Saturday, November 19, 2005

From the kitchen sink:
A great tale of innovation.

I guarantee you will remember the first time you see colored bubbles.

Bubbles that kids blow, except well, blown into spectacular colors. Technicolor bubbles. A zillion pixels per inch colored bubbles. Hot pink bubbles. Neon green bubbles. Yellow and orange bubbles. And when they pop, the color and the magic disappear until you do it again. And again. And again.

Colored bubbles will be on the market early next year. And you doubted that the world is getting better...

My report from the world of invention and innovation this week leaves me slack jawed and thunderstruck with admiration.

I'd never thought of a SustainableWork Hall of Fame, but I've decided to invent one just for Tim Kehoe. I'm making Tim the first endowed chair of kitchen sink innovation. Emeritus Professor.

I bring you an enterprise story that I hope will be long told and widely celebrated.

The December '05 issue of Popular Science has a wonderful, compelling story that is important for all of us.

"Tim Kehoe has stained the whites of his eyes deep blue. He's also stained his face, his car, several bathtubs and a few dozen children. He's had to evacuate his family because he filled the house with noxious fumes. He's ruined every kitchen he's ever had. Kehoe, a 35-year-old toy inventor from St. Paul, Minnesota, has done all this in an effort to make real an idea he had more than 10 years ago, one he's been told repeatedly cannot be realized: a colored bubble."

Well, Tim did it. The first cool result is that you'll soon be able to blow brightly colored bubbles. The more important lesson from the story is that persistence, hard work, and a respect for capturing details is critical. The you-better-get-this part of the story is that we all should celebrate and support great science and engineering.

First the upside stuff. Popular Science senior associate editor Mike Haney writes, "According to one industry estimate, retailers sell around 200 million bottles annually—perhaps more than any other toy."

"If an inventor could somehow add color, though, suddenly adults might have reason to start blowing again. Picture bubbles in NFL team colors, or bubbles that match charity ribbons. The potential market would grow to include every man, woman and child. So why don't they exist?"

This is a big commercial deal. Schools, fundraising, unlimited commercial PR potential. Close your eyes and imagine bubbles to match the wedding colors. Need I say more? 200 million units of anything is a monster number. Tim and friends have the potential to lay siege to that entire number and probably sell more than that by themselves, directly and through licensing.

Meet Mr. Tim Kehoe from St. Paul, Minnesota. 10 years ago Tim conjured up colored bubbles out of thin air. Magic idea, if only you could make it work.

Tim Kehoe, wife and family have lived the life of citizen innovators ever since. Cool stuff. Scary stuff. Tedious stuff. Their stuff.

Experiments went on for years. Great stories of innovation all-nighters. Hope led to painful rejections. Products rolled out before their time rolled straight into disaster. Job life, family life, and enterprise life all swirled about like Toto in the Kansas wind for over a decade.

Tim Kehoe chased his idea in and out of self employment for over a decade. If you think there's a direct line to enterprise success like you see on TV, meet Mr. Kehoe, the real deal. His story is a truthful representation of what much of innovation and enterprise success looks like. It's a story that should be richly celebrated by all of us.

Tim's enterprise funding has gone from home-made to angel-based, and it's making his dream work. Earlier outside funding might have helped, but it also could have screwed up the end result. I think the most important part about outside funding is not about how you get the money, but when. Tim's timing here looks dead on.

Another critical part of outside funding is what the entrepreneur brings to the money. Tim brought years of struggle and determination to the table. He brought his fire which couldn't be quenched by the repeated cold showers of start up roadblocks. Importantly, Tim brought years of knowledge of what didn't work. Those failures weren't defeats. Tim used them as refinements to a great story. He kept putting one foot in front of another, always improving the idea. Whatever it took.

Passion is a biz buzz word now. Unfortunately, passion typically gets translated as smiling people talking loudly.

But Tim's case is the real thing. Passion for the idea. Passion for the story.

