Creative in a candy shop.
The world is filled with awesome tools. If you’re a creative person, like I am – these tools and technologies always catch our gaze. They twinkle brightly, sweet candies for us to snatch as we’re walking down the infinite aisles of the internet. Because of this, we’re always embarking on new projects – seeking that lighter than air feeling when our vision takes life.
This article was originally intended to help people finish software projects, but I realized it could be extended to all sorts of things. Startup businesses, content generation, design, music, art – you name it.
Early on in my career, I was struggling with finishing any of my personal projects (professional work didn’t seem to suffer the same effects, but that’s another discussion). I have a folder on my machine with what I consider to be a graveyard of applications, the result of a partial effort with a vast array of technologies.
After a while, I came to a realization. Creative effort that is partially complete might as well not exist altogether. Our unfinished projects gather dust, never to seen by the masses. The reason we make things is to share them with others, and the possibilities are endless when we do.
You might make someone’s day. You might impact someone’s life.
You might just change the world.
None of this can happen if they’re incomplete. It’ll just be a fragment. A morsel of a dream not yet realized.
Don’t let this happen to you.
I started becoming aware of productivity traps that would hamper my efforts and cause a project to get discarded. So here are a few things that I’ve found will help anyone stay on track and make amazing things.
Start with what makes your project special.
There are many moving pieces to every project out there. For instance, if you’re building an application by yourself, you’ll need to think about your choice of technologies, how you’ll deploy it, its design and user experience, marketing so that people can see it, and its monetization strategy. That’s a lot of stuff isn’t it? Its very easy to get caught up into some of these topics and spin your wheels on the ‘what ifs.’
Attempting all these things at once is a heroic effort, but one made in vain. This mindset was a tremendous damper on the projects I would try to build. I would get stuck on designing sexy user interfaces and neat interactions. I would write out copy for the landing pages and design logos. The problem is that these things take a lot of time and effort. I would exhaust my energy on the details and never get to the meat of the project. This is a huge problem – our projects and work should always be prioritized by their core function.
The process of figuring out which things make our project special is relatively simple, there are only three questions you must ask yourself.
1. What parts of the project must be done in order for this project to be special?
You might know these as the components of the key value proposition. It can be easy to lose sight of that when we work alone. I’ve found that when focusing on these first, I’m able to breathe life into the project.
For instance, when developing a mobile application for a fortune teller based of human movements, I knew that it needed to have a movement detection algorithm based on accelerometer data.
When creating a day planner web app, I knew I wanted it to have easy & intuitive interaction design allowing the user to drag items and resize them.
This concept is the same for non-tech ideas. Research and validation should be performed first on the components which make the idea unique.
If you’re starting a food stand in a busy part of the city, start with making delicious food – not with the marketing, the monetization, or the supply chain. Invest in making the end result valuable to the world, and then validate that it actually is.
If you’re starting a blog, don’t spin your wheels on how you’re going to distribute your content or creating your logo – start with what makes your blog special from the millions of others and plan your content!
2. Can it be done?
The question you’re trying to answer when you tackle these key value propositions head on is: Can it be done?
This is so incredibly important. Why force an idea if its impossible?
Maybe the technology isn’t there yet to produce your amazing food consistently. Maybe the pallet of the local farmer’s market isn’t refined enough. Either way, you must figure this out early, and the sooner the better. You want to minimize the opportunity cost of not working on other things (or simply living your life).
There is no worse feeling then investing tremendous time & effort, only to find out that the original premise for your idea was flawed.
There’s a second psychological element of starting with what’s special. If you end up completing the special components to your project, you receive a huge boost in morale in motivation. You’ve shown that the most crucial part of your project can be executed, and that you did it alone. I’ve found that this carries you forward into the later stages of the project, building off of successive successes (try saying that 3 times fast).
3. Is it worth trying?
Lastly, now that you have the most important pieces out of the way, you can begin sharing with others. You can’t necessarily do that if you started with something less important to the idea, for instance, having a website for your food stand doesn’t really mean it’ll be successful, BUT – if people try some of the food you made and they love it, you know you’re on the path to success!
