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Where Ideas Actually Come From

A thunderbolt of inspiration? Try again. One entrepreneur describes the long slog that led to his big idea.

There’s a popular notion in tech lore of the lone genius who’s struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration and out pops a brilliant product idea, fully formed and crystal clear. Sure, that might happen sometimes, but it’s never happened to me and quite frankly, in my experience, it is not the best way to start a viable business. The concept for the Narrative Clip, a wearable camera I developed, came from a highly structured, peer-reviewed process that I hope can inspire other designers and entrepreneurs. Here’s what that process looked like.

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In the spring of 2011, I was ramping down from my position as CEO of Twingly, a blog aggregator, and I was looking to return to something more exploratory and unknown. I wanted to be more creative in my everyday life, so I set out to find something new. Before I started the process, I knew two things: that I wanted to make a consumer-facing product, and that I was interested in more of a service model than a one-off sale.

1. Relentless Brainstorming

I started off with a brainstorming session. I locked myself in a room and just started throwing out ideas. A lot of people have one or two ideas that they really like, and they get stuck on them. But you have to move past them. The valuable part of this process comes after about 40 ideas, when you’re completely drained. You think you’ve got it all out, and at a certain point you become unrestricted by your biases, and you start seeing things differently.

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2. Guided Culling

The next day, you come back with fresh eyes, you’re feeling better, and you’re ready to actually step back and look at what’s there. A LOT of it was bad–there was an idea for a snow shovel with your initials so you can brand your territory by smashing them when you’re done shoveling, and a weight loss video game where obesity is caused by evil spirits. But there was also an idea for a TV channel that broadcasts live feeds of video games like Twitch. After going through everything, I started loosely grouping the ideas; there were ideas around crowdfunding, 3-D printing, hardware, and data visualization. I then went through everything one-by-one looking at each through different lenses. I took each idea and thought about how it’d work in a consumer model vs. B2B, subscription vs. perpetual, and so on.

3. Seeing What Sticks

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After I narrowed down the list, I immediately started talking to other people to get their opinions. I strongly believe in not keeping your ideas secret. I think you need to pitch 100 people before you can feel confident that you have a good idea, and you know how to make other people excited about it. I relied heavily on people around me being honest about what they thought.

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4. Gut Check

When it came down to the idea that would eventually become Narrative, I struggled. I really believed in the product and what it could mean to people. I wanted to make a camera that could be unobtrusive and capture what life was really like, as opposed to just special occasions. At this point I had lost both of my parents, and when they passed, a lot of memories were lost as well. The photographs that remained were of moments that felt precious enough to document at the time, but nothing in-between; the everyday stuff is gone.

I did a lot of research around wearable cameras and looked at the work of Steve Mann at MIT and Gordon Bell’s work at Microsoft, and concluded that the camera would have to be at least 2 inches by 2 inches. I honestly didn’t think it was technically possible to make a camera that would be small enough to wear all the time. I was about to strike if off the list when I discovered the Eye-Fi SD card and it completely blew my mind. The Eye-Fi is the size of an SD card, but is a Wi-Fi transmitter as well as a memory card. I concluded that if the Eye-Fi is possible, my camera would be, as well.

Conclusion

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The idea that eventually became the Narrative Clip was not a gift from a muse, but more like the prize at the end of a long boxing match. The idea had to distinguish itself from a large crowd, survive multiple business model lenses, external criticism, and technical feasibility battles. This process led to a product that I’m very proud of, and now we’re about to launch the second generation product. The precise steps might not work for everyone. But if you’re sitting around waiting for a thunderclap of inspiration, you could do worse than to lock yourself in a room and start lobbing ideas at the wall.

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About the author

Martin Källström is CEO of Narrative.

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