Ideas

Idea Generation and Development – Swiss StartUp Talk

cardcases-1During my visit to the first Swiss StartUp camp I gave a talk/discussion on Idea Generation and Development. It was easily the most enjoyable idea exchange I’d ever been apart of. Ideas are something close to my heart, they fly around inside my head like a horde of horny humming birds during spring. I love the concept of understanding how ideas are created, how concepts change throughout time and how to be more creative in life. I was highly freaked out at the StartUp camp. I’m used to talking at BarCamps about photography and visual imagery, and every time I give a talk I learn how to better present ideas. Fear creeps up my spine when I’m standing in front of a room of people, and that’s half the fun of participating in a barcamp. I forgot to record the talk with my Zoom H4, so I went about re-doing my talk and recording it one night in my apartment. If you want to watch the video, I have to say that I perform far better when in front of a crowd, the energy and adrenaline and momentum of the discussion are impossible to reproduce in the studio, but I was able to renegotiate my talk, naturally there was never a script. A summary of the main points are included here for those who like to scan and speed read instead of watching and listening to my dry voice on an internet video. Basically I wanted to talk about and discuss how we generate new ideas, and how we develop and organize ideas.



So, how does one generate and develop new ideas?


startup_camp_09003Create an Analogy


We use analogies all the time in life. It’s a concept we learn when reading stories. We look up in the sky and we see birds flying, so we create an analogy and build airplanes with wings which allow us to fly in the sky. We live in a multi-disciplinary world, and many times a basic idea in one place becomes revolutionary in another area. But it’s not necessarily the concept (of flying for example) which is important, it’s the way we go from A to B which can be revolutionary. What’s the opposite of a square? Many people will say a “circle”, and I’m inclined to agree. But this is only obvious because squares and circles are basic building blocks we grow up with. If you grew up only knowing squares, would you know that a circle is the opposite of a square? How would you change a square into a circle if you had no idea what a circle is. Yes, you can round down the 90 degree corners and eventually end up with a circle. But the question isn’t if you know that squares and circles are opposite, the question is if you could create a circle from a square without knowing how they’re related to one another. This would be a totally new idea, growing up in a square world and one day drawing a circle.


docwingtips-1Retro


What once was cool is new and hip again. Many times the great new idea is really just an old idea that has been taken from the past and repackaged in a new technology for people to use and consume. What’s a basic example? Your parents used to be Hippies, and as a kid in the 1990’s you raided their closets to get some cool retro jeans and a leather jacket. In art and design old themes are continually recycled. Doc Martens takes the concept of wingtips and repackages them in the Doc Marten thick sole theme, and there’s a cool new product for people like me to buy (yes, I do love my Doc Marten wingtips). In the technology field, let’s look at one of the most important communication technologies of the past 20 years. Email. Yes, and what is “email” well, it’s like mail, but it’s been packaged in a digital, paperless form millions of people use every day. And just like cutting down the corners of a square, email has been whittled down to SMS, text messaging, transformed to the web on Twitter, which is the same thing as Facebook profile updates. Taking a retro idea and repackaging it to define the future is a highly effective way of creating new technologies and startup ideas. It’s just a question of how you perceive the past in relation to the future.


0000283-r01-013Mind Body Duality


As we evolve as a society, from being farmers to living in cities, from working in factories to sitting in little cubicles and spending our days in front of a computer screen, you have to wonder how this affects our thinking processes. Let’s face it, there’s a basic code in our DNA which says we’re partially designed to build spears, hunt stuff, kill it, and eat it. Humans have bodies designed to move, run, adapt, climb – to react. And sitting in front of a computer screen is, not surprisingly, not the best physical state to be in if you’re looking for new ideas. The Latin motto of my over-priced highschool is, “Mens Sana in Corpore Sano” – the internet tells me this more or less translates as, “a sound mind in a sound body.”