Early validation is a great thing in personal projects – not only can you form an opinion on the work so far, but others can help further shape your idea to become more attractive.
And if you find that the idea didn’t work, then you’re free to move on to another. That’s the beauty of it. You take the most important parts of an idea and give it your best effort. You will find out SOONER, not later, what the idea is worth!
That’s the beauty of it, you spent a relatively short amount of time on the important things, learned from it, and can now move on to new ideas.
Do it every day.
Building something by yourself is hard. I can’t help but bring software development into this, but taking an idea from start to finish requires a tremendous amount of legwork. When you’re developing an application you have to plan, design, and build the front and back end architecture, as well as deploy it, market it, and monetize it. Each of these have their own intricacies.
Both software development and personal projects have these aspects, and there is a ton you will need to do to get your project to a finished stage. This requires building a routine where you put aside time each day and make progress towards a goal.
When I was developing an idea I had for a new mobile app, I spent several hours a day writing code. The time I spent writing the application per day actually wasn’t all that important, it was the fact that I did something every day – keeping my mind focused on finishing the project.
For smaller projects I recommend spending more time per day (3 – 5 hours), that way you have an uninterrupted block of time in which you’re learning & building, and at the end of 30 days you’re more or less done. For larger projects, I recommend a marathon approach, ensure you’re doing something everyday, even if only for an hour or two.
How can you build a habit?
Set a time for yourself, and ensure you’re free every day to execute on that habit. Set a reminder on your phone, and reject invitations to things. Make sure your mind is clear to work on the task at hand. It will get much easier over time.
Once you’ve built a habit, you have the choice to put more time and effort into it, as well as employing some flexibility. If you begin to become infatuated with the project, you realize that at an idle moment, you have the choice to work on it, and more often than not, you want to!
Design before execution.
Every idea is born from a vision. The natural mechanism of the brain is to imagine what the final outcome looks like, before we can put our idea into words. This visual thinking is a real and present thing, and is studied by Harvard Medical School. They found that we can have trouble controlling our overactive imaginations as they bleed into linear thought. I believe that the real power comes from channeling our imagination into design.
Just like artist, architects & engineers plan their creations with a design document. We should be planning our creative projects in this way. Since we start with special, we first design & plan the defining characteristics of our idea.
Naturally, you might include the following:
- Description of the feature
- Sketch or picture of what it’ll look like
- How it contributes to the final vision
- The problem it solves
- How people interact with it
- How you might implement it
- What risks you might face while implementing it
- What risks you might face when it’s in use
- Possible workarounds or mitigation for these risks
You don’t necessarily need a formal document or 10-page report – getting your thoughts down on paper on how the idea might work and a sketch is sufficient most of the time. In terms of the human creative process, sketching is the best point of origination. When you have that idea come into your head, make sure to capture it on paper, even if you have a hard time drawing.
You can and should sketch anything. Not just art, or user interfaces – you can draw marketing automation & sales pipelines, the hierarchy of our team, the product/customer interaction.
I have had sketchbooks filled with ideas for the things I wanted to build (unfortunately, I may have only pursued about 25 percent), but it assisted me greatly throughout the process. There was no need to go back and rethink what the original vision for the project was. I have found that when you embark on something without a plan, it’s easy to get mired in the details of the moment.
When you’re planning, focus on planning; when you’re executing, focus on execution.
Avoid the engineering & design rabbit hole.
This is the most common trap I suffered in my inexperienced days. I would develop a single page of an application and continuously make it look better, until I forced myself to move on to the next thing. Looking at the workflow for professional engineers, I see that it’s always better to start with the core functionality before dressing it up.
Even a skeleton of your project is fine,just do a simple layout of all the components in your project. Build your key features, and if the idea is worth pursuing, you can decide what to improve incrementally.
