Up until last summer I’ve been working for a big government corporation alongside brilliant co-workers and amazingly incompetent managers. One of the advantages of working in such an environment is that managers tend to give in to many crazy plans their subordinates comes up with. (One of the disadvantages of working in such an environment is having to support the monster systems evolving out of crazy projects.)
This is how one morning I found in my inbox an invitation to an unconventional event somehow hosted by the organization. The event aimed to promote artistic technological exploration. It was to take place over the course of 3 days in a remote desert location, and participants would receive generous funding for whatever preposterous exhibit they’d feel like building. The organizing committee consisted of members of a group called “Garage Geeks” and Yossi Vardi, a well-known angel investor.
I was of course immediately enthusiastic. My enthusiasm was partially induced by attending Burning Man festival in 2007, and partially because I’ve seen the Garage Geeks in action several times and knew this would be an event to remember. However, my efforts to persuade colleagues to attend and build a project together have failed miserably. They didn’t see any point in attending event (and regretted it in retrospect).
The organizers of the event, probably expecting many lone individuals, opened up a wiki page for project dating that had lots of activity. But I was hesitant to commit. Knowing the nature of such events, there is roughly a 5:1 ration between uncommitted and serious proposals. This ratio depends on the community and can go as low as 3:1 or as high as 10:1. Looking through the wiki page, not many proposals were more than a sentence long, and replies to them were even shorter. In the aftermath of the event, few teams assembled this way actually carried through.
So I waited, slightly discouraged. At the time, I was more introverted and less confident, so I didn’t take the lead.
Either way, the managing board saw that a more intimate approach needed to be taken. They decided to bring us together face-to-face and had a session where people could meet and suggest ideas. From the very beginning of the session, the host of the session insisted that anyone suggesting an idea should be willing to stand behind it, and not just throw it out in the air. They were trying to promote engagement. This reminded me of something Joel Spolskey wrote a long time ago, about hiring people:
Never say “Maybe, I can’t tell.” If you can’t tell, that means No Hire. It’s really easier than you’d think. Can’t tell? Just say no! Similarly, if you are on the fence, that means No Hire. Never say, “Well, Hire, I guess, but I’m a little bit concerned about…” That’s a No Hire as well.
A colleague I barely knew, Matan, was one of the few who really put forth an idea and stood behind it. His idea was to build “A moving couch, perhaps even hovering”. That’s a down-to-earth idea, I thought to myself, and I knew him to be an able person. I talked with him after the meeting and we partnered up. About half the people at that meeting made it to the event. Out of these, perhaps two-thirds came up with any project at all. We were a team of 5, but that actually narrowed down very quickly to just me and Matan. After a good two weeks of work on Matan’s roof, we came up with the hovercouch: A couch that hovers using leaf-blowers, some tarp and lots of carpentry.
There was nothing sophisticated about the project. We didn’t have to write a single math equation to get the design right. We just iterated through several configurations and took the one that worked best. Our project had the advantage of being very daring and very big. Other projects at the convention, such as remote controlled cars with computer vision, were much less popular due to being “less fun”.
The project won the attention of the organizers. On two or three other occasions we were invited to events hosted by Yossi Vardi to demonstrate our couch. We were miniature celebrities. All this I attribute to our pioneering commitment and Matan’s good hunch on the idea.
The convention took place again a year later. This time, there were lots of projects and teams. It was far better than last year, and in order to draw attention you had to put a lot of effort into it.
A pioneer is just another name for a fortunate weirdo. Well, this time weirdness payed off.
In the social internet era, pioneering is an extremely important trait. ICQ were the first to offer massive online messaging, and because they were pioneers, they grew to hundreds of millions of users and sold to AOL for more than $400 million. By the way, Yossi Vardi owned %25 of Mirabilis, the company behind ICQ. Paypal were the first to offer payment as a service, and once that became the standard it was hard to compete against. Facebook were the first to provide a broad reflection of one’s real identity on the web, and the fact they had a head start caused them to grow faster and faster.
Of course, this inspirational story doesn’t tell you about the Unseen History: For every successful pioneer there are dozens laying face-down in the gutter. But after all, we’re entrepreneurs. We’re here to gamble with skill, aren’t we?