Failing in Slow Motion
Well, Einstein was known to play the violin whenever he was stuck on a tough problem and often spoke of how music influenced the way he thought about mathematics and science. His sister, Maja, said that sometimes after playing the piano, he’d get up and say, “There, now I’ve got it.”
Call it combinatory play or just plain intuition — we’ve all experienced that flash of insight, that fleeting moment when a solution we’ve been grinding away at reveals itself in an unexpected place.
Einstein, Tesla, Newton and plenty of others have had great ideas and one thing we all know is that they manifest themselves in the most unusual ways. Some innovations come in the shower, some while you’re having a beer, mine was over a coffee with my uncle having a seriously deep and raw conversation about my past, present and future, given I was completely lost as to what to do next.
I had just finished university that summer and while the class of 2019 were scrambling to get jobs, I had decided to take a ‘sabbatical’. My university experience was a whirlwind but had left me lost and with no idea as to what to do next. Anyway that said, the chat with my uncle put me back on a clearer path. Sometimes it’s important to act and not worry about all the possible things that could go wrong, my parents had advised me in the past, but you know, it takes someone else to look you right in the eyes, be completely honest and give it to you straight with no sugar coating, for the penny to drop.
The Fear 👹
After a three-hour conversation with him, I was still unsure, I was not used to putting myself out there and the idea of failure shook me to my core. When you’re scared of failure, it haunts you around every corner, it’s an intrinsic flaw in every decision that you make. For me, it’s the worst feeling, because you doubt your own ability and I had been letting it live rent-free in my mind for 22 years. The way he had put it was so simple, “Viraj, whether this idea is a success or failure the learnings involved will be your achievement. What you can learn, is the only reason you should do it,” he explained. So armed with an idea, a one-way ticket to India and the past behind me, I had the next 6 months to explore both India and a potential opportunity to gain new skills and refine old ones. The thought that I could have a tangible product and be an entrepreneur was too good an opportunity to miss. So why the hell not!
That was the day things changed, and I embarked on my journey to learn how to build an application, this article takes you through my trials and tribulations.
Ideas are a Cheap, Execution is Everything 💥
‘Ideas are cheap, execution is everything’, was what my dad’s colleague used to say. I had this session with my uncle where he asked me to write down all the possible ideas I could think of within 10 minutes, just a one-liner on what they could be. I struggled initially but once I was past the obvious ones, the unusual ones started to come out, it is in this place that the original ideas cultivate. I think the key is not to think too deep too early, that comes later. After the time was up, I chose the best two options that I could pursue. Option one was becoming an influencer and learning the magic of the ‘Algorithm’ and option two was to develop an app to help students make better university choices. I needed to deep dive into both ideas and start expanding on them, the angles of how you could bring both to life, their respective problem statements, overarching KPIs, any roadblocks that could occur. The hardest part of the whole session should have been making a commitment to one idea. I have never been the best at decision making in tough situations, but this time for me it was a no brainer. The skills I could gain in the long term from attempting to develop an app far outweighed becoming an influencer in my mind, at the time, in essence, I had somehow managed to weigh up the Value Realisation, a topic for another day. After settling on an idea I drew up a Strawman plan which is an unrefined plan or document that serves as a starting point in the evolution of a project. It wasn’t detailed, it was simply just milestones that I needed to hit and due dates. Having this as a skeleton outline allowed me to quickly zoom out and see the projected timeline of ideation to Minimum Viable Product or MVP for short.
I’ll say it again, Ideas are a Cheap, Execution is Everything.
Deciding the Product Name — Use the time to just have a bit of fun 😜
At times when I was bored and needed to relax my mind from Entity-Relationship Diagrams (ERD), Content Management Systems (CMS) and all the many acronyms that the software world has, I found myself gravitating to designing a name and logo. I wanted to give my baby a name, and the best I could come up with at the time was Yellow Brick Road or YBR for short. Hear me out, the concept stemmed from the famous Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz and what I was trying to build was a way of guiding people down their YBR so I thought the name was fitting. Drawing Logos and coming up with catchphrases served as a creative outlet and gave me some time to rest and become a little creative from the more complicated day-to-day tasks I had to get through.
