Ideas about ideas

On rare occasions, I get asked: What’s an interesting problem to work on? Or like: I want to start up but I don’t know how to go about applying myself. When I quit FactorDaily, the media company we started, I asked myself this question. What's a good problem to pick?

Finding your calling, or THE problem you want to spend 12-hour workdays on, in many cases, is serendipity. A happy fudge of luck, right place, right time and your expertise coming together.

But perhaps there’s a more deliberate approach to it. Can some of it be practice? I spend a lot of time on hypothetical ideas knowing fully well that ideas are cheap and it’s execution that matters. Also, it’s a long journey from idea to product. Still, can you devise a system?

I like to indulge myself every now and then. Sort of how speculative fiction works but not as detailed. Ask, yourself what if?

(Some of you may get this image.)

It goes something like this:

👉Think of an idea, chase it down to the last thread. See if it works on a spreadsheet or in your head.

👉Think of an idea, talk about it to a cynic. Walk them through the steps. Get it shot down step by step.

👉Think about an idea, pitch it to someone with complementary skills. Get them to go on a mental jog with you. See where you get stuck.

But where do ideas come from? Mostly from exposure which in turn comes from slow reading books, meeting new people with considerable expertise in their field, following trends, attending events and sometimes watching serials. You just need to be open to them.

Over a period of time, you’ll get better at pitching, and also coming up with ideas that seem to be more viable. (See our podcast on pitching to VCs.)

So in the last 6 months or so, I came up with a few. To explain the system better, I’m putting down some ideas that came to me and how. Consider this as the enthusiastic 9th grader in me showing you doodles seeking validation of some sort.

⚡️Climate change as a UI/UX problem

Around the time I’d started running (read my practical guide to getting fit), I was grappling with another dilemma: Should I buy a Triumph Street Twin? Or should I use my bicycle to work more often? I felt like I needed to answer the question deeply at that point. The Triumph would set me on a money-chasing, fuel-guzzling, materialistic path. The bicycle would set me on a frugal, fitter path. To my mind, both had pros and cons. Read my piece on career and money for more.

I’ve been raised to be conscious of the environment to a certain degree (no pun intended). So I decided against the Triumph. This set off a train of thoughts around climate change. How can I reduce my carbon footprint? My mind was melding thoughts on climate change and my running experience.

I’d been trying out various fitness apps. They’d start with a question: What’s your weight? I knew exactly how much.

But did I know what my carbon footprint is? I had no idea. No freaking clue.

What if there was an easy way to find out my carbon footprint? Even if it wasn’t accurate to the T, what if I had a number to myself based on some underlying assumptions and measurements. The number could move up or down based on some of my activities (like how activity trackers work). So for instance, if I was taking an Uber to work every day, and one day I decided to pool it, the number should adjust itself. If I took the bicycle to work on a given day instead of a cab, the number could adjust itself.

Integrations with other apps (like how Google Fit does), utilities and so on could make it better over time. If you go on the Google Play store now, none of the carbon footprint apps are serious efforts. None of them have more than 5000 downloads. We have more than 3 billion phones on this planet. Even if 5% of users are able to make a difference, wouldn’t it be substantial? Can we buy carbon credits with the savings and monetize it for the users?

What I’m getting at is, can one of the solutions to climate change be seen as better individual tracking?

⚡️Social capital

Successful people often have systems that they use to leverage social/ network capital. For instance, good businessfolks will never forget to personally wish their most important clients on special occasions. Or invite them to a party. When they meet you next, they’d know where you dropped off last. Most of them spend on a good assistant. Not everyone can afford that.

I use a spreadsheet to keep track of some of the people I like. I try to engage with them every now and then even if they aren’t active on social media.

These days, you have a lot of followers or friends on social media but don’t have meaningful interactions with them. Of they aren't constantly signalling, you tend to lose touch. But is there a way you can put this social capital to work?

Say you’re in New York and the app looks up your Twitter followers and shows you a list of potential meetings? Say your good friend is busy at his new job and isn’t Tweeting or posting on Instagram as often. There’s a good chance you’ll forget to keep in touch. The app shouldn’t let you do that. The occasional prompts, micro-interactions, and so on would lend itself well to product marketing.

🔥Personal CRM is a solved but unsolved problem.

⚡️Privacy for you and me

As a journalist, I’ve found ways to find peoples home address, their phone numbers, names of their family members, phone bills, tax identification numbers and so on. Pretty much everything about you is out there for people like me to find. Rich people go to extraordinary lengths to protect their privacy. For the rest of us, the government affords us some privacy (depending on where you live) but that’s under constant attack too. But why should privacy be the preserve of the rich?

Can there be a solution that helps commoners like us enjoy reasonable privacy? I’d imagined the user experience to be something like this: you get on the app. It asks for some details and goes and trawls the web for you. It brings back a report based on the findings and then gives you an option to scrub it. You can do it by yourself which is a free option. Or get a consultant/ bot to do it for a small fee. The bot will also constantly monitor for leaks and protect your data. Somewhat like enterprise-grade privacy but for you and me. Progressively, the app will automate most of the tracking and scrubbing.

Another way to do this would be a simpler approach. Say you buy a new smart television. You tell the app that you bought it. It tells you how to turn off the camera or voice sharing with remote servers which are usually on by default. A simple, shareable to-do list. Every time there's a hack, your app checks on haveibeenpwnd and the interwebs and alerts you (free marketing too). You also launch a new to-do list when a new product is launched (free marketing).

🔥The virality of this tweet recently is a telling signal that demand for such a solution exists.

I’m squatting on

⚡️Protein Shift

Whenever there’s a shift happening, there are a few big startups to be built. Like when social media happened. Or instant messaging.

I was listening to Marcus Engman, the former head of design of IKEA at our company’s Refresh 19 event in Las Vegas in September. He made a passing reference to protein shift. I was all ears. I went online and did some research. This seems like a massive shift underway. Simply put, the current ways of getting protein are unsustainable— meat-based protein is too expensive. It takes too much energy Newer ways of making protein are emerging (Impossible Burgers?). I thought if I'm a writer (my expertise), what can I do here? Create a magazine on protein shift?!

I’m squatting on Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

⚡️Next shift?

I’m sure there are a few big shifts happening right now and I don’t have a clue about them. That's okay. You can't catch all of them.

But there’s one that caught my attention recently. The Indian government is likely to back a plan to create some kind of a technology platform for logistics. I’m told it will be on the lines of the Unified Payments Interface which made India ground zero for financial tech innovation. The logistics play, which is being dubbed “UPI for logistics,” will be one big shift and we’re likely to see lots of entrepreneurial energy there. How do I know this? I met someone.

So the idea to get an idea is to expose yourself, listen keenly and to mentally spar with someone every now and then.

How do you look at this? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

🔥Recommended Read

Isaac Asimov Asks: How do people get new ideas?