in order to achieve a great breakthrough, you must be able to suspend disbelief indefinitely

I’d read a Ben Horowitz post from early 2014 called the Can-Do vs Can’t-Do Culture, from which the title of this post is pulled. I remember this post deeply and it makes me constantly check how I am reacting to people’s thoughts and ideas.

I don’t love VCs, but if there is one thing I admire about them, it is the ability to constantly see the potential in every idea despite a job that is also constantly passing judgment on those same ideas. I find it very difficult to keep an open mind and see potential once my mind is in “judging” mode, so I try my best to not ever be in judging mode. So far, I haven’t found any situation that is worse off because of it.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I think judgment is one of the heaviest burdens we carry with us (and I’m very guilty of carrying it as much as everybody else) — judgment of others, of situations, of ideas, of ourselves. It’s so liberating to be able to step away from that and either to just accept something (like a rainbow — do we say “oh, if only it were a little to the left”?) or, even better, to see what that thing hasn’t even realized yet in itself.

I am reminded of this today because it was Launch Day for FIELD 3, where a bunch of HBS students are required to build micro businesses in the span of ~10 weeks with ~$3,500 and 4-5 teammates. The construct is that we judge these ideas as we are (healthily skeptical) investors and must subsequently trade their stock (though I still haven’t figured out where stock returns factor into anything other than momentary pride). It is so easy to get into a completely judging mindset during this entire half day — every idea seems like it’s bound to fail; it’s, in fact, more admired to be able to see the flaws in an idea than to see the potential in it. We are strangely rooting for our classmates’ failure.

But I think it’s much harder to exercise the muscle of where can this idea succeed. To that end, I will now go through the first 6 ideas presented to my section today (next 12 to come in 2 additional batches) and write a few quick notes on where I think one area of potential is (probably amongst many). Also, it’s a common refrain in venture that nothing is worth investing in unless, at scale, it changes culture in a substantive way. So I will also jot down what I think the world can look like in a best case scenario for these ideas. I do this as a selfish exercise to expand my ability to see potential, but I hope as a reader, you get some optimism as well.

