Under the Radar

Under the Radar 35: Ideas


  welcome to under the radar a show about

  independent iOS app development I'm

  Marco Arment and I'm David Smith under

  the radar is never longer than 30

  minutes so let's get started so today we

  wanted to talk about us something that

  is relevant for this time of year

  insofar as coming out of WDC looking

  forward to this fall when all of these

  new technologies all these new platforms

  are you know certainly going to be

  released this is usually a good time to

  think about building something new too

  you know to build a new app to explore

  something whatever that may be and the

  first step in starting a project like

  that in diving into building something

  is of course coming up with the idea for

  what that thing is ideas are a funny

  thing I think a lot of people put a bit

  too much weight on ideas that you can

  kind of it's like you have the concept

  of like oh yeah I'm you I'm just the

  idea guy kind of a mindset like there

  that the idea in and of itself is an

  important and valuable thing and while

  the idea is useful and an essential part

  of building something by and large the

  idea for exactly what you actually are

  doing is is less important and what you

  need to do those whenever you're you

  have an idea you haven't I think thought

  of you know I'm gonna do this I'm gonna

  build an app that does X at least I

  found it's important to have a way to

  look at that and say is this worth doing

  how can I characterize this idea and

  understand if it's worth pursuing and

  partly what I think we're gonna unpack

  today is about how Muir's ago I did an

  episode of my previous podcast

  developing perspective or I kind of

  unpacked this and I came up with a

  framework there that I think is a

  helpful way to think about this and I

  think it's still very relevant and

  socially we can kind of update the ideas

  in it but essentially and I think about

  ideas it's to understand that like

  conceptually an idea is either easy or

  hard to do in terms of to implement like

  we have this concept of I wanted to do

  something is that is that a trivial

  thing to do or is it a really hard thing

  to do and then some ideas have a very

  high reward potential and some ideas

  have a very low reward potential and so

  you end up when you you know you

  we have two axes and these sort of

  mutually exclusive directions and so you

  have the perfect like you know like

  business journal concept of like now we

  have four quadrants and we can think

  about our idea in those four quadrants

  because there's some interesting

  characteristics of taking an idea and

  thinking of it in that way like is this

  easy high-reward is this easy low reward

  hard low reward or hard high reward and

  if you can't think of an idea through

  that way you're gonna potentially

  struggle to know if it's a good idea to

  pursue so before we dive into that

  thought I was curious if Marco if you

  have ever when you have an idea of to

  start something like when you were

  thinking of building overcast or when

  you were thinking of building Instapaper

  or the magazine or any of your sort of

  the products that you went all Tamiya

  to build when you had the idea did you

  think concretely about it before you

  start it or did you just get started at

  that time for for almost everything I've

  done I've just gotten started on it it's

  it's only been fairly recent in my life

  and career that I've started actually

  trying to evaluate these things in a

  more objective and honest way before I

  just dive in and and devote months or

  years to to doing them because it's you

  know evaluating your own ideas is really

  hard and especially for you know for

  people like us who like to build things

  and who get pleasure out of building

  things it is so easy and so tempting to

  just jump in and start doing it and

  often you know and often you know that

  is that works out well for a lot of

  people but there's also a lot of times

  where it doesn't because fundamentally

  there were some kind of disagreement

  between how valuable the idea was in

  your head and how valuable the market

  decides that it is at once once you put

  it out there and it's you know I don't

  know if you can really develop that

  skill to be able to evaluate your idea

  early and and that's part of the

  justification for doing like a Minimum

  Viable Product early where like rather

  than you know having having some grand

  idea that you think about for years and

  you are waiting for someone to come

  along and I don't know pay you a million

  dollars for your idea or something which

  never happens by the way

  I can do a quick diversion right now on

  the value of ideas by themselves and

  basically any app developer I mean most

  of our audience has probably been

  pitched somebody's terrible idea before

  and you know that they they're like oh I

  have this great idea it's a secret

  though you gotta promise not to steal it

  or actually sometimes it'll make you

  sign an NDA before they'll tell you

  their idea or they will have patented

  their idea or they will think they are

  patenting their idea even though they've

  only maybe just applied for one or are

  thinking about applying for one and all

  of these common failings reflect a and

  overvaluation of ideas by a lot of

  people and the reality is these days

  when people ask me to you know sign an

  NDA your agree to keep their idea secret

  before the Telamon theater I just say no

  thanks because what has happened over

  the last I don't know 10 years the

  people in pitching me to terrible ideas

  is I haven't I have literally never

  heard an idea from somebody that was

  worth agreeing to any kind of terms to

  hear the idea it has never happened not

  a single time and and the main problem

