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TeamCamp: Days of Future Past

May 16, 2014

Chris Schmitt

A lot of things have changed in the almost six years I’ve been running TeamCamp. When we first started TeamCamp: Ruby on Rails was still new; there was no iPad; Web 2.0 was at the height of it’s glory; social media was just taking off (Twitter only had a few thousand users); meetups in Ottawa focused on building Startups were rare; incubators like y-combinator were even rarer; and, there was no such thing as a “Lean Startup”. It was the “glory days”. It was like the gold rush. Lot’s of opportunity, everyone was at the starting line, and it was yours for the taking.

Now a lot has changed. There are many vehicles for individuals and teams to pitch and prototype their ideas, and better organized than TeamCamp. The App store has taken over. There are millions of developers building apps even though it’s hard to make money. The bar has been raised. The apps that are successful are professionally executed and marketed, and there are more books and websites about building a startup than you can shake a stick at. It’s an industry in itself.

A lot has changed for me personally as well. In the early days I had a burning desire to build something and perhaps start my own company. Since then I’ve realized that the more I learned, and the more out-of-the-box ideas I brought back to my employer, the more successful I became as an “intrepreneur”.  I’ve also witnessed the incredible sacrifices and struggles that entrepreneurs face, enough to know that quitting your job to start a company not a trivial decision.

It’s time to turn a new chapter in TeamCamp. The promise of TeamCamp was to form “like-minded individuals into teams for the purpose of turning smart ideas into startups”. We’ve had some success, learned a lot, and had a lot of fun, and I’ve seen many of my TeamCampers grow into new opportunities and exciting careers. While I don’t think I can deliver in the original promise of TeamCamp anymore (there are other, better venues as mentioned), judging by the ever growing TeamCamp membership, I think there is still value in the concept.

TeamCamp will be on hiatus for the summer. I will be polling the TeamCamp membership over the next few weeks to better understand what you expect from TeamCamp so that if and when we return in the fall, we will be in a better position to  serve the community. I appreciate your feedback.

Sincerely,

Chris

 

 

Too Much Structure Can Kill Creativity

September 30, 2013

Chris Schmitt

When I think about the best collaborations I’ve been involved in with TeamCamp, the collaborations where we ideated, prototyped and produced something, were by far the best.

The richest collaboration was definitely on a web service we developed called Twegather. The idea was born from a problem that we personally experienced, and it allowed our diverse group apply our skills. We rapidly prototyped a service, from a quick and dirty MVP, to a full fledged service. We pivoted through three UI designs, and constantly innovated to make the service easier to use. Ultimately, we closed the service down because we really couldn’t see a way to monetize the service and we all got busy with other things. But it was an incredibly fun and rich learning experience and I never regretted a minute of it.

On the other side of the coin was the 3 months we spent trying to find a niche market. In this case, we followed a set process to test ideas and determine of there was a sufficient market to turn the idea into a business. We rushed the ideation stage and hurried to get to the point where we could test the idea through Google Adwords. Despite meeting weekly, we never did come up with anything and while we learned a lot, it felt more like drudgery than fun.

I think what killed our enthusiasm was quite frankly the focus on finding a way to make money online, rather than serve an untapped customer need. Searching for a niche market isn’t always about doing something you love; it’s more likely about solving a grinding problem, something that people are will to pay for, but not necessarily something that you’d be excited to wake up for every morning. All of the niches we stumbled across seemed mundane; it was simply hard to get excited about it.

For me, it isn’t just about making money. If that were the case, then there’s far easier and less risky ways to do that. I already have a great job at a great company. I love web developing because you can create neat and innovative things. Some of those things might not be practical, but who cares if your doing it for the enjoyment? I think the other TeamCampers on the team probably felt the same way.

A main theme of the Creativity, Innovation and Change course is getting to know yourself. Personal reflection tools like CENTER add a character development dimension to the course that is an important first step towards unlocking your creative potential CENTER is an acronym, that stands for Character, Entrepreneurship, owNership, Tenacity, Excellence, and Relationship. For me, my CENTER is:

  • Character: I love learning about new ways to do things and trying them out;
  • Entrepreneurship: I’m unhappy with the status quo (especially when it’s not working) and I like to change things up (even if sometimes if sometimes it doesn’t work);
  • owNership: When I choose to do something, I learn everything I can about it to do it really well, be it cycling across Canada, learning to program in Rails or R, or oil painting;
  • Tenacity: I tend to get discouraged easily, so I need to put negativity and setbacks behind me and just keep going. Intelligent Fast Failure is helping me to overcome my fear of failure. In fact, it’s kind of find it fun to try things that have a slim chance of succeeding just to see what happens;
  • Excellence: I plan to keep learning and creating and staying healthy for as long as I am able;
  • Relationships: My family is my wife and my kids who mean everything to me; my community is the Ottawa startup community who are always enthusiastic, supportive and creative.

