Vision

Ideas are a dime a dozen...

There is a point to this blog post, but I really don’t get to it until towards the end. I have to set up the story first : ) And yeah, it is a long post, so sue me.

When I was young and first introduced to science fiction, it set my imagination on fire and I developed a voracious appetite for reading. Even today, there are few things I enjoy as much as curling up somewhere quiet and reading a book. I’ll read just about anything I can get my hands on, but I particularly enjoy science fiction, especially classic stuff that no one reads any more. Of course the plot lines and the stories themselves were fun and engaging, but what really captivated me was the wondrous sense of what the future could hold. I used to spend hours imagining what it would be like exploring new worlds, traversing through space in a ship, transferring my intelligence into a computer, gaining cybernetics that offered superhuman abilities, teleporting from one place to another, and so much more.

Tron_poster.jpg

TV shows and movies contributed to this as well…Star Trek, Star Wars, Logan’s Run, Buck Rogers, Bladerunner, Dune, This Island Earth, Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, Brainstorm, The Forbidden Planet, Outland, and of course, TRON.

As I grew a bit older, my imaginary adventures matured and I started contemplating how the cool things in the future could be made, how they could be done. What was first wonder, excitement, and anticipation, became an impatient restlessness. I didn’t want to wait…if no one else was going to do it, maybe I needed to be the one to figure this stuff out and make it happen. Still though, I was fairly young and the practical realities of life needed to be dealt with…high school, some college, a job, etc. At some point after working a couple of years (with only one year of college) as a detective for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), I decided that I wanted to make more money and do something that I loved, so I opened up a comic book store with a very good friend of mine.

This was a pretty amazing time as I could not only indulge myself with a huge range of comics in many genres, both mainstream and the edgier independents, but we also did a fair bit with role-playing games, anime, and collectibles. I already had a good bit of a background with RPGs, but my new exposure to anime here was pretty mind opening. It made a lot of western cartoons look like crass junk, and the sophistication of some of the stories rivaled classic literature. Unfortunately though, the industry decided to kill off Superman right as we were nearing the first anniversary of the store, and our business tanked.

This is where things get interesting though. Towards the end here, I met a guy that was a specialist in virtual reality (VR) and he was trying to get a startup off the ground. We featured some of his tech in the store which was awesome, but as we were closing the business, he offered me a job. Holy cow! A job making games for a virtual reality company. I jumped on it. My adventure here, and what happened later is a tale for another day, but getting back to the point of this post, I was suddenly immersed in a real-cutting edge company that was literally trying to invent the future. I discovered Neuromancer and other works by William Gibson. Mind blown.

All of this together made me realize that I wanted to be a technologist, an entrepreneur, and dare I say it, a visionary. Everything suddenly seemed possible and doable. I could find like-minded people, I could write a business plan, I could find investors, and I could build somethingthat no one else had tried or thought of.  Ideas were easy, I had lots of them (and I still do today, tons of em), but something compelling, ambitious, and visionary was the hard part. I could do it though…I had a taste of it with this VR company. As young as I was (early 20s) and without a college education, I was still smart and savvy enough to keep up with people 10 and 15 years more experienced than I was, and still bring innovative and creative thoughts and concepts to the table.

In 1995 I relocated to Raleigh North Carolina (at the time, this was emerging as the “East Coast Silicon Valley) to strike out on my own. We were going to build the world’s first real-time 3D massively multi-user online role-playing game. I was excited, eager, and my passion for it was through the roof (even now, I’m still the same about technology and startups).

I really felt like I was becoming the visionary I so desperately wanted to be when I was a kid. Some people I met got really excited. I was called a pioneer of internet gaming, a technological wunderkind, a genius (I’m smart, but I wouldn’t go that far), and much more. On the other hand, I met tons of people that said things like “PCs can’t do real-time 3D”, “people will never play (or pay) for games on the internet”, “3D virtual worlds are useless and just a fad”, “people won’t be able to understand what an avatar is”, “you are too young to start a company” [Note: no joke. This was in the mid-90’s and I was in my mid 20s.]. The list goes on. The more “practical” types were concerned that I was too “visionary” and had my heads in the cloud about what was possible to do technically and what was conceivable in terms of industry trends and business/revenue models. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to the notion that visionary was a bad word. You can’t be a successful entrepreneur and be a visionary at the same time.