The second part to this is focusing on functionality but never being satisfied with the implementation. You would call this a perfectionist mindset, obsessing with the best ways to do things. It’s a gray area, but if you’re dealing with the issue of not finishing your projects, or you’re simply a beginner, getting your project to a point where it works is completely fine. Build off of it, and if it prevents any of the other special components in your exploration process, then go back and re-architect it.
Don’t get distracted by new stuff.
If you tried to utilize every latest technology, I’m sure you would go insane (I speak from experience). The quantity of releases and updates aren’t just hard to keep up with. They’re also new and shiny, and distract you from what you’re working on.
Creatives and engineers are very likely to fall into this trap. They see their peers using new tools and immediately feel like they’re missing out on something.
However, once you work with enough tools or mediums, you begin to realize that the end result is all that matters – each tool has its benefits or quirks, and it’s up to you to know how to use it correctly.
Don’t get caught up in your tools, unless they are needed for what makes your project special. For everything else, take the easiest and quickest path to completion.
Drive it to completion – you’re not done till you’re done.
So you’ve built out 80% of your project? Congratulations!
You still have a ways to go to share it with others.
There are two challenges you need to solve
- How to get it out to as many people as possible (specifically the people who would respond to your project)
- How to build a system of feedback so you can continue to improve your creation
In future articles, I will show you the process in which we find and contact these people at a massive scale, similar to how I curated a list of 2,000 recruiters in my article on SXSW.
In the software world, this means working with cloud platforms to deploy your projects in a scalable manner, and then setting up content management systems to have continuous contact. In the art world, it might mean making connections with a gallery and then promoting the hell out of your art. But once you’ve created something, you need to make it work for you. It needs to be on your portfolio. Share it with everyone you meet.
It’s a piece of you, and you finished it.
Sharing your project is sharing yourself. Show the world who you are.
Pursuing your own projects takes reserved courage. You don’t have the backing of a team, a boss, or a company who’s got “everything figured out.” Instead, you figure it out for yourself. It’s a journey full of unknowns. From one stranger to another, despite not knowing you personally, know that I believe in you – and the only person who really needs to believe in you, is yourself.
Thank you to The American Genius team for bringing me on as an editorialist.
I’ll be writing regularly and I’d love to hear about what you need help with, and your thoughts on this piece – send me a mail at ‘email@example.com’ if you’re looking for a conversation around your latest project.
And remember, Start With Special.
Talking entrepreneurship and sextech with Liz Klinger [INTERVIEW]
(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) A conversation about entrepreneurship and sextech with female entrepreneur Liz Klinger, CEO of Lioness, the FitBit for your sex bits.
“We had this observation that a lot of people had questions about sex, but there weren’t many resources for them”, said Liz Klinger, Co-Founder and CEO of Lioness, the smart vibrator and app brand that helps you visualize, track and analyze your orgasms. “We wanted to have a way for people to explore and learn more about themselves, because there is not a ‘one size fits all’ answer to questions about pleasure.”
Klinger has always had an interest in sex. After a brief stint in investment banking, she began selling sex toys at various “parties” where, she describes, someone would always come up to her after the presentation and ask her in-depth questions that she had no idea how to answer. At least I’m not the only one obsessed with this stuff, she remembers thinking.
The idea for Lioness came from AI – sex toys can be hard to use, complicated, or just plain intimidating. So, what if there was a toy that adjusted you and what your body wanted?
After a bit of prototyping and collecting feedback, it was clear to Klinger what her users wanted: Data. People wanted to see what their bodies did and use that data to better understand themselves.
The Lioness vibrator and accompanying app does just that. By using biofeedback and precision sensors to visualize your orgasm via the app, users can easily track their experiences. When you try something new, you can see how your body reacts to it.
But Lioness isn’t just a vibrator.
Last year, the company launched a research platform where users can choose to participate in medical or scientific studies, as well as ask those questions we all have about sex. Additionally, the Lioness site provides many “Sex Guides” for users; the thorough, no-nonsense sex-ed we wish we had growing up. This is Klinger’s dream come to life.