Before you try something new, it’s important to understand yourself and what motivates you. It’s easy to get distracted from that and occasionally follow the wrong path.

Learning from these experiences I now know that for TeamCamp to be successful we need to:

  1. Brainstorm and constantly come up with many, many more ideas;
  2. Follow-through on the ones that have a high interest level for yourself and are aligned with our collective CENTER;
  3. Build it! Don’t worry about whether it’s going to make money. Rather, focus on making people happy through what you create (the money will come);
  4. Lead or join a team that has similar values to yourself.

- Chris

TeamCamp Kickoff this Thursday, Sept 19th

September 16, 2013

Chris Schmitt

I have a little homework for you in preparation for this Thursday’s meeting. But don’t worry: it’s simple and fun! I’d like you to think about 3 problems that you encounter as you go about your day. They can be big or small – it doesn’t matter. You might want to think about keeping an idea journal so you don’t lose track of your thoughts. Don’t put too much into solutioning at this point.

Here’s an example: yesterday while cycling I started thinking there must be a better way to know when cars are approaching from behind. You see, I had a pretty close call the other week. I had been checking my mirror and didn’t see anything behind me. I started to make a left turn and next thing I heard its the sound of a truck blowing its horn and screeching tires. I didn’t get hurt, and the driver was safe, but it scared the hell out of me. So my problem is to find a better way to warn a cyclist that a vehicle is close behind.

It’s that simple. At the meeting we’ll pick one or two of the problems and apply a brainstorming technique called Morphological Matrix (I wrote about it here) to come up with some unique ways of solving that problem.

Looking forward to seeing you on Thursday!

Chris

Creativity, Innovation and Change

September 13, 2013

Chris Schmitt

Whether you’re starting a new business, or improving an existing one, coming up with creative and innovative approaches is a necessity. But there’s no secret formula that you can apply that takes business problems as inputs and then outputs the ideal solution. Rather, there are endless possibilities, and as we’ve learned from the Lean Startup approach, you need to try, fail and adjust in a never ending cycle that produces measurable results. So you’re constantly reviewing the data to come up with innovative approaches. You’re engaging your prefrontal cortex to the max and frankly it “hurts”. It’s hard work and having a variety of approaches to employ helps to keep your ideas fresh, varied and diverse.

I’m in week 2 of the Coursera course Creativity, Innovation and Change and I’m already reaping the benefits of employing different techniques to generate fresh (divergent) thinking to generate ideas. In particular, I’ve applied a technique that I’ve never used before: Morphological Matrix. With this technique, an existing product or system is broken into attributes/parts/functions. Various ways of achieving each part or function are identified and then (re)combined to create new forms of the product or system.

For example, let’s say you wanted to develop a new candy bar, you might define attributes such as: ingredients, size, shape, texture, colour, and for each of these attributes come up with a variety of values. Then you start randomly putting them together to come up with new combinations that perhaps no one has thought of. Say, a small, purple chocolate shaped like brocolli. Ok, that doesn’t sound very appetizing but you get the idea.

Morphlogical Matrix

Applying this technique is not as easy as it sounds. The greatest value I got out of it was actually thinking about the “attributes/parts/functions” that I would use to generate unique combinations. The benefit from the approach was thinking hard about the different attributes. Back to the candy bar example, think of packaging as another attribute; what kind of package could you use? Why limit it to a traditional wrapper. Perhaps the package the candy comes in is more fun than the candy itself? Focusing on one attribute at a time frees up your mind to brainstorm different approaches that you might not have considered otherwise.

You can see how this technique would be useful for a lot of things: developing a new product; coming up for an idea for a company outing; thinking of different ways to organize a company; mixing up your exercise routine, what to have for dinner tonight. The possibilities are endless.

Give it a try!

Confessions of a Attention Deficit Developer

December 30, 2012

Chris Schmitt

PulseSensor HeartbeatThis holiday has been typical for me: big goals, big dreams, little time and lack of focus, but having a great time along the way.

