Insanely Great Products

It looks to me as if Steve Jobs’ laser-like focus has become the buzzword business paradigm in the world. I must admit: the way the zen CEO axed the majority of Apple’s product lines in 1997 to save the company from bankruptcy was super impressive. Focus matters.

But the big question is: when is it the right time to focus? Because so many businesses are shooting themselves in the foot, trying to follow Jobs’ example.

The gist of the problem is this. If you have an insanely great product, you should go all in with focus. You should do what Jim Collins or Al Ries tell you to do. Get the right people on the bus. Identify your unique market and run with it.

This is all perfect advice, if you have a winner in your hands. But in the world that is changing as fast as it is, the odds are you don’t.

Your insanely great product might have been great in 2010. Now it’s just insane. Instead of putting all of your eggs in that basket, you should nix the damn thing altogether.

So what to do?

Creative process is an oscillation between two extremes: divergence and convergence.

Divergence means generating as much as you can, probably testing it with an audience and killing 99% of what you got early. It’s fail often, fail fast. Convergence means focus.

In a world like today’s, you cannot know what flies before you playtest it. In addition to failing often, failing fast, you should ship often. Then use a proper metric, see what sticks, and kill what doesn’t.

There is even a tried and tested fully divergent business model. Zen and Steve Jobs are not the only ways to generate a wicked profit. Just ask Richard Branson or Jack Welch. Both Virgin and GE rely on divergence: on shipping a massive offering, and sticking to what works. In a fast changing world, that’s often a smart strategy.

Most of the Steve Jobs wannabes don’t have a product that would resemble anything like what Apple’s got to offer. And I’m not talking about the iPhone here, not even the iMac that saved the company from disaster in the late 1990’s. Most of the Steve Jobs wannabes don’t even have an Apple II in their hands.

But if you do enough outings, enough playtesting, you might just have something in your hands. And when you do, THAT’S the time when you need to focus.

The beauty of the creative process is that it’s not one thing, but many. Like Linus Pauling said, the best way to get a great idea is to get many ideas.

First, do many things. Often you won’t get the right idea straight off the bat.

But when you know you have something that really lights up your eyes, focus.

After all, the world needs lots more insanely great products.


Preparing for Launch

For the past 8 months that the Extended Mind app has been in public beta, our team has been fully focused on implementing the remaining core features and ironing out bugs. So no news has meant good news.

We’ve been making steady progress and a really nice version 1.7.4 is now available on the App Store and Google Play.

We’ve received plenty of valuable feedback from our users and have improved every area of the app as a result. Thank you everyone for your help so far!

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. We’ve had to experiment quite a bit with different designs, throw out features and completely rewrite others to find the most elegant solution for each use case. As we found out:

Simple is really hard to do.

It’s much easier to just add new features on top of old ones, than it is to stay true to our mission of building simple, fast and focused software.

The good news is that things are finally coming together and we’re now preparing for the end of beta with version 2.0 in the pipeline. For the remainder of the public beta we will focus on new user experience and implementing premium features.

Exciting times ahead.


Human Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Piketty, Progress and the Distribution of Wealth

Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus Capital in the Twenty-FIrst Century made huge splashes especially after the publication of its English translation last spring. The bombshell argument of the huge book, supported by a massive amount of data and analyses, is two-fold. First, income inequality is increasing. And second, this will propel the economy back to the patrimonial capitalism dominated by inherited wealth.

Piketty gave recently a wonderful talk at the London School of Economics about his book. One thing that struck me at the very beginning of the talk was that he emphasized his books reliance on history. While I cannot argue with Piketty’s economical argumentation, which I, along with many of his supporters, believe to be mostly correct, I do believe that its applicability is somewhat suspicious in the present day world. The reason to this is simple: progress.

I believe that using that fancy academic two word disclaimer, ceteris paribus, Piketty is correct. That is to say, all other things remaining the same, as income inequality grows, capital will be accumulated in clusters of already wealthy families and individuals. But I believe the situation is complex enough to warrant further scrutiny.

First, the global economy appears to be in a fluctuation, where structural changes happen faster and faster each year. The dispersion of information, and as its consequence the creation of new innovations (which in turn disperse information faster) creates a spiralling motion where the structure of supply and demand of goods keeps fluctuating faster and faster. Applying historical evidence in a world in such turmoil is perhaps not the best strategy. Modelling patrimonial capitalism of the 19th century may not be at all a viable way to describe the market, even if the capital itself was accumulated to the wealthy individuals. Having lots of money is not worth much, if most of it is tied in sinking assets.

Second, there is the question of whether income inequality is a bad thing. Of course, I would not argue against the massive amount of correlative evidence that goes to show that in countries with more dramatic income inequality also the general well-being of the people is worse. But there is more to well-being than just income.

