Under the Radar

35: Ideas


00:00:00   Welcome to Under the Radar, a show about independent iOS app development.

00:00:04   I'm Marco Arment. And I'm David Smith. Under the Radar is never longer than 30 minutes, so let's get started.

00:00:10   So today we wanted to talk about something that is relevant for this time of year insofar as

00:00:18   coming out of WWDC, looking forward to this fall when all of these new technologies, all these new platforms

00:00:24   are suddenly going to be released. This is usually a good time to think about building something new,

00:00:30   to build a new app, to explore something, whatever that may be.

00:00:36   And the first step in starting a project like that, in diving into building something, is of course coming up

00:00:42   with the idea for what that thing is. Ideas are a funny thing. I think a lot of people put a bit too much

00:00:50   weight on ideas. You have the concept of "I'm just the idea guy," kind of a mindset.

00:00:58   The idea in and of itself is an important and valuable thing. And while the idea is useful and an essential part

00:01:05   of building something, by and large the idea for exactly what you actually are doing is less important.

00:01:12   And what you need to do though is whenever you have an idea, you have a thought of "I'm going to do this.

00:01:18   I'm going to build an app that does X." At least I found it's important to have a way to look at that and say

00:01:24   "Is this worth doing? How can I characterize this idea and understand if it's worth pursuing?"

00:01:30   And partly what I think we're going to unpack today is about years ago I did an episode of my previous podcast

00:01:38   "Developing Perspective" where I kind of unpacked this and I came up with a framework there that I think is a helpful way

00:01:43   to think about this and I think it's still very relevant and so hopefully we can update the ideas in it.

00:01:49   But essentially, when I think about ideas, it's to understand that conceptually an idea is either easy or hard

00:01:56   in terms of to implement. You have this concept of "I wanted to do something." Is that a trivial thing to do?

00:02:02   Or is it a really hard thing to do? And then some ideas have a very high reward potential and some ideas have a very

00:02:10   low reward potential. And so you end up when you know, now we have two axes and these sort of mutually exclusive

00:02:17   directions and so you have the perfect business journal concept of "now we have four quadrants"

00:02:24   and we can think about our idea in those four quadrants. Because there's some interesting characteristics

00:02:29   of taking an idea and thinking of it in that way. Is this easy, high reward? Is this easy, low reward?

00:02:35   Hard, low reward or hard, high reward? And if you can't think of an idea through that way, you're going to potentially

00:02:42   struggle to know if it's a good idea to pursue. So before we dive into that though, I was curious if, Marco,

00:02:48   if you have ever, when you have an idea to start something, like when you were thinking of building Overcast

00:02:54   or when you were thinking of building Instapaper or the magazine or any of your sort of the products that you ultimately

00:02:58   went on to build, when you had the idea, did you think concretely about it before you started or did you just get started?

00:03:06   At that time, for almost everything I've done, I've just gotten started on it. It's only been fairly recent

00:03:12   in my life and career that I've started actually trying to evaluate these things in a more objective and honest way

00:03:19   before I just dive in and devote months or years to doing them. Because it's, you know, evaluating your own ideas

00:03:26   is really hard. And especially for people like us who like to build things and who get pleasure out of building things,

00:03:35   it is so easy and so tempting to just jump in and start doing it. And often, you know, that works out well for a lot of people.

00:03:44   But there's also a lot of times where it doesn't because fundamentally there was some kind of disagreement between

00:03:51   how valuable the idea was in your head and how valuable the market decides that it is once you put it out there.

00:03:57   And it's, you know, I don't know if you can really develop that skill to be able to evaluate your idea early.

00:04:04   And that's part of the justification for doing like a minimum viable product early where like rather than, you know,

00:04:13   having some grand idea that you think about for years and you are just waiting for someone to come along and,

00:04:18   I don't know, pay you a million dollars for your idea or something, which never happens by the way.

00:04:22   And I can do a quick diversion right now on the value of ideas by themselves. And basically any app developer,

00:04:30   I mean, most of our audience has probably been pitched somebody's terrible idea before. And, you know,

00:04:36   they're like, "Oh, I have this great idea. It's a secret though. You know, you got to promise not to steal it."