I built a team, brought in some investors, and was in the middle of negotiating an international publishing deal as well as a venture deal, when things blew up. I learned a very hard lesson about people, personalities, and the absolute critical nature of picking the right team. I was shattered and devastated when it all went to hell, but that didn’t stop me from trying again. And again. And again. It is in my blood. I’m pretty sure I’ll be launching another startup when I’m 97. Screw you if you think fundable entrepreneurs can’t be older than 25. You know, after this first horrible experience as a tech startup founder, when I was working on the next company to start, two of my friends actually staged an intervention. My girlfriend threatened to break up with me if I persisted in the ridiculous notion of starting another company, and both she and one of my best friends at the time strongly suggested I get counseling from a therapist. That was a fun conversation.

I had proven then, and a couple of times since, that it is indeed possible to be a visionary, and at the same time be capable of building a team, a product, a company, and getting something to market. Sure, sometimes I am a little early to the show in terms of emerging technologies (virtual reality, mmorpgs, augmented reality, and much more), but that is part of being a visionary and a pioneer, isn’t it?

Even so, at some point somewhere, I betrayed my own ideals and self-confidence, shunning and going out of my way to avoid being labeled a visionary. Sure, when it did happen, I was secretly pleased and happy, but I knew that the label could be a scarlet letter or a brand. In “conventional” wisdom, a so-called visionary or “idea guy” needed some dour grey beard MBA or accountant to be the “adult supervision” or, preferably, the CEO. I couldn’t have it both ways and be able to bring the idea to life in the way that it should be, and at the same time do the other things necessary to fund the company and grow it.

These days (now that my beard has some grey in it) I hear other things from people like “what if someone else does it first?”, “ideas are a dime a dozen”, “that technology is just a fad, people will never use it”, or “that concept is too big, why don’t you just build an app”, and my personal favorite “why don’t you just get a normal job?”.

I’ve been thinking recently about what on one hand feels like a total lack of innovation, creativity, and real vision in the tech industry, or the same in politics (the state of our space program is a national shame in my opinion), while at the same time a sense that there are some glimmers of hope…augmented reality, virtual reality, the internet of things, computer vision, drones, self-driving cars, 3D printing, and so forth. I want to embrace the label of visionary again and go do something amazing, but there are so few people these days willing to take the risk either with their time, or with their investment capital.

This past weekend I was considering all of this and thinking about the difference between a good idea (a dime a dozen, remember) and a real vision, or rather, what makes someone a visionary? I believe that being a visionary isn’t about having a good idea, or even a great idea. Anyone can come up with those. A visionary, in my mind, is someone that not only has a good idea, but also has the ability to see the bigger picture. How do all the puzzle pieces fit together, how to define the roadmap to get there, and the process of how to make it a reality. It has to be realistic and doable.

The idea isn’t enough. A visionary sees beyond that and grasps not only the implications of what can be done but also how it should be done. This is the difference between an idea and a vision. Ideas are easy, vision is hard. The hardest though, is turning vision into reality. That takes an extraordinary amount of sheer force of will, the right team, and funding.

Don’t settle for just an idea. Don’t let people tell you it can’t be done. If you are going to throw your life, your blood, and your soul into a risky endeavor like a startup, make it a good one. Do something worthwhile and big. Why settle for flying kites when you can aim for the moon?

Even as I write that though, I feel like I should balance it with this thought…keep your head in the clouds, but keep your feet on the ground. Having a glorious destination is nice, but if you don’t plan well (and logically) on how to get there, one step at a time, you fail at being a visionary, you are just a dreamer.

Now, go do something awesome.

PS Do me a favor and leave a comment or share this if this post means anything to you or hopefully inspires you to go do something. On the other hand, you could just leave a note if you think I'm a nutcase. Either way, the feedback is appreciated.

Vision and Plan

Vision without Plan is mere daydreaming and avails nothing. Plan without Vision is the definition of aimless mediocrity. Vision with Plan is the essence of greatness and can change the World.

I spend a lot of time thinking ahead, thinking big, and contemplating what is possible. I think that you have to think outside of the box and really push the envelop if you want to accomplish something worthy of effort. People that do so, and match this vision with plans, resources, and effort are usually called visionaries. Our history is littered with these giants that refused to settle for average, mediocre, or the status quo. On the other hand, people that just spin out ideas all day long without doing anything about it are generally derided as lazy daydreamers, or accused of having their heads so far in the clouds they live lives in fantasy and impractibility. Success changes that perception real quick.

As an entrepreneur I am regularly sharing ideas and thoughts with people. I always start with the macro…where is the horizon? How far can we go? What is possible? What is our potential? Then I move on to the micro…how do we get there? What do we need? What are the obstacles to overcome? What is the plan of attack?