Interestingly, while income inequality has grown in the last few decades, so has the general overall wealth of people. While capital has been accumulated to the most wealthy individuals, also absolute poverty has been halved from the situation twenty years ago. While the comparative wealth gap has grown, absolute wealth has also been distributed more widely.

I have been a big critic of Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand, but in a sense something like that is happening here. The reason, though, is not crumbs of capital falling from the super-rich to the poor, but once again in progress, and its consequent increase in efficiency in producing goods and services.

The luxury of yesterday is the norm of today. This applies as much to luxury goods like TV sets and computers as to basic everyday needs like food and clean water. Producing these goods and services is today far more efficient than it was twenty years ago, and the trend in becoming even more efficient looks good.

The third and what I believe to be the most important feature of progress is the increasing relevance of human capital. That is to say, understanding, knowledge, skills and creativity. Interestingly, with information moving faster and faster, with production efficiency growing, and with the availability of both knowledge and the means of production, the tables are turning.

The significance of monetary capital is becoming less important in a world, where you can build an app worth millions of dollars in a few months in your bedroom. Such leaps to success would not have been possible yet a hundred years ago, where owing to the market structure, just entering an existing market would have required tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now it’s enough that you have a cheap laptop.

The true challenge in capital of the 21st century is, I believe, the equal distribution of human capital. That is to say, guaranteeing equal rights to education and to the knowledge bases we have available to us. While capital will continue to play a significant part in a capitalist market economy, I believe that with the continuing acceleration of both innovation and the market structure, it will be increasingly human capital that will differentiate the future successes from the failures.

The take home messages, I believe, are the following. First, we must take seriously the fact that the world of today is not the world of the past. And more so, the world of tomorrow will be something that no one of us understands perfectly well. So we need humility, and careful optimism in facing the future.

Second, given the increase in production efficiency, we should move from measuring monetary exchange to measuring actual well-being. With more efficient production better products are created at a fraction of the previous price. This will be reflected in slowing economic growth – but also in the increased well-being of the people consuming the better goods.

And finally, we should take seriously the fact that the capital of 21st century is not measured in dollars, but in ideas.

We are, indeed, moving towards a post-capitalist market economy, where true added value for commerce will arise from innovation, not from applied funds.


On the Culture of Complaining

There has recently surfaced a heated discussion in Finland about relative poverty. People have been letting off steam about the outrageous bonuses of corporate executives, in contrast to poor people not making ends meet.

Initially, I thought that it is important for people to be able to complain about their misgivings. But now I’m not that sure.

Complaining is a way to ease frustration. But it is also a way to fake activity. If you complain about something you dislike, you have sort of done something about it. Then you won’t need to actually do something about it.

Finland is a pretty rich country, but I feel the poverty discussion here has lately gotten completely out of hand.

In some of the most discussed articles on Finnish poverty in the media, it turns out the Finnish poor are so poor that they can afford fresh strawberries only occasionally (Suomen Kuvalehti); that they have to buy the regular brand of yoghurt instead of the expensive brand (Helsingin Sanomat); that they cannot afford to buy their kids the latest smartphones (Suomen Kuvalehti); that they have fly to Las Palmas for the winters (Helsingin Sanomat); and that they can barely make ends meet with living in a house of their own, with two cars and three huge dogs (Ilta-Sanomat).

Seriously, I’m not making this up.

There is real poverty in the world, and even in Finland. The kind of poverty that really deprives a person of a future. But I think a far more pressing form of poverty is poverty of hope. And this has, as I believe the examples above show, sometimes nothing to do with money. You can be deprived of hope even enjoying material luxury millions of people would literally kill for.

Being in a situation that sucks gives you roughly two options. Either you can do something about it, or you can complain about it.

I think the culture of complaining goes a long way to explain how relatively well off people can consider themselves poor. It’s easier to complain than to do something about things. Founding a company, going to school, moving to a new city, downshifting – this all takes a tremendous amount of work. And on average, people are not willing to make such leaps if they don’t see it panning out well for them. If they don’t have hope.

Now, there are times when you do need to complain. There are outrageous corporate bonuses out there. People are doing crazy things in Russia and the Middle East. Electronics are produced in unimaginable sweatshops. And yes, there are really poor people out there. (Although I do hope the Finnish media would at some point interview some of them too. ). But after complaining – after identifying the problem – the next step is to do something about it.

Now imagine if people spent 50% of the time they spend complaining actually doing something about the things that bother them. Mind you, not 100% of the time, because complaining does serve a function in unearthing misgivings. But just 50%.

I suppose if people, on average, spent even 25% of their complaining time doing something about the things they complain about, we soon wouldn’t have anything to complain about anymore.


Tools Make Us Smarter

What exactly does it mean that somebody is smart? Scoring a high IQ in a Stanford-Binet test? Being good at math?

Paraphrasing Forrest Gump, smart is what smart does.

If you manage to get things done, to create new things and to produce results that impress, that makes you smart. So the question arises: how do we get there?