00:04:40   Or they'll actually sometimes they'll make you sign an NDA before they'll tell you their idea.

00:04:44   Or they will have patented their idea or they will think they are patenting their idea even though they've only maybe

00:04:50   just applied for one or are thinking about applying for one. And all of these common failings reflect an overvaluation

00:04:59   of ideas by a lot of people. And the reality is these days when people ask me to, you know, sign an NDA or agree

00:05:07   to keep their idea secret before they tell me their idea, I just say no thanks.

00:05:10   Because what has happened over the last, I don't know, 10 years that people have been pitching me their terrible ideas

00:05:16   is I have literally never heard an idea from somebody that was worth agreeing to any kind of terms to hear the idea.

00:05:25   It has never happened. Not a single time. And the main problem people have is like, you know, the reason why their idea

00:05:35   doesn't exist or that it doesn't exist and they just haven't heard of the product is so often because it's a bad idea

00:05:43   or because it's impossible or because the market doesn't care. Or, you know, the more likely case is that these things do exist

00:05:51   and they just didn't notice or they didn't find the one that existed or it did exist but it failed and it went away

00:05:57   and that's also something worth knowing. So the actual value of the raw idea, it is very, very hard for people

00:06:04   to honestly get that. So, as I was saying earlier, there is some value in trying to get something out there quickly

00:06:11   in a minimal way that will let the market then tell you whether your idea is good or not.

00:06:16   But a lot of times that just isn't possible or the barrier between zero and minimum viable product is just too high

00:06:24   to be able to take a big risk on before you have some idea of how good an idea is. So you do have to at some point

00:06:32   develop the skill of evaluating whether your idea is actually worth doing or not. And, I mean, the easiest way to do this

00:06:40   is to just look at the market, look at similar things because, I mean, if nothing has ever been done like that before,

00:06:46   again, chances are you're just not finding it. But if truly nothing has ever been done like that before,

00:06:52   try to find something that's at least close or at least similar in some way. Find some kind of guidance in the market already

00:06:59   to see what might the reward for this actually be. And be honest with yourself about that too.

00:07:05   You're probably the master of this because you have released so many apps. You have more experience than anybody I know

00:07:15   in putting out an idea and seeing how it does in the market. I mean, how do you address this?

00:07:21   So I think the thing that I've come to learn over the years of shipping lots and lots and lots of apps is the degree to which,

00:07:30   while the idea itself doesn't really matter ultimately, and by that I mean there are many very successful apps in the app store

00:07:41   that don't do anything novel, at least ostensibly. They are a to-do list app. They are a weather app. So I've made a weather app,

00:07:53   which is one of the most kind of absurd things to do in many ways because all I had, it's like I'm going into a category

00:08:01   where there's an actual top-level category in the app store saying this is a category of apps. There isn't a to-do list category.

00:08:09   They all have to get shoehorned into utilities. But with weather apps, there is an actual place in the app store that says

00:08:15   here's all of the weather apps with the implication that there are a lot of them. And there are. And they're all displaying

00:08:22   what is functionally the same thing. They're just displaying it in a different way. And so why did I make a weather app?

00:08:30   And it's like the idea I had for Check the Weather, the app I'm talking about, was a very basic concept of I wanted to be able to

00:08:38   swipe left and right to see the hourly view and the daily view and swipe up to get a radar view. That was the only sort of

00:08:48   concept that I had before I started, which if that's all I have as my idea, is a pretty weak thing. That's not something

00:09:00   that you would imagine is going to set the world on fire. And it's so easy to have an--and I arrange this sometimes

00:09:06   with people who get frustrated with--they say, "Oh, I wish I was indie. I just don't have a good idea."

00:09:12   You don't really need an idea so much as you just need the willingness to build something. And this is where it gets a bit

00:09:21   awkward sometimes from a developer's perspective. You have to work out not so much if your idea is valuable, so much as

00:09:27   can you sell whatever it is you're building. At the end of the day, is there enough that's slightly different in whatever it is

00:09:37   you're building that is going to get people's attention and have a little hook? Because that's ultimately more what you're

00:09:45   selling, probably, than the idea. If you really did come up with a truly revolutionary novel idea that no one has ever

00:09:53   thought of or imagined before, like, "Wow, that's awesome. Good on you. You deserve your accolades, your Nobel Prize."