  people have is like you know the the

  reason why their idea doesn't exist or

  that they know that it does exist and

  they just haven't heard of the product

  is so often because it's a bad idea or

  because it's impossible or because the

  market doesn't care and or you know the

  more like the cases that these things do

  exist and they just didn't notice or

  they didn't find the one that existed or

  it's something or it did exist but it

  failed on it went away and that's also

  something worth knowing so the the

  actual value of the raw idea it is very

  very hard for people to to honestly get

  that so as I was saying earlier there is

  some value in trying to get something

  out there quickly in a minimal way that

  will let the market then tell you

  whether your idea is good or not but a

  lot of times that just isn't possible or

  the the the barrier between zero and

  Minimum Viable products is just too high

  to to be able to take a big risk on

  before you have some idea of how good an

  idea is so you do have to at some point

  to help the skill of evaluating whether

  your idea is

  actually worth doing or not and I mean

  the easiest way to do that is to just

  look at the market look at similar

  things because I mean if nothing has

  ever been done like that before

  again chances are you're just not

  finding it

  but if truly nothing is ever badonk that

  don't that before try to find something

  that's at least close or at least

  similar in some way find some kind of

  guidance in the market already to see

  like what might the reward for this

  actually be and and be honest with

  yourself about that - you know like I

  mean I mean you're probably the master

  of this because you have released so

  many apps you have more experience than

  anybody I know in putting out an idea

  and seeing how it does in the market I

  mean how do you how do you address this

  so I think the thing that I've come to

  learn over the years of shipping lots

  and lots and lots of apps is the degree

  to which while that the idea itself

  doesn't really doesn't really matter

  ultimately and by that I mean like there

  are many very successful apps in the App

  Store that don't do anything novel at

  least like ostensibly like they are a

  to-do list app they are a weather app so

  like I you know like I've made a weather

  app which is one of the most kind of

  absurd things to do in many ways because

  all I had it's like I'm going into a

  category where there's an actual like

  top-level category in the App Store

  saying this is a category of apps like

  there isn't a to-do list category like

  they all have to get you know shoehorned

  into utilities but with weather apps

  like there was an actual place in the

  App Store that says like here's all of

  the weather apps with the implication

  that there are a lot of them and there

  are and they're all displaying what is

  functionally the same thing they're just

  displaying it in a different way and so

  why did I make him a weather app and

  it's like the idea I had for check the

  weather the app I'm talking about it was

  like a very basic kind of concept of

  like I wanted to be able to fly swipe

  left and right to see the hourly view

  and the daily view and swipe up to get a

  radar view that was the only sort of

  concept that I had before I started

  which as a like if that's if that's all

  I have is my idea is a pretty weak thing

  like that's not something that you would

  imagine it's going to like set the world

  on fire and it's so easy to have an

  arranged this sometimes with people who

  get frustrated with they say oh I wish I

  was India I just don't have a good idea

  like you don't really need an idea so

  much as you just need the willingness to

  build something and then in in this is

  where gets a bit awkward sometimes from

  a developer's perspective it's like you

  have to work out not so much what if

  your idea is valuable so much as a said

  can you sell whatever you it is your

  building like at the end of the day is

  there enough that's slightly different

  in whatever it is you're building that

  is going to get the people's attention

  and you know how to have a little hook

  because that's ultimately more what

  you're selling probably than the idea

  like if you really did come up with a

  truly revolutionary novel idea that no

  one has ever thought of or thinker

  imagined before like wow that's awesome

  like good on you you know you deserve

  your accolades your Nobel Prize like

  that's great but more likely than not if

  you're making an app for the App Store

  it's not that like the things that are

  these weird out of the blue run away

  successes tend to be more like random

  like I almost imagine like the idea for

  flappy bird right like I doubt the

  developer for that sat down and said oh

  I have this great genius idea like this

  bird that jumps up and down and then

  runs into pipes and like this is gonna

  be it and I could turned out that was

  huge I don't think you could have

  characterized that as happen it being

  huge ahead of time and so well I think

  there's there's some amount of being

  able to you to think about it it's so

  important as like as a developer to

  focus on the thing that is going to be

  important isn't so much the idea like

  you can have it the worst idea but you

  know ingeniously implemented and be more

  successful than the best idea poorly

  implemented and so when I go through and

  I'm thinking about what do I we know is

  it do I want to build something it's

  usually either you know is this


  that I like it's it's you know it

  scratches my own itch which is usually a

  great place to start for an idea that

  you have like rather than trying to

  imagine a concept that some took far-off

  somewhere that like I think people who

  do this activity that I'm not really