With that in mind, Tim brought in money and brains.

Fortunately, not just any brains. Tim connected with the wonderfully determined brain of Mr. Ram Sabnis.

Great timing for all involved. Mr. Sabnis is a PhD dye chemist with dozens of patents.

His scientific specialty, among the most specialized in the world, led him to develop an entirely new dye chemistry. Something from nothing stuff, bless him. "Nobody has made this chemistry before," Sabnis says. "All these molecules - we will make 200 or 300 to cover the spectrum — they don't exist. We have synthesized a whole new class of dyes", says Mr. Sabnis.

Ram Sabnis’ story of 60 to 100 experiments per weeks for many months is well told in this article. Great science with a wonderfully colorful, magical ending.

Will Tim and Ram ride this story straight into sure-fire success? God I hope so.

What you need to remember friend, is that it started at a kitchen sink. It's taken longer than anyone involved expected, I'd bet. I'd also bet that, looking back, they wouldn't trade any of it.

Neither would you.

In the future, whenever you see a colored bubble float by (and you WILL see a lot of them float by) remember the story of Ram Sabnis and Kitchen Sink Emeritus Professor Tim Kehoe, our first SustainableWork Hall of Fame inductee.

A really wonderful enterprise story.

Now, friend, go find your own kitchen sink.

Popular Science article by Mike Haney

Photo for this post borrowed from Popular Science Magazine article.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Bait and Switch
with optimism

Bait and Switch is a very popular book by NY Times best selling author Barbara Ehrenreich.

It's a story of middle America out of work and the fact that desparate people are preyed upon.

It really can be an awful job mess out there. Many of us navigate it every day successfully, but you need to know there's an industry full of scurrilous frauds out there masquerading as help. A lot of people are cruelly victimized. When I drive through major cities I hear ads on the radio, "Become a coach. No experience necessary." What?!

The Bait and Switch title is good, but Ms. Ehrenreich's book got subtitled in a grossly offensive way, I think: The (futile) pursuit of the American Dream

There is nothing futile about the search for any dream. Don't damn the pursuit of dreams, damn the predators who steal those dreams.

I would agree that it is futile to take thousands of dollars and give it to job coaches. I would agree that it's futile to go to "network events" with idiots. I would agree it's futile to think someone else is in charge of your life. That's what got these folks into job trouble in the first place.

Planning alternative, sustainable economic strategies for yourself seems like a prudent alternative.

Here's a review I liked from the Miami Herald writer Ariel Gonzalez.

"Almost every page is devoted to the dispiriting process of landing an upwardly mobile job in today's market. As Ehrenreich's title suggests, people are lured into believing a generic business career is the path to early retirement. What they get instead is a callous, high-handed manner from employers who overwork them until they go elsewhere or are downsized. Corpse-like obedience is the key to advancement. You are expected to enthusiastically tow the company line. Individuality is frowned upon; after all, there is no ''I'' in ''team'' (it's missing from ''soulless drone'' too.) And if you display a healthy sense of irony, you will be labeled a critic or malcontent.

These are a few of the unsurprising tips Ehrenreich picks up as she wades through the ''transition industry,'' the core of which consists of uncredentialed ''career coaches'' who, for thousands of dollars, offer dubious advice on customizing your resume. The rank narcissism of these Tony Robbins-type characters would be funny if they weren't preying on human desperation. Borderline scam artists, they rely on personality tests with ''zero predictive value'' and spew platitudes about the importance of networking and maintaining a positive attitude."

Yes, there are people preying on us. Take some steps to strike out on your own, to make a contribution, to counteract this BS. Take the first steps. You can do it. It's the honorable thing to do for you and your family. Self defense stuff.

For her next challenge, I'd urge Ms. Ehrenreich to go after those that prey on small biz owners, and those that would be innovators and inventors. The latter are commercially assassinating many in our society's talent pool.

