I found (again) this quote by Ira Glass of This American Life thanks to Tom Chandler of The Writer Underground. Ira talks about taking creative work from good enough to great. (You can watch the video of the segment after the quote, taken from a series on Storytelling.)
What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me … is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple [of] years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
Susan Cain writes in the New York Times about the contemporary view which holds that creativity and achievement come from teamwork. As Cain explains, research strongly suggests the contrary: people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.
Lifehacker has an interesting article about Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the Serbian-American inventor. This description of his visual thinking process caught my attention:
My method is different. I do not rush into actual work. When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception. Why should it be otherwise? Engineering, electrical and mechanical, is positive in results. There is scarcely a subject that cannot be mathematically treated and the effects calculated or the results determined beforehand from the available theoretical and practical data. The carrying out into practice of a crude idea as is being generally done is, I hold, nothing but a waste of energy, money and time.
Working around territorial restrictions in book publishing
Jack Cheng is a Shangai-born, Michigan-bred, Brooklyn-based writer, as he describes himself. His recently published novel, This Days, sells on Amazon, the iBook Store, Barnes and Noble and Kobo. The problem is that if you live outside the US, you can’t buy the digital edition (be it Kindle, ePub or whatever) from those sellers.
I live in Perú, so now and then I run into this problem1 when trying to buy an electronic book.
Being Jack a smart guy and knowing about this limitation, he offers his book directly and copy-protection free (DRM) on his website. You can get it here: http://jackcheng.com/these-days
It is not enough to identify an unsatisfied need to build a succesfull business model. Any business model whose viability depends on only one critical resource is in danger of failure.
For reasons unknown, now and then appears a company in the software marketplace whose only product depends critically on a service provided by an external source, with almost no possibility of being replaced if that other company turns against you.
For example, not so long ago, people forgot that Twitter is a private company1 and thus tries to protect its own interests. The story goes as follows. Created in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Twitter was at first embraced by geeks and other technically oriented people. This early adopters allowed Twitter to gain the critical mass needed to be an important player in the social media arena. Year 2008 was the year of Twitter’s mainstream adoption. That year Twitter registered 100 million tweets per quarter, up from 400.000 in 20072.
For a long time, Twitter didn’t have an official application for neither desktop PCs or smartphones. You had no choice but use Twitter’s webpage. Some software companies saw this as an opportunity, and a variety of twitter applications appeared: Seesmic, Twittie, Twitterrific, Tweetsville, TweetDeck… This companies earned money either by charging for the app, or by displaying adds. But in order for their applications to operate, they depended on the ability to connect (freely) to Twitter’s servers.
On April 2010, Tweetie, one of the dominant twitter clients, was acquired by Twitter, was renamed Twitter, and proclaimed by Twitter as the official application for the Mac and iPhone. On May 2011, Twitter acquired TweetDeck, another twitter client aimed at power users.
Following August 2012, Twitter begun introducing a series of changes3 regarding the use of its servers by third-party developers. Among other things, they explicitly discouraged the development of client apps. They also restricted the number of connections non-official Twitter apps could make to Twitter servers, thus limiting effectively the number of program copies this third-party developers could sell.
A similar case happened with Google Reader. Launched in October 2007 by Google as a web based feed aggregator, it rapidly grew in popularity and became the predominant feed reader in the market. Google never released an application for smartphones or desktop PCs. Users were expected to access the service using a web browser, which provided a good experience for desktop usage but a poor one in both smartphones and tablets.
Many software development companies jumped at the opportunity, and a plethora of third-party applications for smartphones and tablets appeared. This applications connected to Google Reader’s servers, and replaced Google’s web interface with a sophisticated user interface. But again, they all had one critical dependency: they relied on the leniency of Google to function. But Google will be around like forever, right?
On March 2013, Google announced that Google Reader will be shut down on July this year.
Analyze the complete Business Model
The people behind the companies mentioned above were probably talented people. In many cases they built outstanding products. But having an outstanding product is not enough. Make sure your business model is consistent4, and know its weaknesses.
Designers (…) take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be (for example by using the “Five Whys” approach to get at root causes). (…) Most important of all, is that the process is iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem. Instead, they first spend time determining what the basic, fundamental (root) issue is that needs to be addressed. They don’t try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called “Design Thinking.”
He closes his talk showing the amount in dolars that would be necessary to implement a minimal feedback system in every classroom in the US, according to his foundation. Give the teachers the tools to diagnose their skills, and the tools to act upon the diagnosis, and this will have a direct positive effect on the students.
The system proposed is certainly interesting, and I agree that having the means to get feedback is important. However, the underlying affirmation is that if teachers are bad at teaching it is because they don’t receive proper feedback, and this is not always true. There are other factors to take in account when looking at teachers performance. Experience says that you can find extraordinary teachers in a system that provides no formal feedback.
How did these teachers become good at teaching? I think the answer has to do with motivation. Teachers that are truly motivated usually find ways to improve their teaching and achieve outstanding results in less-than-optimal conditions. But having motivated teachers is a harder problem to solve than implementing a technical platform for receiving feedback. It probably requires that each teacher has some kind of coach assigned. (Coaching may imply receiving feedback, but is not limited to feedback.) And for coaching to work, it is essential that the teacher agrees to have a coach, which may not always be the case. Such a system, obviously, doesn’t scale, and cannot be implemented just by funding.
The threat of new entrants when using open-source software as a core asset of your business
Android, the operating system used by Google in its mobile devices, is distributed under several open source licenses. This essentially means that anyone, be an individual or company, can download the source and build their own version of Android if the have the technical skills to do so.
From a business strategy point of view, one could think that using open-source software as part of your competitive advantage lowers the barrier to new entrants. I think this is not always the case.
The threat of new entrants using Android to compete with Google is real, as Amazon proved when launching the Kindle Fire on September 2011. The Kindle Fire uses a modified version of Android that replaces Google’s application store with the Amazon Appstore, essentially cutting Google out of the revenue stream1.
As John Siracusa explains in his article Code hard or go home, building the expertise necessary to fork and maintain their own version of such a huge software as Android would take any company years of effort and lots of resources. That’s why Samsung, despite its impressive market share, licenses the operating system for their phones and tablets from Google rather than develop its own.
The barrier to entrance of open-source software is not it being open or closed, but its complexity and size. In the case of Android, its size and complexity effectively keeps out most of the could-be competitors.
More recently, on April 2013, Facebook launched Facebook Home. Home is a free application for Android smartphones that replaces Google’s default homescreen and applications with Facebook’s own version, routing the user interaction with its phone through Facebook. ↩
Tags: threat of new entrants, open source, android