  related to to or you know think about

  will do and trying to like project

  yourself into that to make some things

  like make something that makes sense to

  you haven't I haven't think about the

  ideas that you have for products or

  things that are close and relevant to

  you that's scratching it and you are

  doing something in a way that you want

  because at the very least you'll

  understand it and then once you have

  those types of ideas like you just just

  like build it and you know this is

  certainly the like you call it a Minimum

  Viable Product or you could just call it

  like not getting too stuck in the weeds

  but a lot of the way that I've ended up

  building things is I worry too I worry a

  lot less about if it's a good idea and

  maybe a better question is is that you

  know could I make a good version of

  whatever it is unbuilding like I have a

  lot of my ideas for games for example

  like I have I mean I have a big my how

  many focus lists I have this big list of

  things that I have an app idea I put it

  in there

  and I've been doing this for years and

  there's a lot of junk in there there's a

  few things that went on subsequently

  like other people sort of implemented

  the idea that I had had and we're

  successful with it which is always kind

  of a funny feeling and I think that is

  where a lot of people's kind of

  secretiveness about things or things can

  come from that feeling of like oh man

  someone else did what I you know did my

  idea it's like well that's simultaneous

  invention this is just the way it always

  happens yeah all the time all the time

  like you're not as special as you think

  you are when you have your novel idea

  but mostly like I would could like have

  great ideas for games but I don't know

  how to build a game and I don't really

  want to learn how to do that and I don't

  think that'd be a constructive use of my

  time and so I don't build those things

  and that's okay like those are

  potentially good ideas but I would have

  terrible execution for them so there's

  no point of me pursuing those ideas we

  want to make sense for me to do and this

  is the advice I usually give yeah many

  people are kind of asking

  subs questions it's like what do you

  think you could make a good version of

  like what are you an expert in what is a

  topic that you know more about than most

  other people and there may not be a

  martyr like a business case or a market

  there which would be unfortunate like

  ideally you have this great expertise in

  an area that is relevant to a lot of

  people but if you either way that's a

  great place to start what do you think

  about you know is this idea like could I

  build a good version of this like do you

  understand it could you you know do you

  use it a lot like I might like the

  imagine part of why you made overcast

  because you listened to a lot of

  podcasts and so you have a lot of

  opinions you have a lot of ideas that

  are not the the big idea and maybe

  that's multum Utley where I'm heading

  with this line of thought is the the big


  like the thing that you would like pitch

  somebody they're like it's like uber but

  for dogs okay that version of the idea

  what you're trying to like boil it down

  that's not the important part like the

  important part is the teeny little

  details that you're going to it will go

  into actually building that product that

  will make it a success or a failure like

  those are the parts the little choices

  that you're gonna make which you

  probably aren't even thinking about when

  you start off with like the grand idea

  and so the quicker that you can get to a

  point that you can say like okay do I

  have a good ideas way down at that basic

  tactical level for what's what am i

  doing that's different or interesting

  you know which problem is my actually

  solving like that's where the really

  interesting work will that will happen

  and the sooner you can get to there the

  better exactly there's so much like

  fretting and focusing and anxiety about

  people's ideas but it really does not

  like the idea matter so little or in

  many cases is so impossible to actually

  do like just doing something doing

  something boring well is way more

  valuable in general and then doing some

  crazy awesome idea and and a little tip

  here if your idea begins with it's like

  X but for Y if X is something worth a

  dollars or more just don't even do that

  idea because people will just like that

  means that that thing is so big that why

  people will just use X for that thing

  it's just not worth it also there's also

  like significant scale issues of like

  you know saying something you know

  something like like your example it's

  it's like uber for dogs like you know

  how much is involved in starting a

  company like uber

  it's like immense scale here that it's

  it's so much easier to to do things that

  are within the scope of what one person

  or a very small company can do and so

  many ideas are based on what you see

  like in the consumer or web and the

  consumer app world but those companies

  built themselves up to that over years

  and usually with millions and millions

  of dollars in funding and with very

  large staffs and also with a lot of luck

  and timing that that you probably won't

  have so it's important to contextualize

  your ideas to like just in in time and

  in scale you know like you can't build a

  new Facebook today because Facebook is

  Facebook and Facebook built Facebook 10

  years ago 15 years ago like a it's a

  different time now and so whatever the

  big idea is going to be that you can

  start as one person today is not

  probably going to resemble a billion

  plus dollar company that exists already

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  and all of real AFM I wanted to talk