I've written this post for folks in danger of losing their jobs, or may be stuck in idiotic, mind deadening jobs. Starting your own enterprise in advance can help. Even baby steps help. Anything to give you a bit of control and a rational reason to hope. You can do it. Do not wait to become the prey. Search for opportunity yourself. You do not have to succumb to the awful "transition industry" tactics that may seem unavoidable when trouble is upon you. Do it yourself. You're fully capable. Plan and execute well, but get going for goodness sake.

Is it a tough world out there? If you don't know, I can't help.

Is the world full of, as the great singer songwriter Stan Rogers sang, "smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go?" Sorry to report, but there's an ocean of them. Just say no.

Can you do something helpful for yourself in spite of all that? Yep, and there's more opportunity than ever.

Sustainable work is not find your bliss stuff. It's control your own life, control your own enterprise stuff. You can apply it to for profit work, social entrepreneur work, non profit work, or whatever.

No matter the format, work is the key word. Smart, sustainable work.

Or, you can hire a career coach.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s home page featuring Bait and Switch

Miami Herald review by Ariel Gonzalez

Stan Rogers link to Fogarty's Cove Music. I dearly love Stan Rogers' work.

Encouraging innovation, or
how I broke
the Patent Office

Everybody searches for some kind of recognition.

We'd gotten our first patents a couple of years into our new enterprise. I found that I was going to be working around Washington DC and thought I'd stop by the patent office to feel like a big shot for a while. I imagined that there might be a separate door for inventors with patents. A celebrity runway for geeks.

That didn't happen, but I was able to find the US Patent and Trademark museum in Alexandria. Lots of very interesting stuff behind their glass cases. I was still hoping for some recognition, what with the new patents and all, but other than a nod from the security guard, the hushed, quietly lit displays kept everyone's attention.

That's when I walked over and set my notebook on the glass cover of a large diarama style display set up in the middle of the room. Except there wasn't a glass cover. My notebook fell with a crash right into the noisiest place it could.

Finally. Recognition from my peers.

Sunday's New York Times (11/13/05) business section featured a page one story about invention and innovation. The author, Timothy L. O'Brien, does a nice job of making the case for increased spending on research and development at all levels. The piece especially makes the case for Big Commerce/Big Academia research funding problems. However, at the meta level, that crowd can make things sound pretty bleak.

A recent National Academy of Sciences report on the subject says that, without a host of upgrades in science and math education and a package of federal spending on basic research and tax incentives, "For the first time in generations, the nation's children could face poorer prospects than their parents and grandparents did."

Even a top guy from M.I.T., Emeritus Professor Merton C. Flemings, who runs the wonderful Lemelson Foundation's innovation program there, puts his fears right up front, "The future is very bleak, I'm afraid."

And yet, and yet, and yet... Professor Flemings later goes on to describe something we don't talk about much. Places like Singapore which have high national test scores but still do not generate the innovation culture so apparent in the US. Singapore sends its education researchers here to study how creativity, an unmeasurable, is developed.

It is not just increased spending for math and science education, both of which absolutely should be done to increase our inventiveness. It's also recognition and support for creativity and a nurturing environment for innovation and innovators.

In fact the Times' piece quotes an M.I.T.- Lemelson Study issued in 2004: "In addition to openness, tolerance is essential in an inventive, modern society. Creative people, whether artists or inventive engineers, are often nonconformists and rebels. Indeed, invention itself can be percieved as an act of rebellion against the status quo."

The headlines for the NY Times article was, "Not Invented Here. Are U.S. Innovators Losing Their Competitive Edge?"

If I was selling this idea, I would have taken those lovely words from the M.I.T.-Lemelson study and headlined the Times piece something like, "People everywhere! Hurry! Rebel against the status quo! Storm the Gates! Over the ramparts, mates! The rebellion lives! Charge!!!"

What's hard about THAT sell?

I love to make that pitch, especially to young people. They get it. But I digress.