It started with a heat beat sensor project I wanted to work on. Equipped with a pulse sensor for Arduino and a Beaglebone I’ve set out to create my very own heart rate monitor. I know what you’re thinking: a Beaglebone is not the same as an Arduino. But how hard can it be to convert a simple project designed for the Arduino to work on a Beaglebone? Very hard, it seems.

Before I explain, your probably wondering why I bought a Beaglebone instead of an Arduino, and why I like to make my life so hard. Well, a Beaglebone is cooler. It has all the analog/digital inputs that an Arduino has, but hey, it’s a full blown Linux server to boot. It think there’s something really awesome about having a self contained server that can be accessed through the Internet from anywhere. Plus on the Beaglebone you can code in Ruby, Node, C, Python – you name it. However, none of the code written for the Arduino works out-of-the-box on a Beaglebone. But for me it’s a great way (i.e. the “hard way”) to learn something.

With my “simple” project in mind I set out to learn everything I need to know to build it:

  • Learn about the Beaglebone – the platform and hardware is different than the Arduino
  • Learn Node.js (and Javascript too since I’m a little rusty) – Node.js makes for a fast and efficient server great for embedded platforms 
  • Learn Processing – Processing is used to graphically display your heart beat
  • Learn about socket.io (to communicate between the Beaglebone server and Processing) – this is to communicate in realtime between the Beaglebone server and a web browser
  • Throw in a little electronics, and I’m on my way

So here I am jumping from one learning activity from another: Reading the Beaglebone manual, then I’m downloading processing, next thing I know I’ve bought Processing for Beginners, and then over to Codecademy to work on my Javascript, plus a little Node.js coding on the Cloud9 IDE, now I’m writing a blog post. And that’s what I mean by “attention deficit developer”.

What am I going to do with a heart rate monitor anyway? I’m not quite sure. I could be the start of a massive opensource medical instrumentation company. Or perhaps just a hacker project.

It doesn’t matter really because I’m having a riot.

By the way, if you have any questions, suggestions or ideas please let me know.

TeamCamp Christmas – Predictions for 2013

December 20, 2012

Chris Schmitt

Another year, a whole new batch of predictions. Once again we gathered around the virtual fireplace at the The Code Factory, enjoying cupcakes and port wine, wondering about what awaits us all in 2013. We had 3 straight years of pretty good predictions from the team. You can see here: 201020112012.

Predictions for 2013:

Chris – 1) Blackberry 10 will bring life to RIM. It won’t restore RIM to it’s former glory but it will resurrect the company’s smart phone business. Chris even predicts that BB10 will grab more market share than Windows 8. Prediction 2 – The number of Intellectual Property lawyers will double within the year.

Tri – The end of the world will not be tomorrow. If he’s wrong no one will know the difference.

Ian – the US will not go over the “fiscal cliff”. The US economy is too important. The Euro crisis is real however.

Moni – 1) The New York Stock Exchange was sold today. More mergers like this will occur. 2) More legislation of permits in the City of Ottawa.

Andrew – Windows 8 phones will gain the 3rd spot within 2 years. The rest of the group predicted Windows 8 would do “ok”. No consensus on what exactly “ok” means however.

Chris S. – 2013 will be the year of the “Internet of Things”. Sensors will will be everywhere monitoring almost every aspect of our lives.

JC – Commoditization and localization of manufacturing. Robotics and 3D printing will bring manufacturing back to North America.

We also lively discussions about startups, robot dragonflies, the resurgence of cupcakes (although we agreed muffins were more manly) and a great number of other fascinating topics. Will our predictions pan out? I guess we’ll have to check next Christmas!

Happy holidays to all and see you in 2013!

Chris

Doing the “Impossible”

September 16, 2012

Chris Schmitt

This post was partly inspired by an article by Seth Godin entitled Risk, Fear and Worry (and they’re not the same). I was having a particularly stressful week and getting into one of the “I don’t know where to start” moods. Reading Seth’s post made me realize that I was having troubles telling the difference between risk, fear and worry. As a result, I developed this simple approach that can be applied to anything: work, home, a new idea, a big project, starting a business, climbing Mt. Everest; whatever tickles your fancy.

