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Being Trendy Makes You Replaceable

If you try to be trendy, you set yourself up to be replaced. Quickly.

Unfortunately, the shortest path to profit in many fields seems to be getting into the ‘what’s hot right now’ business.

It’s much smarter to create something that is useful, necessary, and desirable.

Making yourself or your product indispensable and timeless doesn’t lead to complete irreplaceability, but it certainly comes closer than any alternative.

Update: December 16, 2016

Said another way: be the person who sets the trends rather than the person who follows them.

Also: zigging while everyone else is zagging is trickier, and you will look idiotic to most people most of the time, but it’s typically a better long-term choice.

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Innovate Fast, Build Faster

It’s smart to plan, if you have the time to do so.

Working out as many details as possible. Getting the right business plan written up. The right people involved. The right stationery designed.

You don’t really have nearly as much time as you think you do when you’re starting a business. Sure you feel rushed and like there’s never enough hours in the day, but usually the reason you feel that way is because you’re trying to create a full-blown, fully-evolved business from day one, and I’m sorry, but that never works out as planned (no matter how many months are spent planning).

In my mind, the more difficult (though less time-consuming) path is to act quickly. Show your hand and play the cards as they fall. Think things through then move as quickly as you can to make those ideas concrete, rather than spending years adjusting and readjusting the scaffolding where the concrete will someday be poured.

Seth Godin calls this ‘delivering,’ I call it being a business-person rather than a person planning a business.

This idea is prominent in the coding world, where ‘agile software development’ has become a very dominant philosophy when it comes to rich Internet applications. The company that can innovate AND deliver the fastest is the one that gets the cookie, leaving the one that innovates and plans and then plans some more with nothing but crumbs.

There will be problems and hiccups and a million little glitches when you release a beta version of anything. The thing is, there are problems with an over-planned product, too; the difference is they’re correcting problems that arise in the lab, whereas the company that delivers quickly is able to start fixing real-world problems.

Additionally, from the start the more nimble company is earning money from their product, building their brand and bringing in early-adopters as pseudo-consultants and evangelists.

A big part of why this is on my mind is that I recently started up a new endeavor called ‘ebookling.’ I’ll be making a more formal announcement about this business soon: you can join the mailing list if you want to be really edgy. And though developing the concept took some doing, and there are still many details to be worked out, the project itself has come together very quickly, despite the sheer number of other people who are involved and the fact that with it I’m dabbling in a business that I’m still quite unfamiliar with.

At the end of the day I know that I’ll be able to evolve the project much more quickly and effectively if I release it to the world before I have each and every bell and whistle fully tweaked. Ideas have a time, and I think that I’ve come across something that was bound to happen sooner or later, I just want to make sure I’m able to get it out there and make it work well before someone else does.

Update: December 16, 2016

Ah! Ebookling. It was such a fun project, and a lot of what we were doing (and in some cases, trying to do) were things that Amazon eventually did, and in doing so, crushed us. Though to be honest, we were also held by back by having chosen some big, cumbersome problems that required big, cumbersome technologies to solve, and operating as we were simply wouldn’t cut it.

That’s clear looking back on it, now, but at the time, we felt we could bootstrap our way to scale in time.

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What Richard Saul Wurman and René Magritte Don’t Know

I’m a big fan of Richard Saul Wurman’s approach to solving problems.

If you’re not familiar with his name, you’re likely familiar with his work. Mr. Wurman has written and designed over 80 books and started the TED conferences, which have rightly been getting more and more influential in presenting the edgiest developments in myriad fields to the world.

I think of all the books that I’ve read by Wurman, and all that I’ve learned from the conference that he started, the most important lesson that I took away was from a forward in one of his books (I don’t have it here to check, but it would have been from either Information Anxiety 2 or Understanding USA) where he talked about his approach to learning and how it influenced how he presented information.

Essentially, Wurman’s gift is the ability to take in and analyze information as if he knows nothing about the subject.

An architect and designer by trade, Wurman could be tasked with developing building plans or creating a set of icons to convey some complex information and would be able to do both in a novel and highly-intuitive way.

His solutions are aimed at the novice, since that’s how he approaches problems, and therefore anyone can understand and see the value in them.

This isn’t always the ideal approach or demeanor to present — for example, if you’re trying to get a new client’s business, it’s probably better to show that you know what you’re talking about that flaunt your ignorance — but when the goal is to make information attainable and digestible, being able to look at the information available as if you are seeing it (or anything like it) for the first time is a super-valuable skill.

There’s a classic painting by René Magritte entitled ‘The Treachery of Images’ in which he has illustrated what appears to be a pipe, along with text that says ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (translation: ‘this is not a pipe’). This seems to be a ridiculous statement at first, until you realize that only by removing your own burden of knowledge about what you’re looking at can you devise other, perhaps more practical, deeper, or just more creative purposes for the object shown.

It’s amazing how seldom the ‘right’ way to do something is not the most effective or efficient. Try breaking the rules, or just ignoring them completely, and see what you come up with.

You won’t always end up with the ideal solution using this method, but at the very least you’ll have developed another (possibly far superior) approach than what’s accepted as the status quo.

Update: December 16, 2016

Huh, this is a much tighter argument than a lot of the other pieces from this time period, I think.

I should also note that I wrote an email to Richard Saul Wurman, thanking him for his books and his ideas, which were quite valuable to me as a design student at university. I didn’t expect a response, but he wrote back, all in caps, YOU MAY CALL ME, along with a date when I should call, and his phone number.

I totally chickened out and never called.