The Times' piece follows this hopeful direction nicely with the introduction of the work currently being done by Nathan Myhrvold, an inventor rebel himself from the early Microsoft years, subsequently the head of Microsoft's research arm. Mr. Myhrvold has set up a fund specifically to fund independent inventors, and they seem to be growing a nice enterprise from this platform.

I really like Mr. Myhrvold's focus on support and nurturing for the innovators, while also sharing ownership with jointly developed projects. "We all love the goose that lays the golden eggs but somehow we've forgotten about the goose," Mr. Myhrvold said. "This decade, I'm hoping will be the decade of the invention."

Yes, we want to increase innovation. Yes, it typically takes progressive institutional spending to make changes at the meta level.

Do big science, big spending and big institutions matter? Of course.

But there's always the goose to remember. There's always the revolutionary at the gates that needs to be encouraged.

Tom Peters makes this point brilliantly in his 11/11/05 blog. The Times did a major piece on this subject. Tom, as usual, cuts to the core questions, usually within a phrase. A full sentence, max. This time, Tom serves is up as really great bar bet: "Q: #1 R&D spending in the last 25 years? A: GM"

Big academic science research programs are critical to world progress. Big corporate research budgets are also critical. However, both can be used for good or ill.

Measuring the real inventiveness of cultures needs to also include the willingness of all of us to actively participate in the work.

Affirm innovation everywhere you find it. When you see a screwed up legacy piece of status quo getting in the way, attack it. Search out the innovators working in your communities locally or on line and support them.

We're all responsible for the future. Work on it every way you can.

New York Times article link

Lemelson Foundation program at M.I.T.

Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold's program for supporting individual inventors.

Dr. Myhrvold's bio. Yes an important person in the field, but his Times picture makes him look more important to me as a guy I'd like to drink a couple beers with.

Tom Peters. Always walking a mile ahead.

National Inventors Hall of Fame

Photo for this post is the Catoctin Furnace, just south of Gettysburgh, PA.

Someday I will post a link to my upcoming invention, "Clear cover for diarama at the US Patent Museum"

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The killer app.

KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.

Old saying. Needs updating. How about Keep It Simple Smartie?

Simple is for smart people.

I was helping a new customer start up a recycler this week. The company was located in a beautiful area of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Nice plant. Owned by a Fortune 100 firm and working hard to do things right. It was my first visit and the engineer I'd been dealing with on the phone and eMail gave me the full plant tour. She carefully led me through a very modern facility packed with complicated production systems.

I want every recycler to run perfectly, of course, and this was no exception. We gathered a group of machine operators and maintenance folks around our system for the equipment start up and training. What spooked me was the unexpected arrival of the Maintenance Director, looking skeptical as hell.

Now, a Maintenance Director is not the janitor. A Maintenance Director in my world is typically responsible for keeping many millions of dollars of unbelievably complicated equipment operating. Electrical systems, hydraulic systems, fluid systems, mechanical systems, and often hardest of all, human systems. All the time. Under severe conditions. Often with bunch of people working for them. Typically with no support from idiot vendors. Often less than that from the people who write their budgets.

Stuff can go wrong in a million directions every day for Maintenance Directors. It’s their job to claw through complexity and keep things running. Much like most of our lives.

We fired up the recycler. After you test the fluid flow, the next step is to hit these systems with oil. In the recycling world, this is where rubber meets the road.

In spite of the many scenarios I’d conjured up that predicted gravity would fail to operate in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on that specific day, my fears proved unfounded. I was wrong. Gravity works in the UP all the time. I have proof.

What was really interesting was the response of the Maintenance Director.

He had circled the recycler a couple of times while I walked him through the details. The most complicated thing I could find was the single air line that ran our system, so I talked about that trying to sound smart. They'd paid good money for this thing and I wanted him to like it.

In the background, fork trucks flew past, while a dizzying array of production equipment churned, much of it run by control panels as big as your front door.

He looked at me without expression and said, "This is really simple."

