Developing Perspective

#202: Four Quadrants of Ideas


00:00:00   Hello and welcome to Developing Perspective. Developing Perspective is a podcast discussing

00:00:07   news of note and iOS development, Apple and the like. I'm your host, David Smith. I'm

00:00:09   an independent iOS developer based in her, New Virginia. This is show number 202 and

00:00:13   today is Thursday, November 6th. Developing Perspective was never longer than 15 minutes,

00:00:18   so let's get started.

00:00:20   Okay, so I'm going to be talking about ideas today. And this got motivated from several

00:00:26   There's several conversations I've had recently as I've started to talk more and more publicly

00:00:30   about my excitement about starting to make apps for Apple Watch.

00:00:35   And one of the things, of course, when you start talking about things like that, the

00:00:39   natural question that people then ask, "Oh, what are you going to build?"

00:00:45   And this is always kind of a funny question.

00:00:48   When people start asking you what you're going to do, what are you planning to build, what

00:00:52   ideas do you have?

00:00:54   And some of this can obviously just get silly, where you have people who are hyperprotective

00:00:58   of their ideas to a point where it isn't actually productive, as though this is the people who

00:01:04   will want you to sign an NDA before they tell you their next big thing.

00:01:09   You can certainly get carried away with thinking that your ideas or the concepts or the things

00:01:13   that you're thinking about are overvalued.

00:01:17   But it's also something that you need to be thoughtful about, that there are different

00:01:20   kinds of ideas and there are different values or importances of keeping something secret.

00:01:26   And there are reasons to keep something secret beyond just being coy about it.

00:01:33   Sometimes it's a good idea for marketing reasons or a variety of other things.

00:01:36   But it's something that I've been thinking about a little bit as a result of kind of

00:01:40   why do I think some ideas are fine to share, some of them aren't.

00:01:45   And I tried to kind of formulize this into a more sort of concrete structure.

00:01:49   I came up with something that I think will be fairly helpful, or at least I hope it will

00:01:52   be fairly helpful. But before I dive into my formulation, it is something that I did

00:01:58   want to touch upon. It's easy to--I think it is an obvious, in retrospect, kind of thing

00:02:08   that the idea in and of itself is not that important. That an idea without execution

00:02:13   isn't particularly valuable. I always go back to--I think this was best explained by a post

00:02:19   I think it was by Derek Slivers, who said essentially

00:02:23   that an idea has sort of a linear value,

00:02:30   but execution has a multiplicative value.

00:02:34   So say you imagine that you have an idea--

00:02:36   and I'll have a link to the actual post to this in the show

00:02:38   notes-- but conceptually, it's to say that the best idea was

00:02:42   100, and the worst idea was a 0.

00:02:45   That's essentially the reasonable scale.

00:02:50   And as your idea gets better and better, as it gets more and more

00:02:53   novel, as it gets more and more interesting and useful,

00:02:55   you can really work your way up.

00:02:56   But you're always just kind of increasing linearly.

00:02:59   The actual execution of that idea is a multiplier.

00:03:02   The best execution you could imagine is like a million.

00:03:05   And the worst execution you could imagine is like a one.

00:03:09   And so you can very easily see, if you can kind of imagine in that scale,

00:03:13   how the execution is far more valuable.

00:03:15   Like a level five idea with a million execution

00:03:21   will have much more effectiveness and impact

00:03:23   than a hundred idea with a 10 execution,

00:03:27   or however you want to look at it.

00:03:28   Like it is the actual result of taking that idea from your head

00:03:32   and putting it into the world that

00:03:34   is going to make or break whether it is actually

00:03:36   effective or impactful.

00:03:38   But the idea is still important.

00:03:40   is still one of the parts of that equation.

00:03:43   But it's often very easy to put too much emphasis on the idea

00:03:48   and understand that the execution is

00:03:50   the thing that matters most.

00:03:52   This is honestly, in some ways, the way I've built my business

00:03:55   is because I tend to be able to very quickly execute on things.

