I’ve worked on my fair share of products that didn’t quite make it. The process for coming up with ideas for them was always the same: Sit at home, think of things people might willingly pay for, choose one, and run with it. Unsurprisingly, this formula didn’t work, and even though I learned something new with each attempt, I can hardly say it was worth my time or money.
Then something surprising happened: I built a successful product without planning to—through a side project I'd taken on a little reluctantly. In retrospect, it's clear to me why my intentional, sit-down-and-brainstorm approach was less successful than this accidental one.
Let me explain.
Earlier this year I was working on another one of these products with a couple of friends, and once again it didn’t take long before I’ve found myself writing off months of work. This was something of a turning point—I finally realized I needed a change. So I booked a plane ticket back home to visit my family in Israel in the hope that time and distance might help me figure things out.
I’m very lucky to be in the software industry. As an engineer, I get client work thrown my way all the time, but more recently I'd decided only to accept it when I really needed the money. It made sense to me to prioritize my personal projects over freelance gigs since the return on investment was virtually unlimited (in theory, anyway) whereas my hourly rate is not. But it took me awhile to realize I was missing the big picture.
On my way to the airport, I got an email from an old client who needed a website with a quick turnaround. I would typically avoid a project like this at all costs, but the tight deadline meant it paid well. Two weeks of work would cover my trip expenses with money to spare, so just before getting on the plane, I agreed to take it—and regretted it by the time I'd landed. After all, I was supposed to be taking a break, right? But looking back, it was the best decision I’ve ever made.
The website was a standard gig with one special requirement: It needed to display stock exchange information in real time. I knew of a few companies that provided this type of service so I started shopping around, but I couldn’t find a provider that packaged the data in a way I could easily manage. Plus, all the existing solutions were technically inefficient and extremely expensive.
I’d spent the greater part of a day doing fruitless research before it hit me: I can actually aggregate and sell this data myself. When I took this idea and ran with it, I found I had much better luck than before, most likely for these four key reasons.
All the ideas I’d worked on up until then had existed within my comfort zone; I was constantly coming up with ideas I was already really familiar with, so it’s not surprising I couldn’t think outside the box. This idea was different because I didn’t know anything about aggregating and delivering data, nor did I have any existing knowledge of stock markets.
This gave me an advantage. It allowed me to look at things from the vantage point of an outsider. Good ideas often come up when we stumble onto new problems and need to sort them out with the skills we've got. And the best way to start solving them, I found, is to look at them from a fresh perspective—which sometimes means an inexperienced one.
Thinking about problems is never the same as experiencing them for yourself. When you experience a problem, you don’t just understand it better, you also know exactly what a successful solution might look like. Some of my previous ideas were good, but the solutions I’d ended up creating weren't good enough.
In this case, I knew exactly what I needed, not what some theoretical user might need. Additionally, solving this problem would be a win-win for me; even if no one would ever be willing to pay for it, I'd still learn a thing or two about a whole new market (one I'm still passionately exploring today, it turns out) by successfully getting this project over the line.
If I could find an existing solution that gave me an easy way to access the data I needed, I would never have thought to create another one. The only thing that drove me to this idea was the lack of value that the existing providers had to offer. I knew if I implemented my own solution, I could get much more out of it for much less. This is leverage—the one thing all my previous ideas consistently lacked.
Before I started building the product, I’d dropped an email to my client that clearly described the solution I had in mind. Since they’d worked with me before and trusted me, they knew I could get it done and agreed to pay for it on a monthly basis outside our initial agreement. This is was all the validation I needed. If just one company is willing to pay for your idea, it shouldn’t be hard to find others that will pay for an actual product.
It took me a couple of days to finish the minimum viable product and build a simple website for it. By the time I was due to fly back to home to Sydney, I already had a handful of customers and $15,000 in recurring annual revenue.
On my way back, I had a lot of time to reflect on my recent success and past failures. It was ironic that the one thing I was avoiding most (client work) was the very thing I needed to help me come up with a good idea that would stick. The best lesson I’d learned was that good ideas can’t be manufactured. They need to grow organically in response to changes in our experiences. And the only way to change our experiences is by going out and doing new things.