I couldn't tell what he was thinking. Did he think he overpaid? The recycler was ripping oil out of their production fluids. He had to see that. What was the problem?

Then he said it again. No expression, "This is really simple."

Now, if you remember that I’m the guy who thinks gravity might fail under certain circumstances, you can imagine how I fill up these pregnant, oh-my-god-where's-this-going pauses.

Then he smiled widely, reached out and shook my hand. "Thank you", he said. "Simple is exactly what I need".


In fact, simple is exactly what most people need.

There is a nice cover piece in the Nov. 2005 Fast Company titled the beauty of simplicity. Good story, by Linda Tischler.

The hook is, "Simplicity. Google’s secret weapon." The article focuses on Marissa Mayer, Google’s guru of look and feel. It open with this proposition: “Making it simple is the next Big Thing.”

Just like my Maintenance Director, just like Marissa and Google, most of us are bombarded by complications from every direction. New stuff is good, but we’ve got to be able to fit it in easily or it’s doomed to failure.

Think of what’s swirling around you now. The Fast Company article says, “By one estimate, the world produced five exabytes (one quintillion bytes) of content in 2002 – the same amount churned out between 25,000 B.C. and A.D 2000”.

It often feels like 4 of those exabytes are in my eMail folder.

You don’t have much spare space in your life. Potential customers and partners of your emerging enterprise don’t have that space or time either.

When you do a Google search, you’re executing an equation with 500 million variables, ranking 8 billion web pages for you. Before you can snap your fingers.

Marissa Mayer at Google approaches the issue in this way: “Google has the functionality of a really complicated Swiss Army knife, but the home page is our way of approaching it closed. It’s simple, it’s elegant, you can slip it into your pocket, but it’s got the great doodad when you need it. A lot of our competitors are like a Swiss Army knife open – and that can be intimidating and occasionally harmful.”

Our small band of co-workers won the small business New Product of the Year for the whole country this year, awarded by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). That’s the highest professional certification engineers can achieve in the US. Why did we win? Basically because we made something complicated simpler. I’d love to sound smarter, but that’s about it. Design simplicity leads to successful results.

When you look to create or grow your product or service, always look to make the interface simpler. You need to do the complicated execution and back office stuff better than anyone else, but the interface must be simple or your enterprise will tank.

Reverse the design of your products and services. Reverse the design of your enterprise. For the specific problem at hand, start with your answer.

“Yes. We fix that. It’s simple”.

Want sustainable work? Think simple.

You're in the middle of the next killer app.

Fast Company article not yet posted. Will link as soon as it’s on line

Worse is better Wikipedia entry about the New Jersey style of software design with wonderful implications for ALL design: Simplicity, Correctness, Consistency, and Completeness.

Occam's Razor Given two equally predictive theories, choose the simpler. Wikipedia

National Society of Professional Engineers

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Get out there
and get lazy

Cranberries. Once a year maybe. Marginal, peripheral stuff in the macro economic world.

Cranberries. So what?

Wrong question. You say you want to find sustainable work? Look to the margins. The right question is how do you find a cranberry market for yourself?

Stuff that barely makes your radar is a big economic deal to the people working in those seemingly marginal fields. And that's just what gets to the edge of your radar. Most of the economy doesn't even show up. The rest of it is economic dark matter to you and me. And like dark matter, it makes up most of what goes on around us.

Good news, friend. Exponentially increasing opportunities are flowering in niches most people wouldn't think could support a church mouse.

There is economic sustenance for those that create innovations. There is opportunity in overlooked places right in front of all of us. It usually takes form as a better approach to an old problem.

Take Dan Brockman, for instance. A former hard working paper mill guy who came back to the family farm and got lazy.

My home state of Wisconsin produces more than half of the aprox. 575 million pounds of cranberries produced in the US each year. Big stuff for them but most of us in cheesehead hats have never seen a cranberry bog. It’s marginal to most of our day jobs even here in the middle of the Holstein bell curve.