If we want to create analogies, and reinterpret retro ideas, we need to be active. Go out in the world, explore, have a lot of sex, be passionate and curious about life. Sitting in front of a computer screen working on a project plan 24 hours a day is a sad way to live. I get some of my best ideas when I’m active, taking a walk, walking around a city shooting graffiti, climbing a mountain, sailing around the Greek islands. Take the time to be active in life, more active than heading to a StarBucks on a sunny Sunday morning. Being active gets your blood flowing, releases endorphins, lets you move through different environments, different cities, experiencing different ideas and cultures, and allows you to enrich you body and views on life. Don’t be a couch potato, be an active participant in life and good ideas will follow.


urban_poetAvoid Cliches


We’ve heard it a thousands times. A cliche is a word we use when we’re disgusted with an old concept being recycled in the same form without adding anything to the original idea. Like, using a gun in a portrait and expecting the resulting image to be cool just because a gun is used. The cliche is the “easy” answer without any evolution from the original form. Cars need to have wheels, airplanes need to have wings, girls play with dolls and buys play with G.I. Joe action figures. In a short time period a cliche can be very successful. You can also think of cliches as fads. Facebook may or not be a cliche in two years. Right now Facebook is for sure a fad, not much different from MySpace, if Facebook is going to be successful in the long run, it needs to offer a unique value to it’s users. Right now the only reason to be on Facebook is that all your friends are on it, but fads can implode faster than they rise in popularity. I got an email from my friend saying she’s leaving Facebook and I’m like, “yeah, no problem, we’ll go back to the old fashioned form of email communication.” By comparison, Flickr is a service which offers users the unique ability to distribute photography and visual media to an ever increasing pool of viewers. Great ideas need to give a perception of “value” to people who adopt those ideas. A cliche doesn’t mean an idea is “bad” but rather that it’s not giving people any new value beyond what is currently being offered. Anyone remember Friendster? Friendster was a cliche when it was released because it was basically like MySpace (to be honest, I only know I started using MySpace first), I don’t know or care if it’s still on the web (it’s still alive), I just know it didn’t add any value to my life and therefore I never used it. Flickr (not so different from a site like DeviantArt) gives me a great deal of value, allowing me to integrate and connect my text blogging activities directly to visual media distribution. Avoid cliches, give people new value in even old ideas, and you’ll have something unique.


Arience


Probably the most powerful tool I use in my head is the ability to ignore the boundaries between Art and Science. In school we’re taught that science, mathematics, physics and such are basically sets of static laws which we use to characterize and understand the natural world. By contrast we’re given the impression that Art is nonlinear, pure emotion, the expression of what is boundless. I say that Science is simply the current interpretation of the boundaries of what is known. Those boundaries sound static, but they’re not. The laws of science are really just our perception of the physical laws which govern the universe. But perceptions are “not” static, and have changed throughout history. They are changing now, and will be different in the future.


The world is not flat, but for a long time the perception of many people was that the Earth was, in fact, flat. Now we know it is round, and that the universe does not revolve around us. Or rather, the overall perception is that the world is round, how many of us have really tested this idea? The point is that if you just listen to what people tell you and let them form the boundaries of your perception of the world, how will you go from a square world to a circle? I say express the vision in your head within the boundaries of your environment, and then change the boundaries when your vision doesn’t fit the environment.


startup_camp_09015


The Doors Theory of Project Management


Given an infinite amount of funding and an infinite amount of resources you can accomplish more things than you can imagine in life. The fact is, no matter how much time and money and resources are at your disposal, project management is still going to be the key to success. I like to think of projects as having a start, and an end, an A and a B. A square, and a circle. In between is an infinite number of pathways between A and B. Based on your available resources those pathways decrease, and it’s your job to move from A to B in the most efficient way.


“When the Doors of Perception are cleansed, man will see things as they truly are, infinite” – William Blake


The Gist


So, there it is, a rambling menagerie of generating ideas. Maybe it’s a bit too philosophical, but that’s the kind of guy I am. Use analogies to make unfamiliar concepts familiar, repackage retro ideas in new ways, avoid cliches, ignore the boundaries between Art and Science, and in the end, take some inspiration from Jim Morrison and the Doors as the backbone of your project management strategy. Find a cool idea which gives people value in their lives, and you might have the basis for the next great StartUp company.

