Byproduct

Tobi Lütke (@tobi) is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Shopify. In 2004, Tobi began building software to launch an online snowboard store called Snowdevil. It quickly became obvious that the software was more valuable than the snowboards, so Tobi and his founding team launched the Shopify platform in 2006. He has served as CEO since 2008 at the company’s headquarters in Ottawa, Canada.

Intro to Tim Ferris Show Ep. 359

Incredibly useful things are often the product of doing something else:

  • WD-40 was first intended as a water-displacement compound to protect missiles from corrosion
  • Twitter started life as an internal messaging service at a podcasting company
  • CMOS censors – the camera on a chip that are used in most digital cameras today – was developed by NASA as they tried to shrink cameras for interplanetary travel (but they didn’t invent velcro)
  • Amazon Web Services (which probably runs a lot of the websites you use) grew out of Amazon’s own internal systems

There are thousands more – share yours and I’ll add them to the list.

This is personal

We’ve experienced this first hand at the literacy charity I work for. The levelled early-reading books that we developed for use within our own program turned out to be a scarce and valuable resource in Indonesia – so now we part-fund the program by supplying these to others… and our books have improved as a result.

The point

There are several points here.

  1. Serendipity plays a huge role in everything – some of these are intentional, but many are lucky mistakes…
  2. But serendipity happens to people who are doing things. Start now and start small. (We started selling our books after a chance meeting with someone from another organisation – but we did have the books).
  3. It seems to happen often to people who make a tool that meets their own need. This is partly because we make better dishes when we eat our own cooking. Tools are usually more easily repurposed by others (e.g. the development of clinical ultrasound) than products to be consumed.
  4. Tools to make tools (as in the case of shopify) have even more potential.
  5. Tools usually get better – more refined – when they find a market.

To do

  1. Business Model Generation (amazon link) is a great jumping-off point for thinking about this. Either start with these short clips, or this in-depth video.
  2. Look at your organisation (or yourself), and see where, in the process of doing what you do, you’ve made something (a tool, including documents and processes) that could be useful to other people.
  3. Ask how you could be generous with it – share it freely or for the price that makes it possible to share it again…
  4. Think about the wrapper – would people welcome training and support to use it well? How could sharing it improve it – would open source or creative commons licencing help?
  5. The next time you make a new tool or process, consider documenting how you did it, and the standards that you’re working towards. This will make your work better, and might result in something else that’s useful to others.

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