In the fall, cranberry bogs are flooded and the berries harvested. The current device used to harvest cranberries is a complicated mess of old tech ag engineering. It's basically a big paddlewheel mechanism that's slowly maneuvered by several people through the bog. The machine beats hell out of the bushes in the water, whacking the daylights out of the berries with a big rotating beater as they float off for harvest.

Enter Mr. Brockman. A self-described lazy guy. He wanted it to be easier to harvest his cranberries. "I always approach just about everything with the idea that there's a better way to do it. You just need to find it," Brockman said. "I started cutting and welding and building. The first three machines didn't work at all."

It's taken 5 years to bring this story to life. Persistence wins out. Brockman’s cranberry harvester, the Ruby Slipper, now just flies through our Wisconsin bogs. Farms that use it are amazed at its simplicity and speed. Only one person is needed to operate it. Tests indicate it actually improves the cranberry yields in succeeding years.

Existing machines now used to harvest cranberries can cost $40 grand. Brockman’s device costs $7-$9 grand. Teryl Roper, a University of Wisconsin professor specializing in this field, says the Ruby Slipper is on track to "revolutionize cranberry harvesting".

Here’s what I really love about this story. The Ruby Slipper has no moving parts. Mr. Brockman, you're my kind of guy. Perfect.

Professor Roper said, "I don't know why no one thought of it before. It is elegantly simple."

His dad's response was the best. Mr. Brockman’s father, who started the farm 60 years ago and has been harvesting cranberries ever since, just laughs at his lazy kid. “I can’t believe that this thing works. It’s way too easy,” says Dad.

Is it a limited market? Of course. There are only 1,200 cranberry farms in North America. Not a very big array of potential customers. Economic dark matter. But Brockman and friends see the light.

Here’s the deal. They're estimating they can sell 500 to 1,000 of his Ruby Slipper harvesters in the next five years. Units will sell at $7K to $9K. Low end that's $3,500,000. High end, that's $9,000,000 in newly created revenue over 5 years. Who knows what will grow out of this effort beyond that? If you work their numbers backwards to get net dollars it sure looks to be a lovely, sustainable enterprise for Mr. Brockman and friends.

Will this make the waves with venture capitalists? Unlikely. Most money players wouldn't even notice.

Will this make a bunch of hard working folks living in a beautiful part of my state a good living for the foreseeable future? Looks probable. Will their kids be proud of them and see that the world can be made into a better place? Seems likely.

Mr. Brockman and the Ruby Slipper folks, if smart, know that this is not a zillion dollar lottery ticket. It's hard work. But it'll be their hard work, and their contributions and their rewards from a life hopefully well lived.

Here's my point... there is a better way to do most everything in this life. The fastest way, and the surest way, I know to get yourself into sustainable work occurs by fixing problems. Finding, simpler, better solutions. Then executing the details.

You can open up your enterprise in market segments that look like cranberries and economic dark matter to the rest of us. This is where your opportunities are.

This effort isn’t about head lines, it’s about capturing a sustainable piece of the economy for your enterprise. Brockman won't win a Nobel Prize. Neither will you most likely. But Brockman is making a difference, and you can, too. He makes things simpler and easier. You can, too. That's sustainable work, friends.

Fix something hard in your world. Look for the cranberry bogs of your life swirling around out there at the edges of your radar. That’s where to steer your enterprise.

It’s an unimaginably large global economy out there from the perspective of a start up or emerging enterprise. You can get a sustainable piece of it by making something easier and better in seemingly very small markets. Then execute the details.

Now get out there and get lazy.

Touring Wisconsin's cranberry harvest Great links from the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association

Central WI visitors info for our cranberry harvest

Bikes and berries. Warrens, WI area bike trips throughout the marshes and local links

WI bathing suit beauty queen harvesting cranberries. One would hope for a warm autumn for her sake.

Yahoo News. Original AP story about Mr. Brockman