Swiss StartUp Camp Basel 2009

ssc09Organized on Amazee, the Swiss StartUp Camp 2009 in Basel was an awesome experience to be a part of. I arrived early on time the morning of January 31st in Basel, and as I walked into the Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz, I knew that I was out of my element, of this much I was sure. What was a photography-focused blogger doing at a camp for StartUps? More to the point, why did I give a presentation at a venue where the focus is totally out of my experience level? Because putting two opposite things together sometimes leads to unique solutions. There were people walking around who have startups, who finance companies with 10X more money that I make in a year. There were individuals, those who have concrete ideas and were looking for financing and maybe changing the world. I’m a mechanical engineer who publishes a blog about photography. So when those of us with things to say stood up and offered the titles of our talks, I was surrounded by people listing talks about getting funding, working with venture capitalists, protecting intellectual property and managing startups, I felt a shudder of fear and apprehension shutter through my spine. But I’d agreed to take the ride, and offered up a talk about creating new ideas and managing them.


The term StartUp is a dangerous thing to throw around in Switzerland or Silicon Valley (I would imagine). It’s like living in L.A. and saying you’re writing a script. Sure it sounds cool and will make people listen, but everybody in L.A. is writing a script, wants to be a director, has a stand-up gig on the side and is dreaming of bigger things than working at StarBucks. Trying to be something you’re not doesn’t work in life for more than 10 minutes. I have no StartUp, but you never know about the future, and in the present tense, I do know how to create and organize ideas, so that’s what I talked about.


The StartUp Camp was organized as a barcamp, which in theory means that everything is done on the fly. But the cool thing about the StartUp camp is that each time slot had one or two prepared talks. It was actually the perfect mix forethought and inspiration, offering room for the unknown and at the same time you knew there would be some good talks no matter who showed up.


The keynote speaker was Suhas Gopinath, at one time the 14 year old CEO from India. He had a cool story about pretending to be a prospective customer to various companies, and then refusing to do business with them because they didn’t have a website. Then he emails again and asks if they need help building a website. Deceptive, but apparently effective. The rest of the continuing story is internet company startup successful history in the present tense. We like to hold up young and successful people, no matter if they’re 14 year old CEO’s or 15 year old pro photographers like Joey Lawrence. Truth is, doesn’t matter how old you are, it matters what you do with the time you have. ?Howard Hughes is still my entrepreneurial hero.


The great value in un-conferences (BarCamps) is that you interact with people from a very broad spectrum of society. In research conferences, you interact with people from a very narrow spectrum of society, and this is one reason why I love attending BarCamp conferences instead of technical ones, I get exposed to new ideas, totally outside my area of understanding. I started the day with no idea what VC means, but by the afternoon I was well-versed in the difference between Venture Capitlists and Angles, what is expected from an investor standpoint, and how to get a business moving from concept to incorporation stage.


Fully reporting on everything I learned at the Swiss StartUp Camp would impossible, as I’m still processing it all and decided long ago not to be a journalist. A few of the most memorable things that will stick in my head for years to come came from a talk given by Stephan Bisse. I’ve no doubt missed a few words, but here are some of the core concepts,


“Contrary to popular belief, successful companies start off struggling.”


“Nothing is as powerful as an idea who’s time has come.”


“Be able to explain your concept in 2-3 sentences.”


Both Stephan and Fredi Schmidli shared experiences about their early startups not working because they tried to enter industries controlled by cartels. And of course, the personal skills are far more important than the technical ones, this tone reverberated around each talk I went to. At some point I remembered reading a recounting by Noah Dietrich from the biography of Howard Hughes (“Howard Hughes The Untold Story”, by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske),


He made them think they were the most important scientists in the world working on the most important scientific projects in the world.


pokenOne of the many cool sponsors of the camp was Poken, a cool little device thats helps to aggregate all your social networks into one place. At first glance it reminded me of a Tamaguchi and the phrase “impending lawsuit by the makers of Pokemon?” was the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw the little device. Basically the Poken is used to exchange “Pokes” with people in real life, then you plug the device into a USB slot and head to the website, all the social network stuff is then right there for everyone you exchanges Pokes with. Pretty cool, fairly neat.


And what comes next? Only the future knows. I’m planning on recording audio to go with my talk on Idea Generation, for now we have the slides. ?In mean time I recommend reading Sparks of Genius by Robert and Michele Root-Berstein. And then? Well, the other option is bouncing a few tissue engineering ideas around my brain and see what results.


Since I was too nervous and freaked out before my presentation, I neglected to record it on my Zoom H4. However, I did take the time to record a version of it using Keynote and after exporting, posted it as a video to Vimeo. I work best with a crowd in front of me, gets the fear creeping up my spine, which doesn’t happen in my apartment. Still, the main points are all there. Enjoy.