00:10:02   That's great. But more likely than not, if you're making an app for the App Store, it's not that. The things that are these

00:10:09   weird, out-of-the-blue, runaway successes tend to be more random. I almost imagine the idea for Flappy Bird, right?

00:10:18   I doubt the developer for that sat down and said, "Oh, I have this great, genius idea. This bird that jumps up and down

00:10:24   and then runs into pipes. This is going to be it." It turned out that was huge. I don't think you could have

00:10:30   characterized that as being huge ahead of time. And so, while I think there's some amount of being able to think about it,

00:10:38   it's so important as a developer to focus on the thing that's going to be important isn't so much the idea. You can have the worst

00:10:46   idea but geniously implemented and be more successful than the best idea poorly implemented.

00:10:55   And so when I go through and I'm thinking about, "Do I want to build something?" It's usually either, "Is this something that

00:11:04   scratches my own itch?" Which is usually a great place to start for an idea that you have. Rather than trying to imagine

00:11:12   a concept that's far off somewhere, that I think people who do this activity that I'm not really related to or think about

00:11:23   will do, and trying to project yourself into that to make something. Make something that makes sense to you. Think about the ideas

00:11:31   that you have for products or things that are close and relevant to you, that are doing something in a way that you want,

00:11:38   because at the very least you'll understand it. And then once you have those types of ideas, you just build it.

00:11:45   And this is certainly, you call it a minimal viable product, or you could just call it not getting too stuck in the weeds,

00:11:52   but a lot of the way that I've ended up building things is I worry a lot less about if it's a good idea.

00:11:58   And maybe a better question is, "Could I make a good version of whatever it is I'm building?" I have a lot of ideas for games,

00:12:06   for example. In my OmniFocus list, I have this big list of things that, any time I have an app idea, I put it in there.

00:12:16   And I've been doing this for years. And there's a lot of junk in there. There's a few things that went on,

00:12:23   subsequently other people implemented the idea that I had had and were successful with it, which is always kind of a funny feeling,

00:12:30   and I think that is where a lot of people's secretiveness about things or things can come from, that feeling of,

00:12:36   "Oh man, someone else did what I did, my idea." It's like, well, that's simultaneous invention. This is just the way it always happens.

00:12:42   Yeah, all the time.

00:12:43   All the time. You're not as special as you think you are when you have your novel idea. But mostly, I look at it like,

00:12:49   I have great ideas for games, but I don't know how to build a game, and I don't really want to learn how to do that.

00:12:55   I don't think that would be a constructive use of my time, and so I don't build those things. And that's okay.

00:13:01   Those are potentially good ideas, but I would have terrible execution for them, so there's no point in me pursuing those ideas.

00:13:09   What it makes sense for me to do, and this is the advice I usually give when people are asking me these types of questions,

00:13:16   it's like, what do you think you could make a good version of? What are you an expert in?

00:13:21   What is a topic that you know more about than most other people?

00:13:26   And there may not be a business case or a market there, which would be unfortunate.

00:13:31   Ideally, you have this great expertise in an area that is relevant to a lot of people, but if you--either way,

00:13:39   that's a great place to start. What do you think about, is this idea--could I build a good version of this?

00:13:45   Do you understand it? Do you use it a lot? I imagine part of why you made Overcast is because you listen to a lot of podcasts,

00:13:54   and so you have a lot of opinions. You have a lot of ideas that are not the big idea.

00:13:59   Maybe that's ultimately where I'm heading with this line of thought, is the big idea,

00:14:05   the thing that you would pitch somebody, the "It's like Uber but for dogs," that version of the idea,

00:14:13   where you're trying to boil it down, that's not the important part. The important part is the teeny little details

00:14:19   that will go into actually building that product that will make it a success or a failure.

00:14:26   Those are the parts, the little choices that you're going to make, which you probably aren't even thinking about

00:14:32   when you start off with the grand idea. And so the quicker that you can get to a point that you can say,

00:14:37   "Do I have good ideas?" way down at that basic tactical level for what am I doing that's different or interesting,

00:14:45   which problem am I actually solving? That's where the really interesting work will happen,

00:14:51   and the sooner you can get to there, the better.