00:03:58   And so whether or not I have a good idea or not,

00:04:02   being able to quickly and effectively put something out,

00:04:04   see if it has any traction, is helpful.

00:04:07   And so focusing on that rather than necessarily the idea

00:04:10   has been really helpful for me.

00:04:12   Very few of the things that I've done are particularly novel

00:04:15   in terms of they're not like, wow, you see it

00:04:17   and it blows your mind for how cool it is.

00:04:20   It's mostly just to say, OK, whoa, I guess that makes sense.

00:04:23   That's logical.

00:04:24   It's straightforward.

00:04:27   But the fact that it exists and the fact that it

00:04:29   was able to have been created in the first place

00:04:32   is what has helped to make this somewhat sustainable for me.

00:04:36   So onto my formalization. And like any good concept or construction, it is of course best

00:04:43   demonstrated with a two axis graph that breaks the plane into four quadrants. And one of

00:04:51   my axes for this is going to be talking about the ease at which you can implement or realize

00:04:57   that idea. So on the one end you can imagine, and I'll have a terrible, I'm sure, picture,

00:05:02   or a hand-drawn picture of this in the show notes,

00:05:04   but I imagine you can just kind of follow along with my word

00:05:06   picture.

00:05:07   So on the one side, you have something that is incredibly

00:05:10   easy to build.

00:05:11   On the other side, say on the right,

00:05:14   you have something that is incredibly hard to build.

00:05:18   So on the one end, you have something

00:05:20   that's just a trivial, simple, not a lot of code,

00:05:24   not a lot of design, basic app.

00:05:26   Maybe it's even just one screen or one very focused idea.

00:05:30   On the other extreme, you have something

00:05:31   very hard to build.

00:05:33   That's something that has a lot of moving parts,

00:05:35   has a lot of back end integration,

00:05:37   syncing, has all kinds of things like this.

00:05:39   So if you kind of imagine, say, looking at my own products,

00:05:42   things like Podometer++ is probably

00:05:44   an easy thing to implement.

00:05:46   It's taking a bunch-- just reading data from a sensor

00:05:48   and displaying it on the screen.

00:05:50   On the other extent, something like Feed Wrangler,

00:05:52   a RSS syncing system with native apps and web apps

00:05:55   and crawlers and scrapers and 26 servers, hard to build.

00:06:00   So on that axis, easy to build, hard to build.

00:06:03   That isn't making passing any judgment

00:06:06   on whether the idea is useful or whether it has any value.

00:06:08   It's just how hard it is to take the idea from your concept

00:06:11   and put it into reality.

00:06:13   And then on your other axis, if you're following along

00:06:16   with my word picture, you go from something that is cheap

00:06:20   or has a low return to something that is incredibly valuable.

00:06:25   So if you've imagined starting at the bottom and going up,

00:06:29   The bottom of this axis is something

00:06:31   that really has no return.

00:06:33   It's either going to be free-- it's not actually

00:06:35   going to make you any money, it's

00:06:37   going to have very low sales-- to something at the top, which

00:06:40   is something that's going to be incredibly valuable, that has

00:06:42   a lot of business justification behind it,

00:06:45   is something that could really be effective.

00:06:47   And building a business or mostly just pulling in revenue.

00:06:53   So that's your four quadrants.

00:06:55   So you have something that is easy to build and high return.

00:06:58   You have easy to build and low return.

00:07:00   You have hard to build and high return.

00:07:03   And you have hard to build and low return.

00:07:06   And you can kind of, if you start to think about ideas

00:07:08   in that grid, you can very quickly

00:07:11   start to see which are the ideas that are worth pursuing,

00:07:14   which are the ideas that are worth being coy

00:07:17   and protective of.

00:07:20   And you can very quickly also start

00:07:21   to see the ideas where it really doesn't matter

00:07:23   if you're secretive or not.

00:07:25   And so I'm going to kind of walk through those four quadrants

00:07:28   and talk about some of the attributes of each of those

00:07:31   in a way that will hopefully kind of make

00:07:32   this more definite.

