I have been MOOC-ing lately, taking online classes in urban planning, creativity and entrepreneurialism, and this MOOC mash-up has got me thinking about....mashed potatoes. If you are one of the many creative people around the world who dream of creating something fabulous and new, I have a question for you:
Which do you use more often? A potato peeler or a paring knife?
Unless you love mashed potatoes more than life itself, the winner is--hands down--the paring knife.
With a simple paring knife you can slice apples, trim green beans, slice cheese, cut twine, debone a chicken breast, cut pizza, open a package, remove the wrapper on a wine cork and scrape baked-on crud off the bottom of a roasting pan. With a potato peeler you can...peel potatoes.
So as you craft a business plan or dream about how you are going to change the world, ask yourself: Is my “big idea” a potato peeler or a paring knife?
Potato peeler ideas are solutions to problems--small problems--that require a narrow, targeted answer. These solutions can be extremely efficient and useful, but only to some people, some of the time. Quirky, the “social product development” website for aspiring inventors, is crowded with these sorts of single-application products. A silver-ware cleaning brush, a tool to pluck the yolk out of a cracked egg, a watermelon pop maker. These are clever gadgets, but most of them are destined to languish, unused, in the backs of kitchen drawers.
There are high-tech, information-age potato peelers as well. These are the clever, targeted apps that we download onto our phones or computers and rarely use again. These back-of-the-drawer apps include the iPhone Blower, which (barely) generates enough air to allow you to blow out your birthday candles with your phone, or the Taxi Hold Em, which helps you hail a cab by displaying TAXI on your phone. As one reviewer points out, “Raising your arm seems to work well on its own, though.”
Somewhat more useful, but still among the potato peelers of the smartphone world, are the many Fitness apps I have on my phone. They allow me to count calories, log weight repetitions, learn new exercises, time runs and count intervals. Other apps would allow me to share my exercise accomplishments and get encouragement from others. Most of the time, though, I find it simpler and just as effective to use pencil and paper to log reps. Even more often, I rely on my brain to keep track of my workout. Though it might be somewhat less precise than an app, it is always with me and rarely low on battery life.
The paring knives of the information world are the big, ubiquitous, open-ended, game-changing platforms that allow users to create their own uses and to identify and solve their own problems. Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, the personal computer, pen and paper, the human brain. They are all versatile, flexible and as broadly useful as knives.
For an entrepreneur, an innovator, or an inventor, it is clearly easier to take the potato peeler approach to creation. Identify a problem and create a better, cheaper, easier way to solve it. Coming up with the information-age equivalent of the paring knife is more mysterious. What problem did Facebook solve? What’s the best use for Google+? Were people suffering because they didn’t have an “online social networking and microblogging service that enables its users to send and read text-based messages of up to 140 characters,” which is how Wikipedia defines Twitter?
There is certainly plenty of room and opportunity in creating the digital or entrepreneurial equivalent of potato peelers, lemon zesters or melon-ballers. But you should expect these innovations to be smaller in almost every way than a paring knife idea. A product or concept that solves one problem--even if it is a common problem--will probably attract fewer users and become outdated more quickly than an idea that is more open-ended. The paring knife solution might be marginally less efficient than a dedicated tool, but it will undoubtedly be more versatile.
Likewise, while it can be exciting to think about inventing a unique new gadget, concept, widget or tool that will vault you out in front of the competition or make the world a better place. But if you are really just trying to get something done, it might be better to think about a new way to use an “old” platform like email, Linked In, or the even more old-fashioned telephone conversation. The people you may be trying to reach are there already and they know how to use the platform. No learning curve involved.
So when you’re contemplating new ways to improve your community or market your business or connect with others, ask yourself -- do I need a knife or a peeler? It may help you get a tighter grip on the task ahead.
(By the way, a slightly different version of this was posted at www.Investius.com.)