An equation for creating awesome

We were bantering in a post-dinner conversation about what sort of ventures would be worth getting into – one of a narrow set topics where you’d find me readily available to engage in and ernestly contribute to.

The discussion took a turn to a well trodden topic of “If you had xxx, what would you do with it?”. N had much insight to offer to the effect of constraints playing a crucial role in driving good design, and how it’s next to impossible for good design to come out a blank check.

We got talking about what kind of awesome we could conjure up with the skills that were at the table; what creations we thought were excellent in that they were highly considered and truly added value to their respective contexts, and shortly after, arriving at an echelon of products whose sole purpose laid squarely in sheer opulence; created for no other reason than for Mr. Ritchie Rich to outspend his peers.

It was then, something became clear to me: what thrilled me most in my pursuit of creating awesomeness is somewhat captured in the following equation:

Fa (awesome factor) = outcome produced / resources committed

Where Fis greater than 1, we’re winning. Where Fa is less than 1, not so winsome.

You could start by sticking some values in. Say 4 coins were spent creating a doodad that was then sold on for 5 coins.

5 / 4 = 1.2 Fa ⇒ winning

If 5 coins were spent creating a doodad that couldn’t be onsold for any more than 4 coins,

4 / 5 = 0.8 Fa ⇒ not so winning

A second example: 5 hours were spent creating a widget that saved 1 hour a day. It’s a little more interesting, because on day 1, it’s looking like

1 / 5 = 0.2 Fa ⇒ not winning

But as the days carry on, things start looking better

Day 5:
5 / 5 = 1 Fa ⇒ tie

Day 50:
50 / 5 = 10 Fa ⇒ awesome winning

And if 50 people had access to it for 50 days:

50 × 50 / 5 = 50 Fa ⇒ mmmmmmonster win

On the flip side, we encountered the provervial “money is not an issue”, things start looking bleak for our little equation.

For example, a thousand coins spent to produce the world’s most exquisite disposable luxury toothpick.

value of a disposable luxury toothpick / 1000 coins ⇒ difficult to win

£3bil for a gold encrusted yacht:

gold encrusted floating device / £3bil ⇒ even more difficult to win

compared to

medium-sized aircraft carrier / £3bil ⇒ a little easier to win

compared to

2 × 360-bed metropolitan paediatric hospitals / £3bil

You get the idea.

Where things really start to fall apart and kill the party is when the resources available approaches infinity, which is one extreme that many a naïve idealist operates with:

(most awesome-st idea ever) / ∞  = very near to 0 Fa ⇒ no fun

The other extreme is the magical unexecuted idea:

(an idea) / 0 = ∞ Fa ⇒ delusional

Conclusion, awesomeness is a function of two values, the resources required and the final outcome. This means that awesome can be sought after in two places: first, incremental outcome improvements over predecessors, and secondly, exponentially doing more with less.

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Make Commodity Beautiful

I’ve noticed something perculiar in the way I’ve begun to use email ever since I switched to Fastmail in my recent mini IT infrastructure shakeup. Previously, I was quite content with Thunderbird hitting up an IMAP account off a cheap web hosting account, and didn’t think much about it.

The big switch came about when I was spending far more time on a work machine than my trusty Thinkpad. I wasn’t comfortable setting up a desktop email client at work, the web email interfaces on my hosting account was downright horrendous, and I wasn’t about to rely on the big G’s ad-funded service for my primary email needs.

So I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a Fastmail account. I’d used Fastmail way back when generous was 16mb’s of email storage, and fast was building your web interface with no images – just straight-up HTML. This was a second coming of sorts.

Every since I’ve started using Fastmail, I’ve even begun to prefer it over firing up Thunderbird on my desktop. Upon further reflection, I’ve been able to narrow it down to one reason – the interface.

The Fastmail web interface is not particularly exciting to look at. I’d say it’s even a little spartan compared to most post-web 2.0 outfits. But where it really sings is the way the whole interface is designed with the power user in mind. The clincher for me was the VIM-like key bindings. I could quickly navigate through my email, report spam, mark, delete and file emails all from my keyboard – no mouse required.

~snips nerdy gush-fest~

The point I’m trying to get at, is that email has largely become a commodified service. Although, I had the the pick of any desktop app, and a choice of 4 different webmail interfaces, I decided instead to paid good money for Fastmail’s web interface.

The more I look, the more I see commodities being bolstered and somewhat “resold” with a coat of thoughtfully applied interface. Programmers all over the world swear by GitHub. Mac OS X coats a BSD Mach kernel with a gratituous gobs of lickability. And, more recently, Sparrow and Fluent are in the market to repackage what is essentially a 26 year old protocol.