The ‘fun’ is what keeps you interested, so don’t forget to have some.
Set up an advisory board — get some old heads involved 👴
A suggestion was made that I appoint an advisory board, a set of individuals that I could trust to advise & guide me. My uncle offered to be the 1st, I chose my mum as my 2nd to fulfil the role of ‘Brain Support’ and decided on my dad as the 3rd. Initially, I was hesitant about choosing him. In the past, all too often we had come to loggerheads when discussing ideas. I remember vividly, we had a heated discussion about one particular idea and how I was adamant that the tinder-style interface would not work for the app. It had ended in an argument! In all honesty, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to differentiate between the father-son relationship and the advisor role. Luckily he had seen the lighthearted side to the argument and he was more than happy to join my board, he did, however, make sure to explain to me that when he was acting as an advisor he would be stepping out of the role of dad and expected to be treated accordingly.
Having an experienced group of individuals is a must, it allowed me to learn a vast amount about business, software development and best practices for turning this idea into a reality. This meant I could quickly sponge up 30+ years of experience between the three of them into my accelerated learnings. Equally as important is to have someone who is going to be there for you, in this instance my mum played a continued role of brain support, making sure I was in good shape and not struggling with the pressure of delivery, this role is a bit like your HR and it helped me understand how I was feeling throughout this journey and kept me balanced.
Leverage your support base
The Power of Visualisation ✊
As a child I never really took to drawing, in fact, I avoided all forms of creativity, I even failed to learn the piano. Little did I know that the oldest form of communication was about to bring a light bulb moment. I remember being on a houseboat in Kerala when I sat down with my dad frustrated about a complex discussion on how a rules-based engine could be developed for personality profiling. Don’t ask, it still baffles me. He calmly picked up a notebook and pen and proceeded to draw me the solution. This taught me the power of visualisation and problem solving between two people, showing me that drawing the problem can help frame a problem so that you can identify areas you need to focus on. This new approach gave me the tools to start solving the next few challenges and also enabled me to explain them clearly to the board, friends and family who asked.
When in doubt, revert to the fundamentals
Drawing the big picture is important 🖼
If you have ever been to the Vatican and seen the Sistine Chapel you will understand that its beauty can only really be appreciated from a distance. As I explored my new found love for visualisation I soon realised my notebook was limiting my imagination and thought process. I wasn’t as productive as I could be and unable to conceptualise my ideas in full, I needed a bigger canvas. My dad was kind enough to find me a space at his work that had the best visualisation tool in the business and it was a game-changer!
Don’t underestimate the power of the whiteboard.
Drawing on a whiteboard was really helpful to envision what the user experience could potentially be. I started by taking the best parts of apps and sites that I had come across. The tinder swipe left, swipe right feature was intuitive. Facebook’s interactive chatbot messages, they were easy to interact with. The progress bar that you see at the top of surveys is an easy way to see how much you have left. All these constructs were useful features that could be on a screen to keep users engaged when the ideas started to take form and I was able to mature the front end-user experience.
What happened by accident, because I found somewhere to visualise my ideas, should have been the 1st thing I did. Understanding the users and personas involved in my app helped me realise the depth and complexity of the problem that lay in front of me. What I realised was that there were at least three different user types:
The Consumer (Child) — Looking for advice.
The Experts (Professional) — Providing their experiences.
The Computer (Algorithm) — Matching them together.
The Art of Writing User Stories ✍
The creation of a User Story is a modern-day Agile software development technique to capture a description of a software feature from an end-user perspective. In my opinion, it is by far the easiest way to express an idea in conjunction with a picture or a typical wireframe. This, in essence, is an outline of the screen that you might see on the browser.