00:07:34   So to start off with, let's talk about easy, high return ideas.

00:07:40   So if you actually have one of these, which most likely you

00:07:43   won't, but I'll talk about that in a moment,

00:07:45   but if you actually have one of these, something

00:07:47   that is incredibly easy to build and has a really high return,

00:07:50   you need to be quiet and run as fast as you can to build it.

00:07:55   because you've that it's sort of like the definition of a gold mine right like

00:08:00   it like you're walking down the street and it's like wow there is gold on the

00:08:03   ground all I need to do is pick up pick it up like of course run with that and

00:08:07   do it be very thoughtful obviously though that's actually the case and it's

00:08:12   very easy to overemphasize both the return on the truth that you'll be able

00:08:16   to get from something and it's also even easy to over simplify how hard it is to

00:08:22   build. But if you did actually have one of these, go for it, run with it, that is really

00:08:26   cool. Keeping in mind are two things. This is likely going to be hyper-competitive because

00:08:32   if it's easy to build in high return, everybody's gonna wanna do it. Sorta makes sense, right?

00:08:38   So especially even after the, if maybe you were the first person to ever have this idea,

00:08:42   awesome, you rock, immediately everyone else is gonna try and do it because necessarily

00:08:47   It's easy to do and high return.

00:08:49   So worry about that.

00:08:51   Also, be aware of something called multiple discovery

00:08:55   or simultaneous invention, where it is often the case,

00:08:59   just historically-- and it's kind of a fascinating thing.

00:09:02   I linked to the Wikipedia page in the show notes about this.

00:09:04   But the fascinating thing is over time,

00:09:07   ideas seem to kind of naturally emerge out of their context.

00:09:12   And so a lot of people tend to invent the same thing

00:09:16   at the same time completely a separate of each other,

00:09:19   just because of the way that as technology improves

00:09:22   or people's knowledge improves or as people understand things

00:09:25   differently, it tends-- you're not as unique of a butterfly

00:09:30   or a snowflake as you actually think you are.

00:09:33   And so often this is actually going to happen.

00:09:35   And so if you think you have one of these easy high return

00:09:38   activities, then run with it as quickly as you can,

00:09:41   because someone else is almost certainly doing

00:09:44   the same thing at the same time.

00:09:45   you just may not be aware of it.

00:09:48   Next are the easy and low return activities.

00:09:54   So these are kind of a funny thing.

00:09:56   These are just sort of the definition of confection in some way.

00:10:00   This is just something that is easy to build and isn't actually going to go anywhere, isn't

00:10:05   going to have any return.

00:10:08   If it happens to have a flash in the pan, it's going to be a very short and limited

00:10:12   flash.

00:10:13   is the very short-lived idea. Because if it's easy to build but doesn't actually make any

00:10:22   money or doesn't have a strong return, then it's kind of hard to justify building something

00:10:28   like this. So if you have an idea like this, that's like, "Hey, I've got this really easy

00:10:31   to build thing that wouldn't actually make any money," I wouldn't be too protective or

00:10:36   pay too much attention to those ideas, because they're just not really a lot of impact. In

00:10:41   ways this is kind of fun. These are probably good learning experiences, is probably something

00:10:45   to say that is probably useful in. You know, a lot of good kind of tutorial apps would

00:10:49   fall into this category, like building a to-do list in some ways. So you could say it's somewhat

00:10:53   easy, but there isn't necessarily a lot of return on it because it's such a saturated

00:10:58   market. All right, next quadrant are things that are hard to build but also low return.

00:11:05   So these are time sinks, labors of loves. These are things that if you think about,

00:11:10   If someone were to describe an idea to you in those terms, that this is going to be hard

00:11:14   to build and have very low return, you probably don't want to actually be building that because

00:11:21   necessarily you're spending a lot of time without getting a lot of reward for it.