00:14:54   Exactly. There's so much fretting and focusing and anxiety about people's ideas,

00:14:59   but it really does not—the idea matters so little or, in many cases, is so impossible to actually do.

00:15:08   Just doing something boring well is way more valuable in general than doing some crazy, awesome idea.

00:15:17   And a little tip here, if your idea begins with "It's like X, but for Y," if X is something worth a billion dollars or more,

00:15:30   just don't even do that idea because people will just—that means that that thing is so big that Y people will just use X for that thing.

00:15:38   It's just not worth it. Also, there's also significant scale issues of saying something like your example,

00:15:47   "It's like Uber for dogs." Do you know how much is involved in starting a company like Uber?

00:15:51   There's immense scale here that it's so much easier to do things that are within the scope of what one person

00:16:01   or a very small company can do. And so many ideas are based on what you see in the consumer web

00:16:07   and the consumer app world, but those companies built themselves up to that over years,

00:16:12   and usually with millions and millions of dollars in funding and with very large staffs,

00:16:18   and also with a lot of luck and timing that you probably won't have.

00:16:22   So it's important to contextualize your ideas too, like in time and in scale. You can't build a new Facebook today

00:16:32   because Facebook is Facebook, and Facebook built Facebook 10 years ago, 15 years ago. It's a different time now.

00:16:39   And so whatever the big idea is going to be that you can start as one person today is not probably going to resemble

00:16:46   a billion-plus-dollar company that exists already today.

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00:17:32   That is BraintreePayments.com/Radar. Thanks a lot to Braintree for supporting Under the Radar and all of Relay FM.

00:17:39   I wanted to talk about something that has bitten me before and that I think a lot of people don't think about,

00:17:46   which is, so we just finished talking about how you should keep in mind your scale as one person or as, you know,

00:17:55   maybe you have a partner or two trying to make an app with you, but chances are you're between one and three people

00:18:01   and you might also be doing this part-time while you still work a full-time job to pay the bills.

00:18:05   So the scale of what you can do is, of course, limited compared to what somebody like Facebook could do, for example.

00:18:11   And you mentioned earlier, you know, like how you have ideas for games, and I do too,

00:18:16   and I don't make the games that I have ideas for for most of the same reasons you don't make the games you have ideas for,

00:18:22   that we don't know how to make games. In my case, I barely even play games, and I might have an idea for a decent game

00:18:28   that sounds like a good idea, but there's a very big difference between the idea and being able to make a fun game

00:18:34   and then being able to make a fun game that's successful.

00:18:37   And one of the problems, even if you are one of the lucky few who can make a fun, successful game,

00:18:44   a lot of times the people who do this are bitten by a failure to plan ahead for what happens next,

00:18:53   or at least they're surprised what happens next in a bad way.

00:18:56   When you're planning an app, when you're thinking of an idea, when you're choosing what to do,

00:19:00   also consider the endgame. How does this story end if you succeed, right?

00:19:06   Because you're probably focused on getting from the present day to the launch day,

00:19:11   and what can you possibly do to make this thing succeed or to make this thing good or make people like this thing.

00:19:17   But then think about too, what happens if you do succeed? Does that put you in a place that you want to be,

00:19:24   and does this put you in a business that you want to operate?

00:19:27   So, for example, you launch some kind of fun game based on a really good idea that you had.

00:19:37   What happens in the App Store to good ideas?

00:19:40   They get copied, I think.

00:19:42   They get copied quickly and brutally and thoroughly and shamelessly.

00:19:47   I mean, the degree of copying the App Store, especially in games, is just brutal.

00:19:54   What happens if you have this great idea for a game?

00:19:57   You can put it out there. You can even try to patent it or trademark it and try to protect it on some level,

00:20:04   but your protections won't really work in the grand scheme of things.

00:20:08   And if you have a good idea, if your idea succeeds at all, it'll be copied immediately.

00:20:15   So what would you do?

00:20:17   If you release this thing, are you planning for that? Are you aware that it's going to happen?

00:20:21   Are you okay with that happening?

00:20:23   What happens if it does happen? Can your business survive?

00:20:26   Will your projections of what this might bring in be changed if somebody else comes out with the same thing for free?