This has always worked out well for me. Vision and ambition inspires people, and has magic to “stir men’s blood”. However, many people that I have encountered over the years are either small minded or so trapped in a rut of mundane living with blinders, that they are unwilling to consider new ideas (big or small). They can only see what has been done, time after time, in old and proven models. People like this are a dual edged sword…on one hand, they temper the visionaries and force the writing of plans, methods, and models. They are a necessary backbone to any venture. But on the other hand, they can suck the life out of an idea or vision and turn it into a hollow grey shade of its former vibrant self.

My advice to entrepreneurs is to find people with practical experience and wisdom that share in your passion and zeal for your idea and vision. Learn from them, leverage their experience, and listen to their advice…but the first time you encounter someone that tries to change, diminish, or flat out destroy your goal and excitement, divorce yourself from them quickly.

You would be amazed at how many angel investors and venture capital funds I have shared various ideas and plans with that either entirely missed the point, or flat out dismissed us. One of my favorite examples here happened to me in the early/mid 90s. I was seeking funds for a MMORPG startup in 94/95…we were going to be the first “real-time 3D” massively multiuser online role playing game. A few people laughed at us…”that can’t be done”, “there is no market for that”, “you can’t do real-time 3D graphics on a PC”, “people want to buy games one time, they won’t pay a subscription for it”, “the PC game industry is dead”, “why isn’t microsoft or yahoo doing this?”. You get my point.

The sad thing, is that this is not uncommon. It has happened throughout history. Many of our greatest innovators, inventors, scientists, and great thinkers had to fight with this. Now, what really kills me, is when people with no vision (and only occasionally a plan) find massive amounts of support and funding to do some mediocre, generic, “me too”, or whatever project. The ultimately fail in a miserable fashion. Again, history is littered with examples (do your own google search). The end result of this, is an increased pulling away from big ideas and innovators. If small ideas don’t work, big ones won’t either.

Of course, sometimes small ideas are successful, and this is perceived as an indicator that safe and small is the way to go, when in reality, it is because there is nothing else that is bigger, grander, or more innovative to compete against. I talked about this in my book…if you have bought rotten eggs all your life in the market, you base your judgments and values on rotten eggs. An outsider would determine that rotton eggs are a great business. But imagine that first time someone starts selling fresh eggs! I firmly believe that many industries and sectors out there (especially high-tech, social media, virtual worlds, mmorpgs, etc.) have been suffering from rotten eggs for so long, that we can’t recognize what we are settling for. We have become nearsighted and hunchbacked. We can see (and smell) our feet, but we miss the trees around us and we have no conception of the larger forest of possibility and potential.

We are at the edge of yet another new year, which means there is a collective feeling of rebirth, newness, and a clean slate. What will we make of 2009? Will we expand out of our comfort zone and expand our horizons? Will we take risks and strive for innovation and growth? Will we let ourselves be suckered in by the doom and gloom of a economic downturn or will we leap out of our seats and aggressively look for opportunities to seize?

As you reflect on the last year, I encourage you to think about doing something unexpected, unconventional, and different in 2009. Shake things up. Take some risks. Think big. Make plans. Start something new. Move to the other coast. Pick up a new hobby. Change the business model. Challenge yourself and the people around you. Get rid of your preconveived notions. Refuse to perpetuate hate, bigotry, or stereotypes. Reach across the aisle. Think, Do, Grow, Challenge, Innovate, Achieve, Succeed.

Your life is what YOU make of it. Don’t settle for less. Don’t be satisfied with mediocrity.

Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds. Do something worthwhile and change the world.

Make no little plans:
They have no magic
to stir men’s blood.
-Daniel H. Burnham

Just for the record, I’m taking my own advice. I can’t talk about it now, but I’m neck deep in some mind-blowing life-changing industry-rattling world-shaking evolutionary revolutionary “OMG” stuff. My startup is starting to get some incredible traction and a table full of opportunities has fallen in my lap. The synchronicity of everything is a little jarring…it is all related and all dovetails quite nicely into our short and long term goals.

The fun thing? Part of this is going to create some unparalleled opportunities for other entrepreneurs and startups out there willing to really think outside of the box and be unconventional. I can’t wait to tell you about it. We have a chance to do something huge together. Screw the economy. I’m going to create jobs. That’s what entrepreneurs do best, isn’t it?

Hey, do me a favor and post a comment if any of this rings your bell. I get a reasonable amount of traffic on here and people don’t say much. Tell me what you think. Share your passions and ideas here.

(The Twitter Version of my quote: “Vision without Plan is empty daydreaming. Plan without Vision is aimless mediocrity. Vision with Plan can change the world.”)