Silly Product Ideas that Win

When Twitter appeared more than a decade ago, I though it was silly. I saw little value in a service that only allowed sharing 140-character long text messages. I registered on a bunch of social media platforms and created nevertheless a twitter account. Some years later, the only social media platform I’m actively using is… twitter.

There’s a lesson here for me and it’s that it’s hard to predict what will succeed. A lot of products can appear silly or superficial at first. They may appear so in the current time frame, but this can change in the future. Initially, twitter was full of people microblogging their life. It was boring. But it morphed in a platform that is useful to follow the news.

A startup like mighty can look silly now – why would you stream your browser from a powerful computer in the cloud? But as applications are ported to the web, maybe the boundary between thin client and server will move again.

We prefer to endorse project that appear profound and ethical, like supporting green energy, or reducing poverty. Product ideas that are silly or superficial don’t match these criterion and it’s easy to dismiss them. But innovation happens often because of such products. No matter how silly or superficial you think they are, if they gain traction, they need to solve their problem well at scale. These products are incubators for other technologies that can be used in other contexts. Twitter, for instance, open sourced several components. If Mighty gains traction, it might lead to new protocols for low-latency interactive streaming interfaces. An obvious candidate for such a technology could be set-top TV boxes.

These products might appears superficial at first and might lack the “credibility” of other domains, but here too, the first impression might be misguiding. A platform like twitter can support free speech and democracy (sure, there are problems with the platform, but it at least showed there are other ways to have public discourse). A product like Mighty might in turn make it more affordable to own computers for poor people, since it minimises hardware requirements. Because these product don’t have an “noble” goal initially attached to them, doesn’t mean they don’t serve noble cause in the long term.

There are of course silly ideas that are simply silly and will fail. But the difference between products that are superficially silly and truly silly is not obvious. I took in this text the example of twitter and mighty. In retrospect, the case for twitter is clear. For mighty, I still don’t know. The idea puzzles me because it’s at the boundary. There’s a fine line between silly and genius.

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