Friday, January 27, 2006

The Cubicle Escape Pod : Must your idea always solve a problem?

The guys over at The Cubicle Escape Pod have been pondering this question for awhile now. They came up with a technology - modcasting (which I find highly cool) - and when they went to pitch it around to people were met with the brick wall of, "What problem does this solve?" And they've been philosophizing on the subject ever since. Does your business idea have to solve a problem? Does your new innovation illustrate a problem that people never realized they had? It's some good stuff.

Here's my spin on the subject. A friend of mine is a lifelong salesman. No computer geek blood in him at all, just business and sales. And I always throw ideas at him. Here's what he said to me once: "If it takes me 4 hours to do something, and you tell me that with your idea I can do that in 2 hours, then I'll always be able to sell that."

That's stuck with me as a foundation for how to look at problem solving. Time is a crucial component to most problems, because time = productivity (how many things can I do/produce in a fixed amount of time) and productivity = money (how much do I make for every widget?) Thus there is a straight line from time to money. Maybe you make money by cranking out more product in a fixed amount of time. Or maybe it goes the other way, maybe by making your employees twice as productive you end up having half the payroll. Either way, what he said continues to be true.

In my job right now that is equally true. I'm charged with overhauling my company's internal support tools, something that has not been touched in years. I talk to the support people and watch them fly over all the assorted speedbumps created by the lousy user interface, skipping over the things they do 100 times a day and getting to the edge cases that they cannot support, asking if the tool can be extended to handle those cases. And meanwhile I'm thinking, "That interface is horrid, wouldn't you like me to redesign it for you?" They say no, they're happy with their productivity. But meanwhile I'm thinking 'You process 100 requests a day...but you might be able to do 500, you'd never know.' And then it'd definitely be a case of "You made my support people 5x more productive, therefore I only need 1/5th as many of them."

Even when time is not directly related to money you can still make the case. I have an hour long commute to work in the morning. Therefore I have an hour's worth of podcast listening. I have to be relatively choosy. An hour-long podcast simply does not get played. I love the ones that are between 5-20 minutes, because not only can I fit a number of them into my time window, but because each is small enough that if I don't like it within the first 30 seconds, I'll just move on. I don't feel like 30 seconds is enough to judge the hour long ones, so they sit at the bottom of my queue, not erased but not listened to.

So what if you have a 45 minute podcast? Well hey, maybe there's 15-20 minutes inside that podcast that I, personally, do not really care about. And it would be great if I could get that podcast the way I want it. Maybe some people like the 45 minute version. Super, more power to them. But I don't. So if somebody told me that I could pick and choose the segments I want to listen to, thus putting the length of the podcast into my control, I'd be all over it. It used to take me X time to get your ideas, now it takes me X/2 time, meaning I can get that much more content into my commute time.

And that, by the way, is exactly what modcasting is all about. If you haven't checked it out, go do so.



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