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.


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.


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.


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.

Yes…I Do Indeed Poken

yes_i_poken-5Do you Poken?” It’s a respectable question, not one you hear every day, but it was a tagline floating around the room at the First Swiss StartUp Camp in Basel. I walked in and was greeted by smiles from the organizers, they handed me my badge and T-shirt and then my eyes fell upon a table filled with cool little…things. I walked up to investigate and was greeted by a smiling Stephane Doutriaux (Poken founder & CEO). “Do You Poken?” he asks me. I admitted that I didn’t, and that I had no real clue what he was talking about. “Do I Poken?” “Poken Sie?” It sounds like one of those random German verbs I don’t know how to conjugate, or a spinoff of Pokemon. Turns out Poken is actually the bridge we’ve been looking for in a cluster-fucked-new-social-network-every-other-week Web 2.0 internet world. The purpose of Poken is to solve a simple problem (the aim of many great startups). It facilitates the transfer of social bookmark information from one person to another when they meet in real life. Because, what usually happens? You meet someone, somewhere at a party, you might exchange phone numbers or email addresses, but often you say something like, “cool, I’ll look you up on Facebook.” And then what happens? You find that there are like 1000 people on Facebook with the same name living in the same geographic region. Too many of them don’t have photos and at this point the best option is to start sending out random friend requests to find one person. Poken essentially eliminates this communication cluster-fuck by transferring your contact on to a Poken device.

yes_i_poken-3yes_i_poken-4Here’s the deal. You meet someone, say at the first Swiss StartUp Camp in Basel. You decide this person is pretty cool and that you’d like to have their contact info, so you pull out your Poken. You touch your Poken to their Poken, a little green light illuminates on both device…and that’s it. If the light is red, it means it didn’t work and you try again. Now, you head back to your place after meeting a ton of people and plug your Poken into the USB port on your computer. You open the link to the Poken main webpage (which pops up on the drive of the Poken), after registering (takes 5 minutes) all the people you “Pokened” are listed.  Or rather, the devices are listed. If the person you met hasn’t registered with Poken and associated their contact information, then obviously you can’t get in touch with them. Poken records the device contact, but all the actual contact information is saved on the Poken webpage. But, basically after getting Pokened you have the contact information and all is good in the world. When you register with Poken you’re basically linking your social networks like Flickr, Facebook, Xing, etc. to your Poken account. So when I look at my contacts on the Poken page, I have direct links to all the networks they’ve associated with their Poken account, simple, perfect, Poken.

yes_i_poken-2From what I’ve been told, Poken is huge in the Netherlands. It’s a fantastic technology, as long as everyone else has one. When you’re an early adopter it can be a tad lonely. However, it makes you feel like you’re in a special order of internet Geekiness and I like it. Currently Pokens are available in a growing family of cute little animal-like…things, and can bought through the main Poken webpage and an expanding number of stores. I opted for a cute pink girl-type Poken, the others look like cute koala beers, bees, etc. Eventually I’d like a Poken that has an aluminum casing and has a red LED eye like Hal from 2001 (A Space Odyssey), we’ll see what the future brings. Poken has been released in Switzerland, and you can start finding them in stores. Otherwise you can buy them in a set and sell them to your friends. For the moment my cute pink-punk girly Poken can be found hanging out of my jeans or on my keychain.

yes_i_poken-6Eventually I’m sure the Poken technology will migrate to other devices like cell phones or something else, which would be sweet (sweet if I had a modern cell phone). So, if you’re looking for a cool little device which lets you keep all your social contacts in one place, Poken could be the perfect product for you. The technology works, it’s simple to use, it’s cool, and it’s addictive. All the elements required for a successful StartUp idea to flourish, and all elements for a successful social internet networking tool seem to be reflected in the Poken design. By the end of the day at the first Swiss StartUp camp, I’m guessing like over half the participants had a Poken and were poking each other whenever possible. The act is truly addictive, as addictive as Facebook, Flickr, etc. is when you’re adding friends online. The thing I love about Poken is that it’s a direct translation of the benefits of social networking into real-life social interaction. I know this sounds a tad aloof but it’s true. Social networking sites like Flickr and Facebook are fantastic for aggregating contact information, but it always exists in the online world. Poken provides the bridge between the technology of online social networking and the real world, and this is one reason why I think Poken can be successful while sites like Facebook risk hitting a popularity peak and then fading into obscurity.

“Give people value, and provide a product/service which solves a problem that they have.”

That was one of the main points I took away from the First Swiss StartUp Camp, and for me Poken fulfills the above statement perfectly.

“So, do you Poken?”

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.