The Technique

Here’s how it works:

  1. Take blank page and divide it into three columns. At the top of the first column write “Worries”, on the second write “Fears” and on the third write “Risks”
  2. In the Worries column right down everything that’s keeping you up at night.  Don’t worry about whether it’s rational or baseless. Just right it down. If it’s on your mind then it’s real and must be dealt with.
  3. In the Fears column write down what you are afraid of, i.e. what’s the worst thing that could happen if you don’t deal with those worries?
  4. For each item in the Fears column, in the third column write down the risk of it coming to fruition. How likely is the risk (high, medium or low) and over what time-frame (urgent, non-urgent).

You now have the basis of an action plan. Take all the high and medium risk items from the third column and add them to your ToDo list as either “today”, “up next” or “some day”. Make sure you are doing something to make progress on all of the high risk items. If something needs immediate attention, deal with it as soon as possible. If it’s a high or medium risk item, but over a longer term, break it into smaller bite-sized tasks and tackle it over time, before it becomes an urgent problem. For things that are non-urgent and low risk, forget about them! Go through this exercise at least once a month or at the beginning of a large project.

You will be surprised that many of your fears and worries really low risk or things that you are really powerless to change.

How it works

Risks that have not been identified, quantified, and when necessary, actioned, create debilitating fear, and debilitating fear will turn into obsessive worry. This a natural phenomena that all of us humans experience and it’s a normal physiological response mechanism.

This technique works because you start with the often irrational worries, which are easy to identify. Then you pinpoint the real risks that can be addressed in a sensible manner. Going the other way, i.e. starting by identifying risks fist, doesn’t work as well because you really have no sense of prioritization or weighting. It’s kind of like packing your bags before you know where you’re going.

The technique works particularly well for teams. When you’re first starting a challenging project everyone has worries, but not everyone will express their worries because they may feel it’s a sign of weakness. Getting everyone to express their worries and fears helps to identify and prioritize the real risks and put actions in place to mitigate those risks. The key is never to criticize anyone (including yourself) for expressing their worries; they are real and founded. They just need to be quantified and actioned appropriately.

From my observations, the most successful people and teams not only identify risks early on and do something about them, but they also have a sense for things that they really have no control over in the immediate sense and decide conscientiously not to deal with until truly necessary. They are able to separate important and likely risks from non-important and unlikely risks and better able to execute and tackle long term goals.

Great, but what does this have to do with doing the “impossible”?

This technique can literally be applied to anything. Fear of failure is the #1 reason people don’t start something new (and risky). Whether it’s improving an existing company, starting a new company, cycling across Canada, changing your career, or landing a robot on the surface of the moon. Until you rationalize your fears it will never happen.

What’s keeping you from starting something new (and risky)? What’s keeping you from pushing your boundaries? Are you worried you’re not skilled enough? Are you worried you don’t have time? Are you worried your idea is not good enough? Each of these worries are just that: worries. You can learn. You can find the time or join a team. You can validate your idea.

One thing for sure, no one ever gets anything done by worrying, right?

Chris

Back from my Cycling Trip with New Ideas About Starting Things

June 20, 2012

Chris Schmitt

I returned from my cross-Canada cycling trip on Saturday, June 16th, in one piece, with all body parts still connected and no tire marks across my back. It was an astounding trip with two-thirds of the distance getting completed in the last half of the trip. You can read about it here.

I learned a lot of things about this great country, but there’s one that I want to share with you that specifically ties into the start-up world: you can’t begin any new project or enterprise with even the slightest expectation that you’re going to fail.

I’m not saying you foolishly go ahead with something as big as starting your own company without being prepared, or assessing the risks. What I’m saying is you start by envisioning what you want by assuming that you can’t possibly fail.

This isn’t something that’s easy to do. It’s been drilled into our heads since early school years that we must expect to fail. Every newspaper article or popular TV show is about people that fail. That’s what makes news afterall. It’s hard to find stories about people that were successful, and even when you find one, someone will be quick to point out why that couldn’t be you.

But for one moment, try this: you can do something and you will not fail. What comes to mind? For me, it was going on a 6 week cross-Canada cycling trip. It was something I has always wanted to do. Of course there were lots of challenges but in the end I did it.

Back to start-ups.

If you knew you could not fail at creating a start-up what would it look like? Would it be a “one-man” show or would you employ hundreds of people? Would if be a life-style business, one that would allow you to live anywhere in the world, take vacations when you want, perhaps supplement your current income or would it be an all out, go big or go home kind of venture? Maybe it’s the next Facebook? What kind of business would it be? One that requires you to interface with real people, selling door-to-door or one where there’s little interaction and everything is automated?