00:11:25   In my experience, this is actually probably 95% of the "Oh, I have a great idea for an

00:11:31   app" pitches that you get if you tell someone you make apps for a living.

00:11:34   So you tell someone, "Oh, I make apps."

00:11:36   It's like, "Oh, wouldn't it be great if you could?"

00:11:39   and such. The such and such is almost always something like this, where it's an incredibly

00:11:43   hard problem that if you solved would have a very narrow usefulness and so actually would

00:11:49   have a very low return. People often will say like, "Oh, why don't you just do this?"

00:11:54   And the "this" is like index all human knowledge and extract this particular type of information

00:11:59   or something like that. It is an incredibly hard, subtle problem. They can often be very

00:12:04   frustrating from a computer science perspective where doing some of the things, there's a

00:12:09   XKCD that I'll link in the show notes about this, where it's like some problems are really

00:12:13   easy and you can often be talking to somebody and it's like, "Could you do this? Absolutely.

00:12:18   Could you do this? Absolutely. Could you do that?" No, that would take the computational

00:12:21   power of every computer in the universe to operating for a century to do. It is a very

00:12:27   disjoint thing. So often these really hard problems that have low returns are going to

00:12:32   kind of fall into that category. And lastly, and this is probably the best place to hang

00:12:38   hang out and think about is hard problems that have high return. Like this is where

00:12:43   real businesses are built. This is where you're solving a problem in a way that is hard for

00:12:47   someone else to recreate, to copy, that there's a lot of work and effort associated with it,

00:12:53   but that effort and energy does have a tangible return to it. This is something that you can,

00:13:01   the time you invest into it is going to be justified by a return that you can get out

00:13:06   of it. This is where real businesses are. And so this is another category where you,

00:13:13   if you have an idea that kind of falls into this, this is potentially worth pursuing.

00:13:17   But it's definitely only worth pursuing if you understand the amount of energy and effort

00:13:21   that's going to go into it and understand that it's going to take that energy and effort

00:13:25   before you can realize that return that you imagine is possible from it. So this is where

00:13:31   real businesses are built. And this is, you know, like say maybe something like feed wrangler

00:13:35   that I built, like an RSS syncing system.

00:13:37   It's incredibly hard.

00:13:39   There are some really, really hard problems

00:13:40   you're trying to solve.

00:13:42   But if you build it, people will use it.

00:13:44   And it's useful to people, so people will pay real money

00:13:46   to use it.

00:13:49   But at the same time, that's also an idea

00:13:51   that you don't really need to be too worried about protecting.

00:13:54   Because if it's hard to build, even

00:13:56   if there is a high return, people

00:13:58   can't steal that idea and run with it.

00:14:00   Everyone knew that I was building feed Wrangler before I

00:14:03   I announced that Feed Wrangler was available.

00:14:07   And I wasn't worried about somebody copying that idea,

00:14:10   because copying that idea is a really hard thing to do.

00:14:13   And so more power to them if they were actually

00:14:15   able to do it.

00:14:16   So that's kind of how I think about ideas.

00:14:18   And it's really only, though, that first group,

00:14:20   the easy and high return activities

00:14:22   that I try and be coy about, that I try and keep

00:14:24   close to my best.

00:14:25   Otherwise, in personal interactions,

00:14:27   I'll tell it to you about the kind of things

00:14:29   I'm thinking about, the ideas that I have and things.

00:14:31   But if it's in that early category, and I have a few things that I think might fall

00:14:35   into that category for Apple Watch, I'll keep it a little close to my best.

00:14:39   And otherwise, I'll try and just focus on the hard, high return activities.

00:14:42   That's where real businesses are built.

00:14:44   All right, that's it for today's show.

00:14:46   As always, if you have questions, comments, concerns, or complaints, I'm going to underscore

00:14:49   David Smith on Twitter.

00:14:50   You can email me, david@developingperspective.com.

00:14:52   Otherwise, I hope you have a great week, weekend.

00:14:55   Happy coding, and let's cross fingers for Watch Kit soon.