If you’re looking for a startup idea, pick a commodity software and make it beautiful. It is a significant, fixable unmet need that is just waiting pay out.

Open source software is particularly suited for this for two reasons. Firstly, you have full access to the source code, and secondly, they usually have a lot of room for improvement as far as UX goes.

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The myth of ideas

I’ve come to despise merely talking about ideas. Don’t get me wrong, ideas are essential to every meaningful thing that has ever graced humanity. But that’s like saying that the sun is the reason for to every significant thing that has ever happened in the history of mankind. No sun, no grass, no cow, no beef burger, no man doing something awesome.

People who are obsessed with ideation are like people who spend all their days staring at the sun and talking about the sun; only, ideas are far more enticing. The predominant hook that drags you along is you’ll is the word “potential”.

Potential, potential, potential. If your social group is anything like mine, you’ll be served a gratituous dose of Steve Jobbery, Mark Zuckerish and Googology on how an idea made them successful. If you’re a little more advanced in your years, you’ll have the likes of the 3M post-it and Kodak as references.

The enticement of ideas comes from simple math. Outcome minus cost equals gain. Result divided by effort equals degree of success. The again, divided by 0 is infinity. So apparent “potential” that comes from an idea is typically made out to be unreasonably and outrageously huge. Think of the phrase “it all started with an idea” for a moment, the way most people read it is “they started with nothing, and now they’re multi-million-billion dollar, userbase, bla bla bla…”. Dad always said that if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. He was referring to the oldest trick in the con-man’s manual, and he was teaching his kids not to be greedy and gullible.

Here’s what I think of the hyperbole of ideation.

It’s almost as though all the successful enterprises got together and conspired to hide the secret to their success. Everyone agreed never to tell of the blood, sweat, late nights, despair and agony it took to get there. Instead, they’ll all tell the same tale of how one fateful morning, an idea dropped in their mind, how fragile it was, how they almost missed it but a chain of fateful events caused them to revisit it; and that is how they became successful. Genius: because it will occupy the minds of every sucker in suspended disbelief, while the gap between watchers and mover-shakers widens.

It’s not like we don’t already know what it takes: one part inspiration, ninty-nine parts perspiration, make something people want, spend less than you get. But none of that is exciting; doesn’t sound “innovative” enough, because we want a magic pill served up on a silver platter, and a good story to tell our friends.

Well keep thinking that while the rest of us take our one part idea and mix it in with ninety-nine boring execution parts. You’ll be one less person standing in our way.

Try something old

Here’s a weekend idea for the our ADD generation.

Don’t learn a new programming language, or another framework, or try another to-do list tutorial. Don’t try a new dinner place or a new recipe. Don’t start on another new idea. Don’t buy a new domain name. Don’t redesign your blog. Don’t sign up for a new social networking account. For goodness sake, don’t update your online profile.

Instead, try something old. Give it another go. Dust off that old startup idea. Do something a second time. Write part two of your blog series. Refine that recipe. Finish that book. Have coffee at that old café you stopped patronizing after you broke up two years ago. Trying adopting that noble habit again.

Because good things take time, and ‘new’ is an overrated knee-jerk reaction for our generation.

Crowdsourced accounting

During a post-dinner conversation, the following was posed:

“Is there something we can build to help accounting students gain valuable industry experience either during their course, or right after graduating?”

A company’s books is one of those things isn’t taken lightly, and people generally aren’t too keen to experiment or take risks with them. So the idea of setting up an accounting firm and charging money for volunteer accounting quickly fell over.

“How about making a bit of a game out of it?”

One could set up a little accounting operation, gather a group of eager accountants-to-be, set before each of them identical copies of a client’s accounting data, and make a competition out of who, for example, is able to save the client more money on the year’s tax return.

A few things would have to be put in place. Firstly, this will not replace the structures that the client has in place prior. Secondly, the client does not pay a cent unless they decide to use a proposal put forward by one of the student participants. Thirdly, the data will be anonymized, just because for confidentiality reasons.

The client has very little to lose (the bulk of it will be time spent answering questions that the students may have in a rountable interview, perhaps). They gain extra sets of eyes and brains churning over their books, and possibly unearth previously untapped savings.

For the student, this is an opportunity to practice their craft on live data, engage in a bit of friendly competition, and stand a chance of taking home a prize – all in the name of “industry experience”.

So there, crowd-sourced accounting. And I’m putting it out there is because ideas need to be aired. I don’t claim to know anything about the profession or the industry, so this could be the dumbest idea ever, or someone could run with it, and create the next awesome.

If it happens that you read this and decided to give it a shot, do drop me a line to let me know how it go. Any takers?

p.s. I welcome your thoughts on this, especially if you’re a professional in the field. Is this something that’s feasible at all?