As part of the User Experience (UX) creation process, I would typically draw the wireframe first and then write the user stories next to it, this would help me define the functionality that the application needed to undertake with every mouse move and mouse click. Without going too deep into this, let me share a couple of online resources:
This structured process helped me pull together a prototype experience but I quickly realised that the most important part was still missing and I now needed to immerse myself in the domain of decision making. I was going to have to convert that knowledge into something that I could specify and codify, to make a tangible MVP.
As the Product Owner, I had to do deep market research 📊
The market research I undertook was by far the most fun I had during the initial stages of ideation. It made me feel like I was working on a top-secret idea. Scoping out the competition/concepts and understanding the products and services that were currently available to help students make better decisions on their education paths. It felt like I was in the middle of a corporate espionage mission, examining the strengths and the weaknesses that my app could take advantage of and plug the gap. The deep dive I did, made me recognise that my thinking around the domain may be flawed and as a result, I had to get out and speak to students or teachers that could have dealt, or come into contact with the same problem that I had experienced.
Talk. Discuss. Investigate.
To really get in touch with what my user base may be thinking, I decided to make a variety of surveys which acted as a proof of concept. What it taught me was that curating a survey and writing non-leading and open-ended questions with potentially fixed responses is not easy. The thinking here was that I needed data to use as part of the development process. My assumption was if I could ask them questions and have the results, then I could codify the process. What I realised, to my despair and surprise, was that the combinations and possibilities were infinite. The data sample I would need to be effective would have to be huge, to really give a realistic chance of offering the right type of advice to any particular student. This revelation, coupled with a flawed legal position set me back to the point where I started to doubt myself and the idea.
Critics, don’t let them attack your feelings 💢
This whole process really tests your mental strength to persevere, whenever you try something new you are opening yourself up to criticism and failure. I found that I had to alter the way I took on individuals’ opinions. People see the flaws and highlights of your work through different lenses and I had to filter through the varying critiques to see which were best for me.
Through the development of the app and my travel in India. I met many individuals who asked what I was doing there. Naturally, I discussed my idea, and the most frequently asked question that made me quite emotional was, ‘so how do you make money from this?’ For me, the app was not about the billion-dollar idea, it was about helping at least one student make an informed decision on their educational path. I became really affected by this so I decided to turn the question back on them. This enabled me to manage their comments into ideas and leverage their opinions into constructs which allowed me to drive a more positive conversation. One particular toxic interaction sticks in my mind, after discussing in detail my vision for the app with a family friend, I was told repeatedly that it would fail. There were too many variables at play and it was a downright impossible idea to make work, my idea was dismantled right in front of me. I honestly felt like a child that had his favourite toy taken away for no valid reason and wanted to go on the attack. I very quickly understood there will always be people like this and you need to channel their negative energy. In this case, I didn’t have to listen to the deconstruction of my idea but instead, I took on board the points that I thought were relevant and archived the rest.
Failing in slow motion 🙌
In the end, through much contemplation and a little agony, I eventually shelved the idea. The concept of YBR was built on the premise of vast quantities of very specific data being available, on different professions and people, then leveraging those insights to help the students understand more about themselves, which would allow them to make more informed decisions compared to just a gut feeling. The likelihood of being able to get access to this data from users would be incredibly difficult, the main problem I had was to overcome how I would get individuals to part with this private information in the age of GDPR.
I realised that this whole time I was failing in slow motion. I didn’t know how to code properly, and no amount of Python that I knew was going to save me from the centuries of knowledge that I would need to gather to be able to create the algorithms. All I had been doing was merely flirting with the idea of building.
Up until this moment, failure was always a tangible object, it had been on a report card or a certificate. This time I had failed. I had nothing to show for it apart from the time I had spent, and my learning. The key skills that this project taught me was around Agile Development techniques, Business Analysis and User Experience mapping and I am sure it will come into use one day soon. In hindsight this was more than just a learning experience, it was a mission. A mission to prove to myself that I could overcome my fear of failure and leave it behind, once and for all.
People will try to destroy your ideas, however, channel their energy and opinions as an opportunity to further your development.
And I’ve done just that!