On a clear day you can see forever
In Jul 2007, I was listening to an interesting HBR podcast where Paul Saffo talked about forecasting in the technology space. I believe I was chopping onions at the time (to make broccoli soup — or as my 3 year old calls it “bubble soup” because of the, yes, tapioca). I remember this because as soon as he said “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance”, my entire focus shifted to the podcast and I almost dropped the knife.
I do this all the time
I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about problems. I’ll turn them one way in my mind and then another. I’ll attack them from above and below and then from different angles. Usually, I’ll find a “seam” in a problem and crack it open. This is the point where I have a clear view to a solution. I get excited, take a picture of the chalkboard where I sketch out my ideas, and then grab some candy to celebrate. I say to myself, “Now, all I need to do is implement it. That’s the easy part.”
The Devil is in the details
Well, the easy part is that I know it will work. However, as Saffo said, that doesn’t mean it will be quick. I’ve found that if a problem is tough, there are usually dozens of smaller problems that surround it. You can’t see these smaller problems until you get close enough to the big problem. That’s where things slow down. I tend to take a straight line along a solution. Inevitably, I’ll hit one of those smaller problems and either dispatch it or avoid it. Either way, it’s taken longer for me to get to the main problem, and I find that if I try to sidestep too many of the small problems, I start moving away from the main problem. The path to the solution is longer because it isn’t really straight.
Are we there yet?
Two years ago, when people (i.e. my wife) asked me how long it would take to get to an alpha version of my product, I would respond “Oh, probably a few months. No more than 6. Certainly within a year”. Needless to say, it’s taken longer. I’ve developed 4 major prototypes averaging 5 months apiece. Each prototype has been a different attack on a problem I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Each successive prototype has been more difficult to start than the last. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do this a fifth time. This month, I have something that can be rightfully be called an alpha. I believe I have a clear view to v1.0… 🙂
Leaving your job
As you leave your current job, handing in your keys and badge and walking across the parking lot, perhaps for the last time, everything looks brighter, everything looks better, everything is more exciting.
This is a special moment. Go out for a nice dinner to celebrate — it may be a while before you have another opportunity to do so. Take note of this day because it is the high mark for your optimism and energy.
Your first day
The first day of work at your company is amazing. You have so much energy, it’s incredible. You look at the clock. It’s only 8:30 am and you’ve already gotten your company’s server set up and on the internet. You work a little more and it’s only 9:00 am. You’d be in a meeting right now and look at how much you’ve done.
Before you know it, you’ve worked a 20 hour day and don’t even feel tired. You’ve done the work it would take 5 people a week to finish. You’re putting infrastructure together, learning new technologies, starting prototypes. You’re moving faster than you thought possible. This is one of the most exciting parts of starting a company.
How to spend your first month
A word of warning: this burst of energy will only last about a month. Use this time wisely. Identify your toughest problems and sketch out ways to solve them. Brainstorm. Chart out your company’s direction and your product roadmap. Draft high-level architectures. Learn new technologies.
Keep in mind, that you will be wrong. You may identify the wrong problems. You may learn the wrong technologies. You may overlook key parts of the architecture. That doesn’t matter. You will learn something at each point. Some of your prototypes will find their way into your product. Your general architecture will be right. You will find themes that run through your company and your products. But most importantly, you will have started something great, something that you believe in, something that could change the world.
You’ve identified a problem
Before you start a company, you gripe a lot to your friends (especially co-workers). You broadcast your disbelief. “How could this problem still exist?”, “Don’t we have the technology to solve it?”, “Why don’t any of these companies do anything about it?”. You may even try to solve this problem at work. However, this may be a dangerous thing to do.
Can you stay focused on your current job?
For one, you send the signal that you may not be 100% focused on your current job. Even if solving this problem will make your job better, make things run better for your team and your organization, it’s a tough sell.
Are you willing to challenge the status quo?
Another danger is that you’re challenging the status quo. Anything you want to change will impact others in your organization. Your team will certainly be affected, but so will groups that interact with your team. And their managers. If what you do makes their life harder, however briefly, you will have more people to convince. It’s hard to do this simultaneously on several fronts. Plus, you risk getting branded as “not a team player”.
Do you want to reveal your idea?
A third danger is that you may actually have a novel idea that you could build a company around. If you work in a tech company, you probably signed some employee agreement that assigns all of your inventions and intellectual property to your employer. If your idea is too closely related to what your employer does, and you come up with an valuable invention and describe it to everyone, you may have just lost something important.
Taking the first step
Given all of this, you may choose to pursue your idea under the radar. If you do this, be careful. It’s exciting and fun and helps burn off some of the frustrated energy that you’ve built up, but if you’re serious about your idea you’ll want to see it through. In that moment of decision, you may have just taken your first step to resigning your job and starting your own company.