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Making Making Things Better Better April 5, 2009

I’ve been hearing a lot about crowdsourcing lately.  In general it’s a good idea, tapping the collective brainpower of your fans or customer base to generate ideas you might normally have to rely on hired professionals for.  It’s been around for a long time, (think Betty Crocker recipe contests, American Idol or the 2002 vote for the new M&Ms color), but the Internet has made crowdsourcing infinitely easier and the scale infinitely larger.  The X Prize Foundation did this in 2004 when they offered a $10 million prize for the first reusable privately-built spacecraft.  $10 million may seem like a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what it would have cost NASA to develop in both time and money.  Why?  Because they only had to pay for success.  They got the trial and error of the other contestants for free.

In a slightly different vein, Apple recently began offering free iPhone App development courses through Stanford University and iTunes.  The cost to Apple is minimal.  They just open up the developers’ software and course materials, all of which already exist.  In return they get a huge influx of iPhone Apps, all developed free.  They post the ones they like to their App Store, and sit back while they collect their share of the profits.  Of course, the developers are getting a great deal, too.  They’re getting everything they need, from the education to the the global distribution platform, to bring a useful and potentially profitable product to market.

And that’s what can be so great about crowdsourcing.  It’s symbiotic, mutually beneficial, win-win.  It’s become so popular that there’s even a crowdsourcing project designed to make crowdsourcing better (everything good goes meta).  It’s called “The Better Project,” and while it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of feedback yet, if I know the Intertubes, it’s only a matter of time.

So how can you use crowdsourcing in your small business?  It can be as simple as sending a survey, holding a contest, or opening up a blog post to comments.  You can also produce idea collections, as books, zines, bundles of fabric or free downloadable art.  You can even build your entire business around crowdsourcing, like Threadless or Prickie.  Either way, as long as your customers are getting something out of it, whether it’s a prize, a commission or just better products, they’ll be happy to share their knowledge.

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Worth Its Weight: Things October 6, 2008

My husband is a productivity junkie.  Every week he likes to show off some new piece of software he’s found that will improve his daily work speed by nine seconds, and I usually just smile encouragingly and walk away.  Occasionally, however, I try out one of these tools, and this time, I have found one that I love: Things.

Things is a to-do list/task manager for Mac OSX by Cultured Code.  Now, there are a LOT of list-managing “solutions” out there, and I’ve tried many of them, but I always ended up going back to a disorganized paper list, because it was just too inconvenient and/or slow to use software.  With Things, however, I never use paper anymore.

One of the reasons Things is so convenient is that you can type in a to-do item without actually having to be in the Things application.  If I’m working in Photoshop, for example, and it reminds me of some product pictures I forgot to take, I can hit a particular keystroke and a little black box pops up.  I can then type, “Take product photos” in the box, hit the Enter/Return key and my item will end up in my Things inbox, where I can sort it later.  At no point do I have to switch out of Photoshop to do this, so there’s no delay in being able to get right back to work.  Since I type faster than I write, this process is actually faster than using pen and paper.

At a good stopping point in my day, I usually open up Things to sort my inbox.  Like in other programs, in Things you have the ability to create projects and due dates to house your to-do items, but the most wonderful and brilliant thing about Things is that you can use tags as well.  Whats so great about tags?  It means you can sort your items by any category that is meaningful to you.  In most other programs, you can sort items by priority, due date, person responsible, etc.  All the usual office categories.  But by creating your own tags, you can sort items by where they occur, how long they take, or how fun they are.  For example, maybe you run most errands in three different places: your local main street, the street near your work, and the big box strip mall two towns over.  You can tag the errands you need to run with “local errand,” “work errand” or “mall errand.”  Then, the next time you are headed to any of those three places, you can click on that tag and all of the errands you can do in that place pop up.  Print your list and you’ll never again kick yourself for forgetting something while you were out.

But maybe you don’t have time to “Buy a new dishwasher,” even though it’s on your “mall errand” list. If you’ve also tagged your items with the time they take, you’re good to go!  Just click on both the “mall errand” tag and (while holding down the Shift key) the “5 min” tag, and you’ll get only those items you can do at the mall in five minutes or less.  Sweet!  By using tags, you can create and sort a list based on how you already live and work, rather than having to adjust the way you think in order to fit into some software company’s idea of what is the best way to organize your life.

Things has many other great features, such as an automatically generated “Today” list, based on your due dates, reminders and recurring tasks.  Really, the only big drawback of Things is that it only works on Apple products, like Macs and iPhones.  If you use a PC or are planning to get a Google phone that uses Android, you are S.O.L. my friends.  The developers have said that they are not going to release a version of Things for these other platforms anytime soon.  For the rest of us Mac-only users, Things will remain free of charge until MacWorld, when it goes from beta to full release.  At that point it will cost $39 for early adopters, and $49 for everyone else, which is still much cheaper than your average Filofax.

 

A New Perspective on Getting Ripped Off February 20, 2008

Two weeks ago I did some contract production work at a kids’ toy/book company.  While having lunch in the company kitchen, several employees got into a rollicking discussion about their various techniques for ripping off ideas from trade show exhibitors.  Having just exhibited at my first trade show, this naturally made me very nervous and kind of angry, so I vented to friend about it.

I said, “I knew big companies had no qualms about ripping off small designers, but I didn’t know that it was the sole source of their creative development!”

“So what?” My friend said.

“So that sucks!  I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting off people who try to steal my ideas!”

“So don’t fight them” he said.  “Just move on to the next idea.  By the time they steal it, you’ll probably be bored with it anyway.  Besides, if you’ve only got one idea, you won’t last in business anyway.  Look at it this way: it’s like Apple and Microsoft.  One company makes money by constantly releasing brand new products.  The other makes money by watering down those products and making them more affordable and available to the mainstream.  Does Steve Jobs stomp his feet and sue Microsoft every time they steal an idea?  No.  He doesn’t care, because he’s already got ten more ideas in the works.  Apple may be a smaller company, but it’s better respected and still does extremely well financially.  Which one would you rather be?”