You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.’ You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.
I have been sitting on the theme of this post for a while, but I stumbled across two great articles recently that convey my point quite brilliantly. I’ll talk about their ideas, and then cover it off with a few opinions of my own.
When I first quit my job to start my own company, all I had was an idea. The goal at that point was to find someone with a technical background to actually execute my idea. I suspect that many of you are in similar situations. There’s something you should know: it’s never going to happen.
Please don’t want to wait around trying to find that perfect technical co-founder. If that’s your goal, then you’re bound to fail as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs don’t look for people who are able to execute for them. They improvise and make things happen in spite of being under-equipped.
Very quickly, society is becoming divided into two groups: those that understand how to code and therefore manipulate the very structure of the world around them, and those that don’t – those whose lives are being designed and directed by those that do know how to code.
(He subsequently turned it into a Slideshare deck, which is well worth a browse.)
While being a successful Business Guy can be tremendously important for the company, and has more impact than many developers and designers acknowledge, there are times when you cannot contribute to the product as much as you’d like. In the meantime, the makers seldom have a free moment, as a product can always be improved. A new design tweak here. A refactor of code there. The Business Guy is left with an internal struggle: wanting to do all they can do for the company but knowing deep down inside that pulling out a code editor or Photoshop would often be the most helpful thing they could do — and realizing they can’t do it.
It’s at those times when an hour in code or design is what’s needed that I’ve wished I hadn’t stopped programming so that I could fire up a code editor and hack away. It’s that feeling of always wanting to contribute to the most critical part of the company at any given time that has returned me to programming.
Spencer’s article touches on my reason for wanting to learn development. I go into this in more detail in a blog post I wrote for Offscreen magazine. 10 years ago, some friends and I wanted to create a website when the idea of a “startup” was barely known, and in fact was a time when people barely used the internet. We knew no programmers or designers, yet I relished the challenge to learn something during my down-time doing my psychology. (Spencer–who switched to psychology from computer science–is right: you get a lot of free time if you do a psychology degree: I would recommend doing and liberal arts-based programme to any aspiring hacker for that reason alone…).
The feeling of being able to execute an idea through to a finished project is enormously satisfying. I admire designers who are also proficient screen printers, or fashion designed who cut their own cloth; who conceive an idea, creates the product (and perhaps even sell) within the remit of her own skillset. It’s really exciting to see a product come into being by yourself.
Of course, it won’t be perfect. I’m not a great developer nor a great designer, and luckily I’m not a perfectionist (at least not when I’m doing client work). That doesn’t matter - it’s the doing that counts. And if the product or idea is a winner, that’s when you bring in a team of experts to help polish it into something great. But because you were the person pulling the initial pieces together, you have more context and knowledge to sell your idea and get people to believe in it, and subsequently, you.
In my mind you need two things to become a nerd. Time, and an idea. That’s all: no specific knowledge or expertise. I didn’t know nor was taught about development or design when I started.
People who complain they don’t have time are paradoxically procrastinating. If it’s something you want, you’ll find the time to do it. Get up an hour earlier, or go to bed an hour later. Hack away or read about hacking away during your lunchbreak.
Then comes the idea. It needs to be simple, but it needs to be something you want to see (something you find useful or which entertains you). It also needs to be something that excites you, since with excitement comes will. If you’re not excited about something, you’ll get bored and give up pretty quickly.
You may need a bit of a kickstart. I’m thrilled that General Assembly has set up in London, and they have a super range of talks and courses to get you started. In fact you might decide to do a full front-end development course with my genius pal Rik Lomas. There are equivalent courses in New York, and I’m certain you can find courses in other cities.
If not, then seek out a nerdy community who will inspire and motivate. If you’re a designer, I wouldn’t choose to attend the nearest Ruby Hacker Group, but increasingly there are groups of folk who span creative and code. In London, check out Dalston Digital; in New York, check out N.Y.P.D who I believe occasionally have meet-ups. Everyone at both is super friendly. If they’re not, tell me and I’ll kick their ass.