  something that has bitten me before and

  that I think a lot of people don't think

  about which is so you know we just

  finished talking about how you should

  you know keep in mind your scale as one

  person or as as you know maybe maybe you

  have a partner to try and make an app

  with you but chances are you're like

  between one and three people and you

  might you might also be doing this

  part-time while you still work a

  full-time job to pay the bills so the

  scale of what you can do is of course

  limited compared to what somebody like

  Facebook could do for exams for example

  and you mentioned earlier you know like

  how you view ideas for games and I do

  too and I don't make the games that I

  have ideas for for most of the same

  reasons you don't meet to give you have

  ideas for that we don't know how to make

  games in my case I barely even play

  games and I might have an idea for a

  decent game that sounds like a good idea

  but there's a very big difference

  between the idea and being able to make

  a fun game and then being able to make a

  fun game that's successful and one of

  the problems even if you are one of the

  lucky few who can make a fun successful

  game a lot of times this the people who

  do this are bitten by a failure to plan

  ahead for what happens next

  or at least they're surprised what

  happens next and in a bad way when

  you're planning an app when you're

  thinking of an idea when you're choosing

  what to do also consider the end game

  how does this story end if you succeed

  right because you know you can you

  you're probably focused on getting from

  the present day to the launch day and

  what what can you possibly do to make

  this thing succeed or to make this thing

  good and make people like this thing but

  then think about - what happens if you

  do succeed does that put you in a place

  that you want to be and does this put

  you in a business that you want to

  operate so for example you launch you

  launch some kind of big game based on or

  some kind of fun game based on a really

  good idea that you had what happens in

  the App Store - good ideas they get

  copied I think they get copied quickly

  and brutally and thoroughly and

  shamelessly copy I mean they the the

  degree of copying the app store

  especially in games is is just brutal

  what happens if you have this great idea

  for a game you can put it out there you

  can even try to patent it or trademark

  it and try try to protect it on some

  level but your protections won't really

  work in the grand scheme of things and

  what if you have a good idea if your

  idea succeeds at all it'll be copied

  immediately so what would you do you

  know if you if you release this thing

  like are you planning for that or are

  you aware that's going to happen are you

  okay with that happening what happens if

  it does happen can your business survive

  will your will your projections about

  what this might bring in be changed if

  somebody else comes out with the same

  thing for free you know if you're

  charging something for yours or if

  they're just succeeds more you know like

  that you can you can look at things like

  threes in 2048 and like there's so many

  examples of this where like a big game

  comes out but then somebody else comes

  out or many people come out with like a

  free version that is similar even if it

  isn't exactly the same it could be it

  could just be similar and that version

  gets way more attention because it was

  free or because it just it caught on

  better or something else so you have to

  plan for the immediate future of your

  app of like what happens a month later

  two months later a year later and you

  also have to plan for what happens if

  this succeeds on an ongoing basis then

  what kind of business am I in and what

  kind of involvement does that require

  what kind of overhead does that require

  and in something I want to do and this

  is something I failed at in the past

  with the magazine in particular where I

  was so focused on building the app

  building the magazine's app and building

  like the technical side of it and the