00:20:33   If you're charging something for yours or if theirs just succeeds more.

00:20:37   You can look at things like 3s and 2048.

00:20:40   There are so many examples of this where a big game comes out,

00:20:44   but then somebody else comes out or many people come out with a free version that is similar,

00:20:50   even if it isn't exactly the same.

00:20:51   It could just be similar and that version gets way more attention because it was free

00:20:55   or because it just caught on better or something else.

00:20:57   So you have to plan for the immediate future of your app,

00:21:01   of what happens a month later, two months later, a year later.

00:21:05   And you also have to plan for what happens if this succeeds on an ongoing basis,

00:21:10   then what kind of business am I in and what kind of involvement does that require,

00:21:15   what kind of overhead does that require, and is that something I want to do?

00:21:18   And this is something I've felt in the past with the magazine in particular,

00:21:22   where I was so focused on building the app, building the magazine's app,

00:21:27   and building the technical side of it and the reading experience,

00:21:31   that I really didn't put enough thought into what happens if this succeeds.

00:21:36   Then I have to put out a magazine issue every two weeks forever.

00:21:41   That's a lot of work. I have to be an editor. I have to deal with writers.

00:21:44   I have to deal with people's pitches and I have to deal with payments and processing

00:21:50   and editing and rights management and so much stuff.

00:21:54   That's a lot of work and I have no experience doing that.

00:21:57   And do I really want to be obligated every two weeks to be putting out a big block of content?

00:22:04   And the answer, of course, was no.

00:22:07   This similarly happened to me on a much shorter but more intense time scale with Peace,

00:22:11   my ad blocker from last summer, which is I released this app thinking that it would fly under the radar,

00:22:19   thinking that it would be a moderate success, maybe have a few tens of thousands of users at most,

00:22:28   which would be a great success for most apps, and that would be it.

00:22:33   And I would just let it run and put it in low maintenance mode and forget about it,

00:22:38   because it wouldn't need much maintenance, allegedly.

00:22:41   And I found out very quickly, first of all, that Peace succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.

00:22:48   It shot up to the top of the charts and it was bringing in good money,

00:22:53   but it was also bringing in a lot of negative attention and exposure to possible lawsuits

00:23:00   and reputation damage and all sorts of problems that it was bringing with me,

00:23:05   because it turns out the ad blocking business is just really messy,

00:23:10   and however you fall on the politics of that, it is a messy business to be in.

00:23:16   And I didn't quite foresee that or think about that enough before I did it,

00:23:22   and it turned out I hated being in that position.

00:23:25   It was really, really ruining things for me in a lot of ways.

00:23:31   I just couldn't take the stress of it, and it was a bad scene.

00:23:37   So I hadn't properly thought through, "Is this the business I really want to be in if this succeeds?"

00:23:43   And now, as I think about current and future projects that I do now,

00:23:49   I think a lot more about that also, because for so much of my career,

00:23:54   I was worried about how would this thing fail and why would it fail and can I prevent it from failing.

00:23:59   But you also have to think about, if it succeeds, is that even where you want to go?

00:24:04   Yeah, and I think there's so much of this, too.

00:24:09   I definitely run into this, too, and in many ways, this is a problem that I deal with.

00:24:14   I have a similar problem, but from a different direction, where the thing that I don't take into account, typically,

00:24:22   is that if I build a product and I put it out in the store, people are going to expect it to be updated.

00:24:27   And supported.

00:24:29   And supported, and that's a perfectly reasonable thing.

00:24:32   A couple years ago, I started to realize that I've gone through this pattern of,

00:24:38   I have an idea, I built it, I put it into the app store so many times that the number of apps and things

00:24:44   that I am responsible for is just too much.

00:24:49   It's kind of mind-bending. Sometimes I'll get a customer support email for an app,

00:24:54   and I'm like, "What app is this? Did I build this?"

00:24:58   Even I forgot about this.

00:25:00   And that's not good. But I definitely ran into that same problem.

00:25:05   And so as a result, I am much more careful about committing to a project

00:25:10   and heading down that road than I used to be.

00:25:14   I can imagine past me would have been looked at this fall and been like,

00:25:19   "Oh man, look at all this crazy stuff we can do in messaging.