More recently, Lioness is launching “(S)explore” – a premium version of their existing Sex Guides to tackle the less popular, more personal questions users have. This feature is set to launch on Black Friday.
By 2021, Lioness hopes to release a remote-control distance feature for the vibrator (gasp!). There will also be a 2.0 update for the app, in which users will be able to access new visual experiences, such as a heatmap that adds pigmentation to your most pleasurably moments (here for it 100%).
When asked about how COVID-19 has impacted her business, Klinger was happy to tell me that Lioness and other ecommerce companies in the field are going strong, largely unaffected by the nation’s stunted market. If there was ever a time to experiment with pleasure, it’s during lock down, right?
Unfortunately, many other brick and mortar sex shops, like the ones Klinger got her start doing sales for, are suffering during this time – much of the adult market didn’t qualify for PPP loans.
I know I’m not alone when I say that I love seeing women like Klinger fighting the good fight by paving the largely untouched way in SexTech. Lioness is radical in the sense that it takes something so internal and pleasure-based (and, unfortunately, overlooked) as the female orgasm and externalizes it. By using data and tech, Lioness, in a way, validates an experience that is so foreign to so many of us.
There’s a reason there are a million and one fertility trackers, but Lioness is the first of its kind.
When I asked for her words of wisdom as CEO in SexTech, Klinger told me:
“If you’re a woman, or someone who isn’t the typical start up person, it’s important to focus on your customers first, above all. You’ll get all this different advice and feedback from investors and people in the industry but at the end of the day you have to focus on your customers and what need are you fulfilling for them. If you focus on that, no matter how difficult the business side of it will be, that is how you will stay afloat.”
It seems like 2021 will be a big, exciting year for Lioness. I’d also like to add that the potential uses of the Lioness technology outside of recreational pleasure are endless – I just can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
If you’re an employer, don’t hire without knowing about these hidden traits
(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) A candidate can look great on paper, but if you’re an employer, research shows you should look for these personality traits alongside their qualifications.
We all know that one person who’s a genius on paper, but a total wash when it comes to completing basic tasks. As an employer, sometimes someone high achieving can be tougher than simply spotting a high GPA on their resume.
In new research from the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Thomas Gatzka of the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) tackles the question of what personality traits are associated with achievement. What Gatzka and his team came up with are two traits – openness and conscientiousness – with two additional sub-components.
The sub-dimensions of openness are:
- Senso-aesthetic openness: The preference for sensory and perceptual exploration and immersion in art, creativity, and imagination. This is pretty self-explanatory – if they are artistically-inclined, or take interest in the arts in any way, they are statistically more likely to be high-achieving.
- Intellectual openness: The preference for intellectual stimulation, scholastic pursuits, and cognitive stimulation. Think: that person who is always reading, watching, discussing, and asking you to share your opinion so they can absorb as much as possible. This person is chronically curious.
For conscientiousness, the sub-dimensions are:
- Orderliness: The preference for routines, deliberation, and detail-orientation. They keep a tidy calendar and map out their days for the utmost optimization. People with this trait will remember specifics and can be relied upon in team settings.
- Industriousness: The tendency to stay focused and to pursue goals in a determined way. As the word implies, those who are industrious are constantly making moves. They have a high threshold for work, and they stay focused until their goals are complete. You want this person working for you, especially in a startup setting.
It’s interesting to note that the latter two components—intellectual openness and industriousness—were typically associated with slightly higher levels of achievement than senso-aesthetic openness and orderliness.
What does that mean? Well, if you’re an employer truly looking to build a robust team of super-achievers, skip over the artsy interviewee with the color-coded organizer. They’re only high-ish achieving.
This is not only useful information for hiring managers, but also for those of us who want to become higher achievers — who want to be hired. You might not be naturally curious or goal-oriented, but that’s okay. You can 100% take actions to promote those traits in your day to day to show a future employer.
Read more. Set little, attainable goals for your day. Become intentionally over-organized. Professional development is one thing, but fortifying your personality traits to promote achievement can help you in the long run.
Is gifting an entrepreneur a website like gifting motivation, or anxiety?