All of these are possible and neither is right or wrong. It depends on what you want and you need to figure that out beforehand. Maybe you really don’t want to start you own business. Maybe something else comes to mind, and that’s ok too.

Once you’ve envisioned what it is that you want, and it’s something that makes your heart beat a little faster and it’s something that gives you butterflies in your stomach, then it’s time to identify your fears. What are you afraid about that would keep you from attaining your goal? List them down. Then start thinking about how to overcome those fears.

Some of your fears will be unwarranted; they’re in your head and aren’t real. Some of your fears will be warranted, and that’s stuff you need to get to work at. Like making sure you have a good idea, one that has true value that customers would pay for. Do you have the time and the skills? If not, how do you get them? Make a plan and set a time limit. Of course, all of these things can be overcome, as they have for thousands of years by entrepreneurs just like yourself.

Everyone you know will tell you what you’re trying to do is going to be hard, if not impossible. Many will say it’s been tried before and they failed. People love to give advice, even if they have no personal experience. Thank everyone for their input and get back to your list of things you’re worried about, the valid ones that need to be addressed. And when people tell you to “fail fast” or “start with failure in mind” politely tell them to go to hell. No one ever accomplished anything worthwhile by starting with the notion they were going to fail.

Try this little exercise. It doesn’t hurt a bit. What possibilities do you envision? How will you make your dream a reality?

The next TeamCamp is tomorrow, June 21st at 6pm and The Code Factory. Hope to see you there. RSVP here.

- Chris

Why you haven’t heard from me in awhile…

May 1, 2012

Chris Schmitt

Update: I now have a blog for my cycling trip: CyclingAcrossCanada.org.

This Saturday, May 5th, I’m taking a 1-way flight to Vancouver, returning home by bicycle. It’s going to take me 6 weeks to get to Toronto where my employer, Allstream, is located.

This is a life long dream for me, one I was beginning to give up hope on. My love, Vicki, convinced me that there’s no better time then the present. She has supported me all the way: giving me the time to train, helping me to plan the trip, and giving that extra push whenever I start having second thoughts (6 weeks is along time to be alone and away from home). Now here I am, just 5 days away, packed and ready to go. I still can’t believe it. It is a dream come true.

I’m very excited about re-starting TeamCamp when I get back. When I’m on my bike my mind flourishes with new ideas and new approaches. I’m looking forward to doing some fun and interested things things with our small but energetic TeamCamp group when I get back.

For, your information, the next general TeamCamp meeting will be on June 21st. RSVP on Meetup here.  I don’t have a theme for our next meeting yet but I have a feeling we’ll have a lot to talk about.

Thank you all, for supporting TeamCamp over the years. I look forward to seeing you on my return.

Pitching Your Idea

February 24, 2012

Chris Schmitt

I love the video Viafoura has created for pitching their idea. They use a classic approach that you can use for your own pitches:

  1. The problem – What problem does your service solve from your customer’s perspective? (Digital publishers premium content is been used to build social media communities on someone else’s platform)
  2. The solution – How does your service solve this problem? (Viafoura helps digital publishers create the same sense of community that users find compelling on social media platforms)
  3. Features - What are the technology attributes of your solution that solve this problem? (Conversation widgets, curation widgets and reward mechanics)
  4. Benefits - What are the benefits of using your service? (Increased customer loyalty – more page views, longer tome spent on the site, more return visits – leading to more revenue)

You can use this same methodology to pitch your idea:

“Our customer’s _______ (problem) will be solved by our ______ (solution) because of our _____________ (technology attributes) which leads to  ___________ (benefits)” (fill in the blanks)”

For example,

Digital publishers premium content is been used to build social media communities on someone else’s platform. Viafoura helps digital publishes create the same sense of community that users find so compelling on social media platforms through the use of conversation widgets, curation widgets and reward mechanics. The use of our Viafoura will increase customer loyalty: more page views, longer time spent on your site, and more return visits leading to increased revenue.

Get this pitch right and it should lead to more questions, like, what the heck is “reward mechanics”. But that’s what you want: more questions.

If you want you embellish your pitch even more, consider how you could add “proof points”, i.e. examples of how your solution (or maybe someone else’s solution in a similar context) actually produced the benefits described in your pitch.

Got an idea? Try to express it in the format above. The process will help you to flesh out your idea.

Next up: taking this one step further by structuring a hypothesis for your lean start-up.

- Chris

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