August 15, 2021
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The pains of being an innovator, an outlier

If you’re an innovator and you’ve been burnt because you constantly come up with new ideas, you’ve come to the right place. I don’t think we’re alone. We’re just a minority who likes to do things differently. We like to make a difference in the world. We like to do things the way others are too scared or too lazy to try. You’re not too afraid of failing and you’re willing to try no matter what. You may fail miserably my friend, but the reason humanity is where it is today is because of people like you, people like us, the innovators, the misfits, the weirdos, and the nerds.

If it was up to the masses to fix the world, we would have been living on the trees. It took guts for the first primates to get off and live in the caves where there were predators and threats. Without that leap, we would have never figured out agriculture and conquering the world. If it wasn’t for the crazy people who sailed the oceans, we would never have advanced so much as species and certainly, we would never have tried to go to space. Yes, people died. Yes, it was brutal, but it was worth it. Because those people who died taught the rest of us how to overcome and survive.

We are living on a piece of rock wandering vast and empty spaces. Does it matter if we die a little poorer or richer? No, but if we die trying to make a change, at least we tried. What is the value of living like sheep for a hundred years?

But it’s a hard journey. If you are working in a corporate world that the yes-men climb the corporate ladder while you are being mocked for trying to do things differently, it gets to you. It has been this way forever. Social pressure is the hardest thing to conquer in an innovator’s journey. Most people are scared to be like you and they like to drag you down with them so they don’t feel as bad about their weaknesses.

I have not figured this one out myself, but I think the secret is perseverance, my friend. I was an outlier and a weirdo in school and I was laughed at because of my ideas, but I had to go on. I don’t want to paint a rosy picture of being an innovator, an outlier. You may end up poor after betting all you have on something that you believe in. The waters are choppy and the ocean is deep. Once you set sail, you are at the mercy of the ocean, your navigation, your crew, and your luck. You can do everything right and the weather can turn on you.

If you are an outlier, you better learn how to convince people to join you in this crazy journey. It is hard to be a sheep and a shepherd at the same time. You’ll have to have some magic to make that happen. It’s obvious that money is magic and people will follow you if you have it. If you don’t have it, it’s hard to convince people to leave their dried grass and follow you to the other side of the mountain looking for something fresh. Most people just want to live their lives and move on a straight line. That’s fine. It’s your job to convince them to join you and if you can’t it is even harder on you because it feels like a failure.

But, is it really a failure? Is it a failure if you don’t want to just eat what’s in front of you? What’s at risk is not eating as much dried grass and not growing enough wool for the winter. What does it matter when you know the butcher is coming one day or another? This analogy is getting darker than what I intended it to be. Let’s stick to sailing for a little bit!

Build yourself a canoe

If you’re poor and can’t pay people to build your ship and join your journey at sea, start building your canoe piece by piece. Take it to the sea and look for leaks. If you show that you can sail a canoe and deliver goods, people may invest in you to build a bigger one. It’s a long process, but it’s the best we can do. Investors don’t invest in ideas. They want some traction before they take out their checkbooks. There are many people who are building canoes and delivering goods. Just a design and an idea of a beautiful ship are not enough.

A day will come that you can jump ship and start building yours full-time. When is a good time to jump? My personal preference is when I see people want to pay me to use the canoe and my costs of building the canoe will eventually be less than what I earn, in other words, when I see profitability on the horizon.

What if we don’t succeed?

We have to make peace with it. The sacrifice of working on your canoe while working on someone else’s ship is obvious. Yes-men will get their promotions and climb up the ladder while you’re being rejected for coming up with new ideas. They are ahead of you following the old sheep and may get a little more grass as you are planning your trip to the other side of the mountains. It’s hard, but we should pick our battles. You can’t win everything and it’s a mistake trying to do so.

Sometimes I see birds fighting over a piece of bread while the ground is filled with food. We get caught up in stupid competitions while we can focus on other things. If you decided that you don’t want to follow the herd, there is a price to be paid. You should stop looking at the herd. Pack up and go for the mountains.

Can you make peace with retiring yourself from coming up with new ideas and building new things? Are you ready to keep your head down and become another yes-man and become a “good” employee? That is the challenge. Can entrepreneurs even be good employees? I think it really depends on the company. Some companies welcome innovation and some don’t. Some companies have established products and like to maintain them. They don’t prioritize innovation until competition takes over and good employees with new ideas leave. That’s the price that these companies will pay.

Look at the HPs and Xeroxes of the world. They were once the center of innovation. Look where they are today. Do you think if Larry and Sergey were working in those companies they ever had the chance to build the empire they did? I don’t think so. Not everyone will build the next Google, but if it wasn’t for them, we could never be where we are today. Larrys and Sergeys are standing on the shoulders of failed founders. Even though no one is talking about them, without those failures no one could learn the path. If it wasn’t for bad products, good products could not exist.

Maximizing our chances of success

Most of the time, the best products are usually not the first. Apple certainly did not make the first computer. They didn’t build the first tablet or smartphone. They just made them much better. A bad idea cannot succeed, but a good idea and good execution will. There’s a saying going around that claims any idea with good execution will succeed. I don’t agree with that. A good idea fundamentally solves a problem in the world. A good idea may seem bad to some people because it may not seem obvious how it solves the problem it claims it can solve, but good execution will bring it home.

Good ideas solve obvious problems with non-obvious solutions.

Good ideas solve obvious problems with non-obvious solutions. Obvious solutions are for corporations and will get copied fast. Airbnb was a weird idea that was solving a big problem. Its weirdness made it non-obvious. The same goes for Uber. Who would have thought that people would be OK with a stranger sleeping on their couch? Once people saw that other people are OK doing that, they followed. The hard part is getting the first few people loving your product. If you do that, you’re good!

So, here’s what I would try: I would evaluate how big the problem is first. In other words, I would look for how intense the problem is, how often it occurs, and how many people have the problem. The multiplication of these three factors tells you how big of a problem you are solving. Let’s look at the problem that Airbnb was trying to solve. Hotels are expensive and sometimes there are not enough of them during the high season. Housing is a pretty intense problem. You need a place to stay when you travel. So, it gets a pretty high score there. The problem happens a few times a year when a person wants to travel, but so many people travel every year. So, overall, solving the housing problem is extremely important.

Next, do we have a non-obvious way of solving the problem? The obvious solution to the housing problem is hotels and big corporations are on it. The non-obvious answer is to get people to stay on your couch. Who would have thought that can become a thing? Before Airbnb, there were websites like Couchsurfing, but they weren’t for everybody. Airbnb democratized that behavior. The same thing with Uber. The exact same thing that is hard for a business to solve, becomes its competitive advantage. Look at Robinhood, Uber, and Airbnb. The regulatory barriers in front of these companies helped them remain unchallenged until they went public.

Be prouder if you’re an immigrant and still want to change the world

If you left your hometown and left for a better world and a better life and now you want to make the world a better place, kudos to you. Most people don’t even leave their hometown let alone leaving for a foreign land which everyone speaks a different language and has a different culture. I’m an immigrant and I’m glad I came to this country. Here, I’m not considered being a total maniac if I want to do something bold. I’ve lived in other parts of the world as well and I have not seen a place like this where people want to make a difference.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter! Life is random. Enjoy the fu–!ng ride.

Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Life is so random and each and every one of us are unique instances of life on this planet. At the end of the day, if we don’t do what we love, what is the point of living? Some people may love following the herd and some don’t. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Even if we make a dent in the universe, we don’t last to fully experience it, but we can enjoy the ride. For me, there’s nothing like the kick that I get when I build something new. Hope you do too. Cheers.