  reading experience that I really didn't

  put enough thought into what happens if

  this succeeds then then I have to put

  out a magazine issue every two weeks

  forever like that's a lot of work I have

  to be an editor I have to deal with

  writers I have to deal with people's

  pitches and and I have to you know deal

  with payments and processing and editing

  and rights management and all so much

  stuff it's like that's a lot of work and

  I have no experience doing that and I do

  I really want to be obligated every two

  weeks to be putting out like a big book

  block of content and the answer of

  course was no this similarly happened to

  me on a much

  shorter but more intense timescale with

  peace my AdBlocker from last summer

  which is you know I I released this app

  thinking that it would kind of fly under

  the radar thing and thinking that it

  would kind of you know be a moderate

  success maybe you know maybe have a few

  tens of thousands of users at most which

  would be a great success for most apps

  and and that would be and I would just

  kind of you know let it kind of run and

  put it in low maintenance mode and

  forget about it because it wouldn't need

  much maintenance allegedly and I I found

  out very quickly first of all that that

  piece succeeded beyond my wildest


  it was it shot up to the top of the

  charts and it was bring in good money

  but it was also bringing a lot of

  negative attention and exposure to

  possible lawsuits and reputation damage

  and all sorts of problems that was

  bringing with me because it turns out

  the ad blocking business is just really

  messy and however you fall on the on the

  politics of that it is a messy business

  to be in and I I didn't quite foresee

  that or think about that enough before I

  did it

  and it turned out I hated being in that

  position it was it was like really

  really ruining things for me in a lot of

  ways just mostly like I couldn't take

  the stress of it and and I was it was it

  was a bad scene so I I hadn't properly

  thought through like is this the

  business I really want to be in if this

  succeeds and I now as I think about

  current and future projects that I do

  now I think a lot more about that also

  which is like you know so for so much of

  my career I was worried about what

  happened you know how would this thing

  fail and and why would it fail and can I

  prevent it from failing but you also

  have to think about if it succeeds is

  that even where you want to go yeah and

  I think there's so much of this to of

  there's this I definitely run into this

  too and in many ways this is a problem

  that I do I think I have I deal with it

  from a similar problem but from a

  different direction where I like the

  thing that I don't keep into a take into

  account typically

  is that if I build a product and put out

  in the store people are gonna expect it

  to be updated and and supported and

  supported and like that's a perfectly

  reasonable thing and I very like a

  couple years ago I started to realize

  like I've gone through this pattern of

  the mirror I have an idea I built it I

  put it into the app store so many times

  that the number of apps and things that

  I am responsible for is there's too much

  like it's kind of mind-bending that's

  like sometimes I'll you know get a

  customer support email for an app and

  I'm like what happens this did I build

  this like even I forgot about this

  like and that's not good like this is

  but I definitely ran into that same

  problem and so as a result I am much

  more careful about committing to a

  project and heading down that road than

  I used to be like I can imagine like

  past past me what if it looked at this

  fall and been like oh man look at all

  this crazy stuff we can do in messaging

  like I need to have like 10 sticker

  packs on day one I need to have any kind

  of thing I could ever possibly imagine

  for iMessage like just throw sort of

  like throw all the spaghetti at the wall

  and see what sticks and maybe that sort

  of works like there's something to it

  it's a viable way to sort of test out a

  market in in some ways but the

