I normally would say that I'd code a login page, an add news page, a page which displays the updates, setup a database, etc. and would take roughly two weeks addressing the need. I started to appreciate CMS when those 'microsite' requests got a bit more frequent, and when I mean frequent its in every month or so.

I always hated the thought of reading other people's code, but learning the back end of Joomla, even if the requirements for microsites pile up, I could easily mass deploy Joomla sites and just customize to fit the needs of the people who would use it. Sometimes, even the features they need comes in installable modules. Now, using those CMS, it doesnt break my heart to know that apparently the site they wanted didnt get as much hype as they expected. Imagine working your ass off for 2 or so weeks just to know that the site you made was never used. Ouch.

A good idea never finishes

Sometimes, being the cool one who gets your idea to the market and being used (or bought --for consumer goods) by lots of people doesnt mean you should sit idly with your laurels and all that. Always remember that a good idea never finishes, it grows. There is always room for improvement. Dont be afraid of competition, rather make it a drive to improve your idea.

Maybe looking at the other side of the fence, like Yahoo and Friendster we could learn from their mistakes that even the smallest idea from an unlikely competitor could steal your current glory. In this example, Sergey and Larry are just two insane graduate students who want to improve the quality of search. Mark Zuckerberg was just a college student who started a university wide social network. If I were Yahoo or Friendster, at that time, I would either buy what their developing or improve on my services that would trample their puny existence into oblivion. Look at Google and Facebook now, continually improving on their core competencies. Though Google had a different thing in mind, before something explodes into something big, they assimilate that company along with its idea.

Be careful who you trust

Having an idea in mind, one could get so excited that that person starts telling other people about his or her idea. Most of the times (my apologies for being so pessimistic), it does more harm than good. Its always good to have those people who could give you inputs about the ideas you have in mind, but you should keep in mind that these people could steal your ideas anytime. This is not uncommon in the tech industry. Remember when Steve Jobs was invited to Xerox PARC head quarters? He saw that the graphical user interface (GUI) was the next revolution in computing. Steve knew that the executive at Xerox PARC can't see the potential in the things being developed under their noses, so what did he do? He stole the idea and put it in his product. Bill Gates and his boys did not write DOS, they bought it from some poor dude for $50,000 in 1981 which was told that Bill and his boys would just 'play with it.' Probably in a more recent example, most of you probably watched Social Network,  and yes Zuck stole the idea. As Steve says: (as quoted from Picasso) "Good artists copy great artists steal."

Be careful kids, its a jungle out there. 

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