Sean Johnson

Build an Intentional Life.

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago, and Apple watch came up. Without thinking I blurted out something I never thought I’d hear myself saying.

“I don’t get the Apple watch.”

As the words left my mouth, I immediately realized my error. I apologized to the team, and told them I never want to hear that from anyone in our office.

The error has nothing to do with the Apple Watch specifically. It’s fine if you or I never become an Apple Watch user. But the error is in refusing to explore it.

I’m terrified of phrases like that infecting our company. If phrases like that become the norm, our company would die. If that kind of thinking became pervasive in my life, I’d be finished.

If you find yourself saying things like that regularly, odds are your career isn’t taking off the way it should.

Creativity Comes From Curiosity

Being innovative is largely a function of having a wide antenna?—?being curious, trying new things, working hard to understand them.

Creativity at it’s core is often nothing more than combining multiple disparate ideas in a new way. It follows that in order to be creative you have to have a lot of inputs.

Dismissing a new technology, refusing to kick the tires of a new product, or choosing not to read about new ideas drastically limits your creative potential, your ability to find those unique connections, your ability to leverage insights from other products or industries to solve a problem you’re currently tackling.

Great Ideas Usually Look Stupid Early On

People are notoriously bad at predicting success. Many of the best startups looked like stupid ideas initially. AirBnb was completely ignored in the beginning. Snapchat was laughed at by non-millenials.

Just because an idea seems stupid to you doesn’t mean it’s stupid to everyone. There’s often a group of people who will find the new idea is the answer to a huge problem of theirs. They become the products early evangelists, helping improve the product, telling everyone they know about it, helping increasingly larger groups of people to become acclimated to the new idea.

Ideas that look silly but are given the opportunity to germinate often become transformative, and sometimes even feel obvious in hindsight. Be careful about writing them off too quickly.

Huge Competitive Advantage Comes From Early Distribution Opportunities

The other argument for trying things relates to distribution. There are huge opportunities to leverage platforms and products if you can figure them out before everyone else.

Andrew Chen talks about the “Law of Shitty Clickthroughs”. A new channel or platform emerges, some smart curious people deconstruct it and figure out how to leverage it to their advantage, and reap tremendous results. Other companies notice, jump in, take advantage, an saturate the platform. Over time, the effectiveness of the platform decreases.

If you aren’t curious and willing to invest some time trying things, the likelihood you’ll identify these opportunities is very low.

Create a Kick The Tires Habit

As an partner of a fund that plays an active role in its investments, it’s even more important for me to have a wide antenna. So I’ve tried to bake it into my life in a more systematic way.

One of the habits I’ve developed is to spend 1 hour a week trying new products. Product Hunt is my primary source for this and it’s organizational structure is perfect for a weekly batched task like this.

Any app that lands at the top of the stack for the day deserves a look, regardless of how silly it seems or how much you understand it. There’s plenty you can learn by doing this:

  • Do they communicate their value proposition in a unique way?
  • Are they doing anything clever with your marketing? With landing pages? With their social strategy?
  • Any clever approaches to onboarding? How effective are they at getting you to the aha moment?
  • Do they deliver their core experience in a unique way?
  • Do they do anything interesting over the weeks following to try to keep you engaged?
  • Do they have novel approaches to driving referral?
  • If they have a revenue model, how do they try to monetize?
  • This hour a week has proven invaluable as we look for ways to help our fund companies get better at what they do.

Don’t Make Statements – Ask Questions

The other thing I try to do is replace statements with questions. Whenever you catch yourself making a statement, particularly one pronouncing judgment or an opinion of a product, try to reframe it as a question instead.

  • Rather than saying “I’d never use this”, ask yourself “Who would use this?”
  • Instead of saying “There’s no way this gets as many users as X”, ask yourself “How many people would love this?”
  • Instead of saying “This will never work”, ask yourself “How could they make this work?”
  • Instead of saying “This seems stupid”, ask yourself “Is there an opportunity here I’m not thinking of?”

It doesn’t matter what you think

It’s natural to use your own life as the litmus test for determining what you think of a product. But you have a limited point of view, and without stepping outside of yourself you short circuit your opportunities for learning.

Try hard to cultivate a bigger antenna. Try new things. Explore new ideas. Dig into them and really kick the tires. And ignore the question of whether you’d use the product yourself, instead asking why other people would.