Brass ring

In mid-August Jak and I drove down to visit family in Eugene. It’s a long drive — usually six hours or more, if you travel like we do, with a kiddo in the car and frequent eat-drink-and-pee stops — with stupid levels of traffic through Portland and for the entire 70 miles between North Seattle and Olympia.

Jak prefers to drive, and since it’s hard on my bad knee I’m happy to let him. The price of this, however, is that he wants me to stay awake and talk to him the entire time so he doesn’t fall asleep.

You can cover a lot of ground in six hours of nonstop conversation. We were constrained by the presence of the 10-year-old in the back seat, so the really juicy subjects were off the table, but … well, one of the best parts of this relationship is how after nine years, we still have plenty to say to each other.

Anyway, somewhere in the middle of the drive home, we’re riffing on random stuff vaguely related to my interest in personal finance, and Jak goes into idea mode. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if …?’ (Idea Rat chitters happily.)

My response, as usual — this was before my new perspective on Idea Rat — went like this: ‘No, that wouldn’t work, because …’ (Down comes the MamaCat Paw of Doom.)

And then I thought a few seconds, and added, ‘However … what might work is …’ This happens a lot when we’re talking about the novel(s), where he suggests something and I’m all ‘no no no … but maybe [variation].’ He sometimes sends my brain off in directions I wouldn’t go on my own, but (I think?) the adjusted idea is more solid than what he would get without me.

I’m not being coy with the ellipses, by the way; I genuinely don’t remember what the discarded ideas were, or my objections to them. Like I said, it’s my strategy for coping with too many ideas, to keep nothing in long-term memory that doesn’t pass the Practicality Test.

But that last idea … stuck. I kept thinking about it, hours at a time, for the next several days. I did some research. I went over the same questions again and again, trying to figure out what I was missing.

Because you see, this was a Big Idea. It was a completely-change-your-life kind of idea. And it was passing my filters. All of them.

That has never, ever happened before. I’m almost forty, and I’ve never looked at anything half so ambitious and thought it was not only marginally possible but in fact, reasonably likely to succeed. I’ve done a few Big Things before — like starting the small press with Jak, that was big, but it was based on naive optimism and idealistic enthusiasm, not a practical assessment of success.

See, I had a secondary motive for explaining about my rigorous idea filters: so that when I tell you I believe I’ve had a Really Good Idea, you get some sense of what that means.

I turned this thing around for several days — and if that seems like a short time, consider that I mean I was thinking about it intensely for at least fifteen hours a day — and I came to this conclusion: I could prove this concept with very little upfront financial risk, if I could find a developer to work on it with me. I have about two-thirds of the necessary skillsets, but without a good programmer to handle the backend and database side, the whole thing was a nonstarter.

I tossed off a tweet in passing. To my surprise, someone responded. Two days later, after a four-hour session pitching my idea in intricate detail, I had my starting programmer.

I am being deliberately coy about the nature of the Good Idea for now, because although I want to jump up and down and gush about it to the whole world, that would not be a smart business move at this juncture. We’re building a piece of software. The prototype is starting to come together, at least in the most basic sense; there are roughly a bajillion features in the ‘future’ category. I’m preparing for small group alpha testing in November. (Would like about two or three more people for that, by the way; read this if you’re interested.)

Alongside the ongoing intensive UX design, I am sucking up everything I can about how to create and run a successful startup, specifically the web-app-as-service variety. I’m reading between six and ten books a week. My bookmarks list has exploded. I’m looking up every friend and acquaintance who might know something that can help me and picking their brains.

Two months later, I’ve survived a couple of crises-of-confidence and come out stronger on the other side. I am if anything more excited and convinced that this is doable and we’re on the right track.

It’s all going really well except for the part where it’s going really slowly. Unfortunately (for me — it’s a good thing for him) my dev partner already has a full-time-and-then-some day job, and what with one thing and another can only manage 6-8 hours a week on this. We’d hoped for more, but you know … life. I’m starting to look for a second developer to help out, because indications are that we do not have the luxury of indefinite time-to-market.

But every so often I think about what this would mean in a couple of years if I’m right and we pull this off, and I just boggle. A real company, with employees and offices and profits and attention on a national scale. (Or, in the win-the-lottery scenario, no company but a very large bank account. I’d take that option too.)

For the first time ever, I can see the brass ring. And I’m reaching for it with more determination than I ever imagined I possessed.

Which given how intense I can be? Is saying rather a lot.


  1. 24 Oct 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Can you say what sort of programmer you need, and whether you want someone local? I’m sure that there a bajillion *good* programmers you know or who are friends of your friends, and I can spread the word if you like.

  2. 24 Oct 2009 at 4:51 pm

    The prototype is being built with a LAMP backend and an AJAX/JQuery frontend, so those are the skills I’m looking for in the short term.

    Greater Seattle metro is preferred, but I will consider non-local under some circumstances (personal relationship or glowing referral).

  3. 25 Oct 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I assume you’ve already found Paul Graham’s collection of essays (http://www.paulgraham.com/articles.html), Hacker News (http://news.ycombinator.com/) , and Steve Blank (http://steveblank.com/about/)

  4. 25 Oct 2009 at 11:05 pm

    Yeah, I’ve hoovered up pretty much everything Paul Graham’s written. But I hadn’t found Steve Blank. Will pursue, thanks.

  5. 26 Oct 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Sent off a shout to my two programmer friends in the Seattle area — will see how that goes. Best of luck!

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