We have a set of genetic dispositions and learned skills that help us do smart things if properly deployed. IQ is one of them, but not the only one. A great memory or an intuitive capacity to find quick solutions to new situations help too.

But genetic dispositions are inherited, and skill learning takes thousands of hours. In addition to this, we have a really powerful way to quickly boost smarts: tools.

Our brain has been optimized by evolution to activities relevant for a hunter gatherer: hunting, planting and nurturing. It has not been optimized to build space rockets or to make scientific presentations.

As the world changes faster and faster, we need to adapt quicker than biological evolution allows. To this end we need tools.

We need a pen and a paper to keep trains of thought together. We need a Keynote app to visualize our thoughts. We need cloud apps to keep the things that pop in our head in store and to access them when we need them. And we need Google to help us share our information better.

Tools are not just something fun to have around, but they very concretely change the structure of our cognition.

The pen and paper very literally change the way you think. The Keynote app helps you share ideas in a way that you never could without it. The cloud app boosts your memory: you remember better by keeping your notes always available in the cloud. And Google adds up to what you potentially know. It even, as the philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers argue, perhaps changes what you believe.

All this helps us to get more things done, to create new things and to produce impressive results. Like space rockets, scientific presentations – or better ways to garden and nurture.

Tools are not just things we pick up towards a goal. They change the very way we think.

Tools make us smarter.


The Illusion of Growing Up

This is a trend that has carried through millennia:

When people turn thirty, twenty-somethings start to seem overly enthusiastic, optimistic and unrealistic. And when you turn forty, fifty, and so forth, the effect just gets emphasized.

At first, it feels embarrassing to have once been such a dewy-eyed teen.

But there is in fact an advantage the teens have on us. They do not suffer from the illusion of growing up. Yet. They have another illusion to deal with. The illusion of the grown-up.

When we are young, it seems that there must be a magical age when everything makes sense and clicks to place.

Whether it be 18 years, 21 years, 30, 40, or getting to retire, at some point this *must* make sense right?

At 36 years, I have to admit I have not yet crossed that line.

But I did notice for a moment I started suffering from that backwards view that seems to demarcate growing up. Sometimes the young just seem so unrealistic.

But in fact it is they that are realistic.

Reality is not a fixed thing. It is created by what we do. And we only do things if we believe in them.

As we grow older, we are easily succumbed by the illusion generated by our earlier setbacks. A less experienced person does not have so many setbacks, and thus no illusion.

The less experienced – younger? – person can thus put themselves to play more freely and emphatically.

And create the future they want to create.

Or at least take a shot at it.

But the illusion of growing up is brought on by us starting to buy into the fact that the past is what defines the future.

But it doesn’t.

Actions define the future.

Only if we rise up again and again, to meet new challenges, to fail and to try again, to succeed and build on past successes, do we create the future and the world that we are looking for.

While history may create a bleaker outlook of the future, it does also create more experience that can, with emphatic action, put to play in creating new things.

Experience and dewy-eyed optimism. Now would that not be a tremendously powerful combination?

It is no wonder that most of the greatest innovations in the world were not, after all, created by wunderkinds. They were created by forty-somethings, fifty-somethings and sixty-somethings.

The ones who forgot to grow up.


On Fear

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately. One of the reasons is that I’ve been scared a lot.

One of my favorite quotes is the one attributed to John Wayne: “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”

This has been something of a mantra for me. By accepting fear and going ahead anyway, you get things done.

Yet fear causes so much damage.

Racism arises from the fear of the unknown. Clinging to a job that sucks arises from the fear of the future. Parental overprotectiveness arises from fear of the uncontrollable.

Fear is one of the most destructive emotions in a dynamic society. It stops motion. It paralyzes.

I don’t enjoy living with fear. Especially in the last few months, I’ve been scared a lot about a couple of big ventures we chose to take. Scared what will happen if they fail. They didn’t, yet it’s less pleasurable than you’d think. Now it’s time to get scared about new things.

But even if these efforts had failed, so what? Isn’t failure one of the best catalysts for novelty? Fail often, fail fast, right?

Well, tell that to the fear.

Fear can paralyze. But in a paradoxical sense, it can also stimulate.

Like the base jumper looking down just before the jump. She’s going to be scared to death. And jump anyway.

It’s kind of like the Finnish idea of sisu the researcher Emilia Lahti has been making famous in the world. Turning obstacles into opportunities.

Part of me thinks fear is the signal of doing important things. Another part of me thinks it just sucks.

Sometimes it would be great to be fearless. But to the majority of us that’s probably not an option.

What is, is embracing fear.

It won’t take the fear away. But it will paralyze the fear, instead of letting it paralyze you. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, anyway.

Like in this passage from the Peter Gabriel song Darkness:

“When I allow it to be
There’s no control over me
I have my fears
But they do not have me”