Slinky companies and public transport

Slinky
Yesterday, Brad posted an article talking about bubble times in Boulder, and quoted a great line from Bill Perry about how they spawned ‘slinky companies’ that "aren’t very useful but they are fun to watch as they tumble down the stairs".

Rick Segal had a post about why he took the train to work, and how people-watching there was a great reality check to a lot of the grand technology ideas he was presented with.

And via Execupundit, I came across a column discussing whether people were really dissatisfied with their jobs, or just liked to gripe and fantasize. One employee who’d been involved in two start-ups that didn’t take off said "Most dreams aren’t market researched."

These all seemed to speak to the tough balance between keeping your feet on the ground and your eyes on the stars. As Tom Evlin’s tagline goes, "Nothing great has ever been accomplished without irrational exuberance." I’ve been wrestling with how to avoid creating a slinky with technology that sounds neat enough to be funded, but will never amount to anything. To do that, I’ve focused on solving a painful problem, and validating both the widespread existence of the problem, and that people like my solution.

I’ve turned my ideas into concrete services, and got them into the wild as quickly as possible. Google Hot Keys has proved that it’s possible to robustly extract data from screen-scraping within both Firefox and IE, but its slow take-up suggests there isn’t a massive demand for a swankier search interface. Defrag Connector shows that being able to connect with friends before a conference is really popular, but the lack of interest so far in Event Connector from conference promoters I’ve contacted shows me it won’t just sell itself. Funhouse Photo’s lack of viral growth tells me that I need to provide a compelling reason for people to contact their friends about the app, and not just rely on offering them tools to do so.

I really believe in all of these projects, but I want to know how to take them forward by testing them against the real world. All my career, I’ve avoided grand projects that take years before they show results. I’ve been lucky enough that all of the dozen or so major applications I’ve worked on have shipped, none were cancelled. Part of that is down to my choice of working on services that have tangible benefits to users, and can be prototyped and iteratively tested against that user need from an early stage. Whether it’s formal market research, watching people on trains, or just releasing an early version and seeing what happens, you have to test against reality.

I’m happy to take the risk of failing, there’s a lot of factors I can’t control. What I can control is the risk of creating something useless!

Funhouse Photo User Count: 1,746 total, 70 active. Much the same as before, I haven’t made any changes yet.

Event Connector User Count: 73 total, 9 active. Still no conference takeup. I did experiment with a post to PodCamp Boston’s forum to see if I could reach guests directly, but I think the only way to get good distribution is through the organizers.

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