January 6, 2011

My top five strengths: #2, Ideation

About two years ago, I did this thing called Strengths Finder 2.0 at Day Job.  In 2011 I will blog about my top strengths and perhaps about my least strengthful parts of me.

Strength #2:  Ideation
People strong in Ideation are fascinated by ideas and are able to find connections between seemingly disparate phenomena.

I love having this strength because it allows me to tell people, "Hey, I'm just the idea guy.  You figure out how to make it work."

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the 25 years since I graduated high school and all the different things I've done.  Along the way, I came up with or started several business ideas that never got off the ground.  Some were a bit inane, like during the dot-com boom wanting to build an online store to sell men's underwear and socks.  The only viable exit strategy was to sell to a bigger retailer.  I suppose it could have flown after all.  Cheap commodity items that single men need to buy regularly, easy to ship, no fuss about needing to try them on.  But really, who wants to tell people at cocktail parties, "I sell tightie whities over the internet"?  That idea was scrapped early.

My entrepreneur kick started in college, when I took an entrepreneurship class for engineers with my friend Belinda, who affectionately nicknamed the two teachers "Slick" and "Hick," perhaps the two most appropriate nicknames I've ever encountered.  Anyway, our four-person team came up with Chef EARL (Easy Access Recipe Library), a handheld electronic cookbook with--get this--modules you could plug in.  Like Atari game cartridges.  The year was 1989, and not only were the founders of Google still in diapers, but the World Wide Web hadn't even unveiled its www or http yet, and Windows 3.0 on a 286 PC was soon to be state of the art.

Chef EARL was to be the first in a series of electronic hand-held gadgets for consumers and the home.  This was when people were still agog over handheld spell checkers and handheld dictionaries with a single line of text (similar to calculators).  This was cutting edge stuff.  The picture above is a scan of the cover of our business plan.

Of course, we never pursued it and all got jobs after graduation.

Only a few years later, I came up with the nutty idea that the University of California (where I went to college) should--get this--have a web site for their athletic department!  Crazy, I know.  Only a few schools had begun such a zany idea.  No one knew how to make money with it.  But with a new friend Reza, we put together a business plan and proposal.  This was way fun because we got some free tickets and got to pal around with some folks in the athletic department for a while, but ultimately we had not much to offer.  Meanwhile, another company (I think they were called FansOnly at the time) got some venture funding and had signed a few big name schools.  We ultimately advised the athletic department to go with the funded group, which has turned into a big business.  Below is an actual slide from our initial presentation, outlining some of the features.

A few years later, in 1999, my friend Chris and I, after kicking around some ideas, put together a business plan that was one of the finalists in the Haas School of Business business plan competition.  We presented to a theater full of people as well as to a panel of judges.  This helped us get into meetings with a half dozen venture capital companies, which was a real learning experience.

What was the business?  Keep in mind that, in 1999, gift certificates at stores were paper and generally required a manager's signature.  They were treated like cash and could be very easily forged.  If they were tracked at all, they were tracked in a ledger.  Our idea was to build a platform, not unlike VISA, to process gift certificates in stores and online and on the phone.  Essentially, our idea was what today is the gift card industry.  I think we were pretty close to getting some angel financing and had some promising discussions with venture capitalists, but just as we got going two competitors we were tracking announced multimillion dollar venture rounds.  We only had a plan and a mockup at that point (and a corporation), and we decided we did not want to play catch-up, so we dropped out.  (1999 was also the year my second son was born, so time was tight and money was dear.)

Not long after, Chris and I joined with three other friends to found pledgepage.org, which we launched about nine minutes before the dot-com bust happened.  PledgePage was a site dedicated to helping people do fundraising for walks and runs and rides and such.  I used it to help chronicle and track fundraising and training for the Avon Three-Day walk for breast cancer we did in 2000.  Eventually, we realized we were not going to make any revenue with it, and the build-and-flip market had dried up, so we donated PledgePage to a nonprofit called CharityFocus, who is still running it today.  It's had nearly 8,000 people register pages and raise over $3 million, with over 60 million page hits.  During our run with PledgePage, I managed to get us into Red Herring as a Catch of the Day.

What's really interesting, I think, is that I only resurrected my interest in writing after I got out of the startup entrepreneurship game.  I was in small companies until 2001, when I got my current Day Job.  It was about 2002 that turned my ideation toward plots and characters and poetry and away from business plans.  I think it was a good move, though it has yet to play out in the revenue department.

This time, though, I think I'm on the right track.

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