Some children have imaginary friends. I had an imaginary town. It was called Butterfly Grove. Between 2nd and 4th grade, I worked on this multi-faceted project in which I envisioned the life and times of an entire city.
Taking a fairly comprehensive design approach, I laid out the city (even built a clay model at one point), wrote the town newspaper (The Butterflyer) and envisioned the businesses that would be in the town. The pet shop was named after my sister, who loved animals. There was a local branch of the Bank of America. I designed a book store and coffee shop combo (decades before Starbucks had the idea) called the “Book and Bagel.” I even have a coupon book from the “Welcome Wagon,” I drew up to promote these businesses. It was a consuming project that I think back with fond memories to this day. It is just the kind of thing that I’d probably still enjoy doing.
In those formative years, Butterfly Grove taught me a lot and allowed me to experiment with innovation in ways that I have applied since then. The first is this:
Love Your Product
Butterfly Grove was a city that I would have wanted to live in. It had a small town feel, but modern amenities. I designed all the buildings and decided where they were located. I even got to pick the name of my street. It was the perfect town for my purposes.
In product development circles, there have been experts on both sides of this issue for decades: should product managers and entrepreneurs be data-driven, maintain passive attachment to their businesses, and keep an open mind with regards to customer feedback to see where to take their products or should they design things for themselves to use? Those in favor of the dispassionate approach, note the success of professional managers building conglomerate businesses without direct involvement in the business propositions of any one product line. Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter and author of Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of a Creative Mind, falls squarely on the “you have to love and use your product” side of this argument. So does, Jason Fried, the founder of 37Signals and author of Getting Real, Remote, and Rework.
I had an experience with Jason 10 years ago that illustrated this well. I had contacted the support group at 37Signals whose produce Basecamp I have used to manage a variety of projects over the years. I had been highly recommending this tool and I knew they are always developing new offerings. I suggested to them that they develop a new interactive, collaborative scheduling service. The idea would be that it would allow a person to set up a calendar of events and allow people to RSVP. However, it would be more than an Evite (which is another tool I love and use all the time). The innovation that I was suggesting was that the tool would allow multiple events to be managed from one interface and that it would include an element of capacity planning. Let's say, a hair studio wanted to use a tool like this to accept online appointments. They could enter the number of stylists available throughout the day and the software would prevent people from overbooking, perhaps suggesting alternates that might work or managing a waiting list. I thought this would be cool for a variety of their small business customers and I knew that I could use it right away for a project I was working on for a non-profit “mothers of preschoolers” group.
But, I digress. I sent the idea to them in some detail. I received a response back that surprised me. I thought that I would get a "thank you and we appreciate your submission" generic email and that would be that. Instead, I got a personal email back from Jason at 37Signals that read "We will not be building the software you suggested. We only build things we can use and we wouldn't use this."
Needless to say, I was a little taken back. Jason is known for his strong opinions and, perhaps, email missives of this type are common in their organization. But, the whole thing got me thinking.
Here is a company that is very well-respected and builds great tools. They got a suggestion for what would be a great product (in my humble opinion) and they said, "no." No, because it wasn't something they were passionate about. No, because they wouldn't personally use it. If they had been running a pet grooming salon, a community center, or a doctor’s office, perhaps they would have seen the value. Since then, others have developed online scheduling tools for various purposes (from SignUpGenius to Doodle), but there still isn’t a great single tool that I know of for scheduling. So, my "collaborative scheduling" idea is out there for someone to develop!
Thinking back to those days spent on Butterfly Grove, I was certainly an amateur city planner in every sense of the word. The definition of “amateur” is someone who engages in an activity for pleasure, instead of financial benefit. The root of the word is the same French-Middle English word for "love." Someone who is motivated by the love of something. It has been said that if you do something you love, you will never have to work a day in your life. Butterfly Grove didn’t feel like work. I think this is a powerful lesson for innovation. Work like an amateur and build something you love.