(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) Is a website really the only thing stopping someone from starting their own business? Are there entrepreneurs who simply need a push to start their own thriving empire? Let’s find out.
Being an entrepreneur is arguably the highest form of self motivation someone could have – the drive to build out your own business, deliver a product or service that you know is in demand, and ultimately secure profits. It’s something that is discussed over and over and over.
It’s the holiday season, and Exchange Marketplace is making the rather surprising argument that you could gift someone a business. Their pitch states that they provide some ebooks, Shopfy credit, and some other starter materials, and promises that you could pay as little as $50 to jumpstart a brand new career.
Looking around at their site, it’s essentially a list of companies that their respective owners are willing to sell. They provide some data (someone who is more familiar with this stuff could parse it better than I can) such as revenue, profits, average number of hours worked, and so on. I’m going to assume the legal side of things are all in place, and other considerations are handled.
But my question here is – who is this truly for? And what message are you sending when you surprise someone with a website and start telling them it’s time to get to work, better learn fast before your entrepreneur business fails?
The logistics alone are mind boggling – where is the base of operations, knowledge of an industry, obtaining inventory, knowing which suppliers are involved, will language barriers be a problem, contacts, the quality of the product or service, etc. I’m not a business person by any means, so maybe I’m overstating the difficulty here, but it just seems like you’re opening the door to a literal galaxy of unknowns on the part of the entrepreneur that would require immediate understanding and action.
Look, gift certificates are sort of a bad gift – you restrict where money can be used, and it’s usually not enough to cover a full purchase, and that requires you (the receiver) to cover the remaining cost. Giving someone a car (despite all the slick commercials with celebrities) is even worse; setting aside the tiny chance someone pays off the vehicle entirely, you’re still leaving someone with increased insurance rates, future maintenance, and other costs. Even a new pet – while adorable – might arguably be the worst possible gift, as someone shovels responsibility for life itself onto an unsuspecting person.
(Before I continue, please feel free to buy me a car and fill it with puppies wearing Amazon gift card suits.)
I’m being a little unfair in the above scenarios, because there is definitely an audience for each. The problem is that each option requires some amount of work and thought by the receiver, and putting the onus on them to fully realize the gift can be daunting.
So maybe the better way to describe this is that these situations are a bit niche in their efficacy – that there’s a smaller number of people who are actively able to accept a gift that requires additional work.
Gifting a business, then, could be seen as something negative – “I think you need to work harder.” And that carries a rather heavy payload of consequences, thoughts, and considerations. Maybe you aren’t outright calling someone out as lazy, but that implication is easily arrived at if someone is blindsided. At the least, you are saying I need you to do something.
Surely, there are people who represent the targeted audience, and it would suggest that they already have business training/education, considerable free time, access to investment, and enough drive and motivation to eagerly begin an entirely new chapter in life as an entrepreneur. But that has to be a small group of people, and even fewer so when you consider those who would be successful at it, and would actually want to undertake such a massive task.
Beyond all of this, I have to question a number of things, and they are all centered around how trustworthy all of this might be. My only interaction with anything remotely close to this subject is watching episodes of Shark Tank, and I know that the panel there would meticulously go over a LOT of things before even offering to buy a percentage of a business. Purchasing the entire thing seems volatile and full of risk; who wants to negotiate all of that?
Maybe it is simply that I am not the type of person who would deal with that amount of uncertainty willingly. I am very much a look-before-I-leap type person, and the thought of being handed a potential money making an entrepreneur enterprise when I have no insight into it beforehand is completely terrifying.
I’d need to prove to the gift giver that their faith in me was valid, to say nothing of whatever audience already exists. But I’d have literally no idea where to start on all of this; the numbers on businesses failing is scary enough.
In a way, I applaud the idea of businesses being fluid enough to become commodities themselves. I just question how easily this sort of marketplace could mask true costs, exaggerate profits, and seemingly hide all sorts of disturbing, unpleasant details. And then taking all of that and gifting it to someone? What a wild ride.
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