Conferences are great too, and are as bountiful as biscuits these days. Brooklyn Beta is an especially good one, who this year are running Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp: an amazing opportunity to get involved with a super crowd of people. $25,000 is a great motivator to learn how to develop while executing your idea.
However you start you’ll get immense satisfaction, even if you find it daunting. Give it a try, it’s fun being a nerd.
I enjoyed Jon Hendren’s post, Your Company Sucks at Social Media which leaves some sage advice for those looking to hire a “social media expert”:
Who should you hire? Pretty much anybody but those people. Seriously, go walk around the office and look for someone who is cool but bored with their current position and who can hold a decent human-style conversation, and see if they want to take a swing at it. Simply running a corporate Facebook and Twitter account is not a full time job and does not require a dedicated employee. All it really takes is someone with a little humility, some people skills, a sense of humor about their role, a decent enough grasp of the Internet, and and a couple hours each day to interact with the void, tops. Ideally– and as long as your hiring practices hadn’t allowed doofuses into your company– this would mean most of your co-workers are able to do it.
Every time a tweet about a trending topic includes three words that appear in that order in the Complete Works of William Shakespeare we’ll note it down along with the original tweet it came from. When all 810,153 words have been written the experiment will be complete!
An intelligently cheeky expose on the banality of the long-tail of Twitter users.
This is the best result of a hack weekend I think I’ve ever seen from a start-up or agency. Well done Duncan, Dan and the dev team!
I enjoyed reading Paul Graham’s latest essay, on ideas that are so frighteningly ambitious that they can almost repel.
Two of the ideas particularly appealed to me.
Firstly, building a new search engine to replace Google, which day by day becomes less and less useful (thanks mostly in part to SEO
consultants ogres. Google is particularly useless for product and shopping comparisons, since the results have been manipulated beyond a point of them being useful. However, any new start-up building a new service to help here will have failed before they have begun if their business model includes offering some retailers or brands premium listings. I worry that almost everyone who is attempting to get into this space will have that plan in mind.
Secondly, ongoing diagnosis:
…I’m pretty sure that to people 50 or 100 years in the future, it will seem barbaric that people in our era waited till they had symptoms to be diagnosed with conditions like heart disease and cancer.
I thought I was interested in startups that aim to provide a way for you to record your wellbeing. For instance Tictrac is a very new startup that aims to help visualise various metrics in your life (not just medical; financial too) and have created a beautiful product (time will tell if it has been over-designed). But increasingly I don’t feel that these are ultimately the fixes for the problem because if I can’t be bothered to complete my data, I doubt many others will. There are also a huge number of privacy question marks over these services. If a service like this is free, where will my data end up (particularly if ruthless VCs get involved!).
I use (and paid for) 23andMe which is a fascinating service that analyses my DNA for any potential health risks. This is great for helping shed light on any potential problems and I feel okay about the team behind it. But I’d be very happy to entrust my data to a team of professionals for other vital signs.
Imagine a paid, monthly subscription service (associated with a private medical organisation like Nuffield) that sends you a blood and urine sample pack, and simple interface allowing to enter any other key metrics, whose professional analysis is presented to you shortly after submission, flagging up any potential problems (cholesterol, signs of diabetes, respiratory issues, and so on). Not many Techcrunch readers would pay for it, but I and thousands of others certainly would.
I didn’t think I’d ever link to a TechCrunch article here, but I thoroughly enjoyed this funny post by entrepreneur and investor, James Altucher, who dispenses some sage advice about being an entrepreneur. Some of my favorite bullets:
- The economy doesn’t matter. Groupon started in November, 2008. The news media is always going to say the economy is in the crapper. For once in your life, and for the rest of your entrepreneurship, turn the TV off.
- You have no idea what’s going to be successful or not… a good entrepreneur probably has no clue what’s going to be good or bad. That’s not the key to success.