  • Itinehurry – 2-3 day, mobile + paper itineraries that include all details from which is the best transportation to use (subway vs walk vs bus vs Uber) to specific tips on restaurants (e.g. expect there to be a wait, so you can go to x bar nearby)
    • Most obvious complaint – not scalable?? content businesses are not typically considered VC-fundable and it seems like many people are in the business of travel content (though travel content is still very valuable because of the high value advertising). barriers to entry??
    • Potential – 1) trend, especially in taste-related areas like travel / food / clothing, to have a healthy balance between crowdsourced “wisdom” and expert-generated advice + 2) trend towards shorter trips + 3) I love Fodor’s (over Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, etc.) because it approximates this level of detail (and because it’s an expert who clearly has done these itineraries him/herself and has CLEAR opinions on what is worthwhile and what is NOT). Fodor’s, however, as far as I know, only has a few mainstream itineraries for each destination, not any themed ones like by culture or food or w/e. This company can grow and eventually get bought out by Fodor’s (if not Lonely Planet, etc.). Sure, it might never raise serious VC funding, but it’s a FUN business to build! Part of your job is that you must TRAVEL to create this content. People die trying to get journalist jobs at travel magazines…barriers to entry = not everybody wants to be in this business + content businesses have “economies of scale”
    • If this goes really well, what does the world look like? – we all have perfect itineraries, including when to start the day (8:43AM), which subway to catch, which dish to order, when is the best time to visit attraction x because it’s least crowded or because that’s when the sun is setting on this particular day. Instant re-routing if there’s something unpredicted like oh it’s raining now…
  • Ansel – DIY custom framing that is the quality of custom framing but has the modularity of colors & styles that also allows for easy swapping out of frames (without feeling like you just wasted $100s) –> want to make swapping out a picture on your wall as easy as changing your desktop background
    • Most obvious complaint – price point too high! Currently at $59/frame. Comparative price point at IKEA is about $12.99
    • Potential – can HBS students not KNOW that price point might be too high? If it is, they will just drive that price point lower or compromise on something else. If the team is solid, they’ll find a way. Custom framing is one of those rarely thought of industries that kind of moseys along undisrupted for a long time. I don’t see why Ansel can’t eventually, with full modularity + customization, allow for frames + matting to be any color. From a design-minded person’s perspective, this is really valuable. There are actually really easy and impactful ways to make a picture pop by calling out a certain color in the matting or frame (it’s like how your blue eyes pop when you wear a blue sweater). They can probably easily expand from this to helping you figure out how to best position those photos, maybe helping you figure out what art looks best in your home, maybe eventually helping out with all aspects of interior decor.
    • If this goes really well, what does the world look like? – custom framing dies, each frame is perfectly crafted for each picture, and changing frames / our home decor is just as easy as changing our desktop or mobile background (which, by the way, I do every 2 weeks, out of boredom).
  •  Watch Party – organizes watch parties at local businesses around sporting events and/or other major broadcasting events such as Game of Thrones; charge a small ticket price and bring additional revenue to businesses + give people a way to organize around things they’re excited about
    • Most obvious complaint – why can’t I just organize a watch party for my friends myself? barriers to entry??
    • Potential – because we’re all lazy? And we’re more willing to pay $5-10 to go to a nice venue, see our friends + some other fans we can meet + get a drink discount thrown in there? People’s laziness can rarely be overestimated. Barriers to entry = it’s a marketplace + social network (if all of your friends you this, you will, too)
    • If this goes really well, what does the world look like? – it’s a better Meetup. People with common interests can come together and in the process solve the problem of local business discovery. Alumni organizations get rejuvenated. All cricket lovers find each other. Everybody ends up becoming closer together, in real life.
  • The Perfect Gift – based on a fun survey about that person (e.g. does this person prefer a beach vacation or a cultural vacation), it will give you a catalog of best gifts for that person; you’ll continually rate it (or your receiver will) and it will get smarter
    • Most obvious complaint – why can’t I just find that gift for you and then go buy it on Amazon for cheaper? do you really think you can create a gift-optimizing recommendation engine??
    • Potential – I think this can become really powerful in a couple of ways. The first is if the recommendation engine ends up becoming more powerful than what a human mind can contain. For example, it’s been reported that after 150 likes, Facebook can predict your behavior better than your parents or friends can. If this recommendation engine can get close to that, that’s really powerful. Maybe to jumpstart that, it builds an interaction that allows the gift receiver to allow access to their FB data. Second, if the selection is unique in any way — things that I have trouble finding on Amazon. Third – even Amazon hasn’t made wishlists very successful. If they can figure out where the human disconnect is there, that can be extremely powerful (you can predict purchases).
    • If this goes really well, what does the world look like? – for acquaintances, I’ll probably still give a bottle of wine. For the 3-5 really close loved ones, I’ll probably still make something + get something that is an inside joke. But for everybody else in between, we’d use this. Maybe Etsy buys them to pair unique selection with perfect recommendations (because, arguably, Etsy has a discoverability problem still).
  • Leverage – aggregates your anonymous credit card data to allow you to get credit for being a good shopper at Nordstrom to get Neiman Marcus deals (since Neiman wants you to become a shopper there, too) — allows Neiman to woo you because now it knows you’re worthwhile when previously it didn’t have the data that you are a good shopper at Nordstrom
    • Most obvious complaint – privacy? is this feasible? are brands interested?
    • Potential – credit card companies/banks are already doing this (e.g. Amex, Paypal). Currently they only have their data. If the customer is willing to hand over data to Leverage, then arguably Leverage has an advantage
    • If this goes really well, what does the world look like? – brands can more perfectly target customers and customers get more deals
  • QdPi – books + experiment kits for girls to get them interested in science. First book is Izzy and the Invisible Ink where there’s a story but the reader also is encouraged to experiment with different formulae for invisible ink. Teaches experimentation as well as the fun things you can do with chemistry.
    • Most obvious complaint – unscalable? content…and physical content too, bah! might be a hits driven business (children’s books). barriers to entry???
    • Potential – HUGE trend towards getting girls into science / math. You will reap HUGE PR benefits. Parents will throw money at problems they perceive their children have without a second thought. If you make the experiment a parent-child activity, it’ll kill two birds with one stone – quality time (which is a constant guilty nagging voice parents hear) AND education. I think it’s smart that they’re making it a series (I hope! will help with barriers to entry). Maybe can be the new American Girl / Barbie.
    • If this goes really well, what does the world look like? – girls everywhere realize their full potential for interest in science. Probably there will be Disney / Pixar movies, all sorts of paraphernalia, maybe a theme park (haha), TV show, etc etc etc

Whew! Okay, till next time.

in order to achieve a great breakthrough, you must be able to suspend disbelief indefinitely