00:25:22   I need to have ten sticker packs on day one.

00:25:25   I need to have any kind of thing I could ever possibly imagine for iMessage.

00:25:29   Just throw all the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks."

00:25:33   And maybe that sort of works? There's something to it.

00:25:38   It's a viable way to sort of test out a market in some ways,

00:25:43   but the difficulty is making sure that you're comfortable with what that looks like

00:25:47   if more things stick than you actually are thinking will stick.

00:25:52   And being sure that you're getting into businesses that you like.

00:25:56   Because I think this is such an easy thing to--

00:26:01   It's so easy to underestimate the difficulty of success

00:26:06   because it's so easy to just think of success as the--

00:26:11   It's the dancing in the meadow. It's great.

00:26:16   This is exactly what I wanted.

00:26:19   It's popular, it's well-respected, it's bringing in money.

00:26:22   What could be wrong?

00:26:24   It's like, "Well, depending on why it's succeeding, or what it is,

00:26:29   or the amount of time and effort that it took for it to succeed,

00:26:33   you may not actually like that."

00:26:36   I had the idea a while back that I wanted to--

00:26:41   I was like, "You know what? I think I could make a really cool feed reader."

00:26:44   This was even before Google Reader announced that they were going to close,

00:26:47   and then started working on it, and then Google Reader announced

00:26:49   that they were going to close.

00:26:51   I was like, "Great! This is perfect. I've been working on this project,

00:26:55   and now there's this great marketing opportunity."

00:26:57   So I went for it. I made Feed Wrangler.

00:27:00   While I wouldn't say that I regret making Feed Wrangler,

00:27:03   and it's still ongoing to this day. It's been a successful product for me.

00:27:07   There was a period where I had no idea what it would mean

00:27:10   to actually have a web service that's at any amount, at any appreciable scale.

00:27:16   So I spent the better part of a few months hardly sleeping,

00:27:21   hardly seeing my family, constantly dealing with server fires and scaling issues.

00:27:26   That's great insofar as I released it and people liked it.

00:27:31   So it was successful, but I wasn't prepared for that success.

00:27:36   In many ways, that was probably not a great idea.

00:27:40   I think ultimately a lot of these things, in my mind,

00:27:44   they feed back into this part of me that's like the classic fear of missing out mindset.

00:27:50   When I think of, say, even Feed Wrangler, at the time, I had such this anxiety about,

00:27:57   "Well, I have the ability to do this, and I could do it,

00:28:01   and if I don't, someone else will, and they may be really successful."

00:28:05   And the fear of missing that opportunity clouded my judgement

00:28:11   as to what I was actually getting involved in.

00:28:14   And I think that is a pattern that happens more often than we wish it did,

00:28:19   where it's easy to focus on somebody this fall is going to make a sticker pack

00:28:26   that's going to make thousands of dollars, almost certainly.

00:28:30   Just look at the top paid list in the App Store and it blows my mind a little bit,

00:28:35   like the things that are making lots of money in the App Store these days.

00:28:38   The App Store is a weird place, but that's a topic for another day.

00:28:42   But just because that's maybe true, it doesn't mean that I want to get into that business

00:28:47   and be chasing whatever is going to be successful there.

00:28:51   I need to be comfortable saying, "You know what? I'm going to miss out.

00:28:54   I'm going to choose to miss out on that potential opportunity and focus on something,

00:28:58   a business that I want to be in, a business that I think isn't just a good idea,

00:29:02   but is an idea that I want to live with going forward

00:29:05   and can see myself being in this industry.

00:29:08   Like right now, I make health and fitness apps, and I love making health and fitness apps.

00:29:11   That's my focus, and I can see being in that focus forever because it's rewarding, it's fun, it's personal.

00:29:19   It's great. That's the way that I look at these ideas and say, "Are they worth doing?

00:29:23   Can I live with it for the rest of my life, ostensibly, or at least for the rest of my career?"

00:29:28   And that's what I didn't do with peace, and now I've learned.

00:29:31   There you go. It's a learning experience.

00:29:33   All right. We're out of time this week. Thanks for listening, everybody, and we will talk to you next week.

00:29:37   Bye.