- Try to avoid meetings since 99% of them are worthless. And if you go to meetings, do this: no dougnuts and chairs in the meeting room. Then the meetings will at least be fast.
- When you are raising money, you have to be able to answer the question, “what if Google decides to get in this business?” The question is rhetorical. It’s like asking, “what happened to you the last time you were in the center of a black hole.” But, I don’t know why—everyone asks that question. Heck, I’ve asked that question. I’ve been asked it. It’s just something that happens. You need to answer it with absolute seriousness.
- Lying awake at 3 in the morning wondering how you are going to make payroll next October (note: it’s December now. But every three in the morning that October looms one day closer). It is critical to sleep through that anxiety. I’m not kidding. Better to dream about missing payroll than lie awake thinking about it.
- Calling your buddy and saying, “I hate this stupid company already. I wish I can sell it and start the other five ideas I have.” And, by the way, you might be right. Time to transform your crappy company into one of those five ideas.
- And note: Its ok to fail. We all make mistakes. We all crush the hope and spirit out of our friends, investors, and loved ones. It’s ok if you do it also. But be ready to start again and do it again. Avoid the shame. Crush them again and again. Until finally you squeeze juice out of them. Then it’s all worth it. Did that analogy just work? If so, then congratulations. You’re an entrepreneur.
Iain Tait neatly summarises what he feels are the three things that crop up when thinking about what it takes to be a good creative in a modern agency:
- Resilience – don’t give up
- Restraint – just because you can, doesn’t mean you should
- Respect – you can’t do all the stuff on your own, you need to collaborate
I find myself worried that I am not keeping up with best practices and methods. I’ve been in job interviews where I get very specific questions about seemingly arbitrary process and methods. Do you understand user flows, info architecture, A/B testing, QA, agile, etc. etc. etc.? Just do the work. Do it what ever way works for you. I used to be laughed at for designing for web in Illustrator, now it is becoming more standard, and soon it will be something else. Tools change, processes evolve, goals are a moving target. Don’t be good at tools. Be good at getting good thoughtful work done.
I haven’t been in the job market for years and years, and I would be terrified if I were to have an interview now (“Sorry, my node.js skills aren’t up to much… sorry…”, etc.). But if I were on the other side of the fence and hiring designers and developers, while I’d be interested in what–if anything–they new about this technology or that, I’d care far more about their actual output and their ability to execute in whatever means possible.
I also wouldn’t much care if the actual shipped thing was an all-singing, all-dancing website. Tom Petty (no, not that Tom Petty) impressed me the other day when he revealed he created a range of hand-crafted leather goods alongside his interactive design work.
Brainpickings highlighted this motion graphics piece which illustrated part of This American Life host Ira Glass’ interview on the art of storytelling. I took time to transcribe the piece because his message really resonated with me. Doing work and a lot of it separates those with mere good taste to those who produce great work:
All of us who do creative work, like, y’know we get into it and we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap. That for the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase and a lot of people at that point they quit.
I would just like to say to you—with all my heart—is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have the special thing that we wanted to have… Everybody goes through that… You’ve got to know that it’s totally normal.
The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
It takes a while. It’s going to take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?
(On a side note, if I were American, I’d want to speak like Ira Glass.)
I enjoyed this article by Chris Tacket in The Atlantic, which asks whether Pinterest and Svpply might in fact reduce consumption:
…counterintuitively, my experience with these services is that they actually help me cut my consumption and to direct my money at goods that more closely align with my values.
The crux of his argument is that adding a product to your profile is sufficient to kick in the endorphins:
…I have found that adding items to my Svpply page gives me a similarly pleasant rush of some pleasure-inducing chemicals
I agree with the sentiment, but for a much more simple reason that he doesn’t seem to touch on.
Fashion relies on consumers buying products as a proxy to convey an individual sense of style or taste to the outside world. But with services like Svpply and Pinterest, why would a consumer bother buying a physical product when they can simply project their taste to a vast audience at zero cost?