  difficulty is making sure that you're

  comfortable with what that looks like if

  more things stick then you actually are

  thinking will stick and being sure that

  you're gay like you're saying getting

  into businesses that you like because I

  think this is a such an easy thing to

  like it's so easy to underestimate the

  difficulty of success because you it's

  so easy to just think of success as the

  like it's it's the dancing in the meadow

  with oh yeah it's like it's great every

  everything just this is exactly what I

  wanted like it's it's popular it's been

  well respected it's bringing in money

  like what could be wrong it's like well

  depending on why it's succeeding or what

  it is or the time amount of time and

  effort that it took for it to succeed

  you may not actually like that like I

  think of

  two of I had the idea when a while a

  while back that I wanted to was like you

  know I think I could make a really cool

  feed reader this was even before Google

  Reader announced that they were gonna

  close and then started working on it and

  then Google Reader and Island State

  they're gonna close and I was like great

  this is perfect like I've been working

  on this project and now there's this

  great marketing opportunity so I went

  for it like I made feed Wrangler and

  well I wouldn't say that I regret making

  feed Wrangler and it like it's still

  ongoing to this day like it's been a

  successful product for me there was a

  period where I'd had no idea what it

  would mean to actually like have a web

  service that's you know at any amount in

  any appreciable scale and so I spent the

  better part of you know a few months

  like hardly sleeping hardly seeing my

  family like constantly dealing with

  server fires and scaling issues and like

  that's great insofar as like I released

  it and people liked it and so it was

  successful but I wasn't prepared for

  that success and so in many ways that

  would probably have a great idea and I

  think ultimately a lot of these things

  kind of in my mind they feed back into

  this part of me that's it's like the the

  classic like a fear of missing out kind

  of a mindset where when I think of say

  even feed Wrangler like yeah at the time

  I had such this anxiety about well I

  have the ability to do this and I could

  do it and if I don't like someone else

  will and they may be really successful

  and like the fear of missing that

  opportunity may clouded my judgment as

  to what I was actually getting involved

  in and I think that is a pattern that

  happens you know more often than we

  wished it did where it's easy to focus

  on like like somebody is like somebody

  this fall is gonna make a sticker pack

  that's gonna make thousands of dollars

  almost certainly like just look at the

  top paid list in the App Store and kind

  of it blows my mind a little bit like

  the things that are making lots of money

  in the App Store these days like the App

  Store is a weird place but that's the

  topic for another day but just because

  that's maybe true it doesn't mean that I

  want to get into that business and be

  chasing whatever it's going to be

  successful there I need to be

  comfortable saying you know what I'm

  gonna miss out I'm gonna choose to miss

  out on that potential opportunity and

  focus on something a business that I

  want to be in a business that I think

  isn't just a good idea but it's an idea

  that I want to live with going forward

  and can see myself being in this

  industry you know being in a bit like

  right now I make health and fitness apps

  and I love making health and fitness

  apps like that's my focus and I can see

  being in that focus for a you know

  forever because it's rewarding it's fun

  it's personal it's great like that's the

  way that I can look at these ideas and

  say are they worth doing can I live with

  it you know for the rest of my life is

  sensibly are these for the rest of my

  career and that's what I didn't do with

  peace and now I've learned there you go

  good learning experience

  alright we're out of time this week

  thanks for listening everybody and we

  will talk to you next week