Creative thinking out loud; New technology platforms such as Medium and Quora are helping executives to test their ideas

August 7, 2013 7:16 pm

Creative thinking out loud

By Ian Sanders

Len Kendall is at his desk in Chicago thinking through the sales strategy for his start-up CentUp, a business that facilitates donations to online content creators – such as bloggers, photographers and illustrators – and charities. Instead of waiting until his strategy is complete, Mr Kendall has chosen to outline his thinking and approach to selling in a blog post entitled This Blog Post Isn’t Free. He sees this approach as a way of testing his idea in public.

Traditionally, if an executive wanted to test an idea, they might consult their peers at an industry gathering or commission some research. Today, many are using the web to think out loud instead. While the internet has long been used by business people to broadcast their thinking to the world, what is new is their willingness to share thoughts-in-development rather than present polished opinions and press release-style communication.Mr Kendall published his post on Medium, a publishing platform that delivers him a ready-made audience so that he does not need to build up an individual online following. Executives who are not well known often struggle to get enough readers on a traditional blog to make the feedback valuable. Medium aims to solve this by curating series of posts around such themes as “creativity” and “what I learned today” – with the emphasis on the quality of the writing rather than the profile of the writer. “Medium helps me test ideas in public,” Mr Kendall says. “That’s more useful than a traditional blog.”

As well as providing real-time feedback, platforms such as Medium and the knowledge-sharing site Quora can also make it easier for executives to gauge how their posts are resonating by tracking how many people are actually reading them.

After Mr Kendall shared his blog post on Medium, he received emails from potential business partners and critics that helped him refine his sales strategy. “While the post was certainly a telescope into our business that competitors could see, sharing our thoughts in public helps us all find the best ideas and keep pushing our collective interests forward,” he says.

Nilofer Merchant is a Silicon Valley-based management thinker who also tests her thoughts by using blog posts. “I write first to develop an idea and second to learn what others are saying about that idea. In comments I either get resonance or resistance,” she says.

Having worked for big corporations such as Apple, she now sits on the boards of a number of private companies, and says using the web to test concepts can help executives make them better and provide the type of evidence that can win over colleagues. “Don’t wait until it’s all packaged, share ideas as they are shaping your thinking so people can see the breadcrumbs of ideas that ultimately make up your direction. Seeing the bits and pieces starting to formulate lets people see how you came to a conclusion and this added visibility creates shared understanding,” she says.

Keith Rabois, an early investor in technology start-ups such as PayPal and YouTube, also finds thinking aloud helps him better organise his own ideas on management and entrepreneurship. Mr Rabois, a former chief operating officer at mobile payments start-up Square and now an investor at Khosla Ventures, is active on Quora – in which he was an early investor – where he can engage directly with the broader entrepreneurial community through questions and answers. On Quora, users post questions on topics such as technology investing and recommended books for start-ups. Other users are free to answer these questions, pose new ones, or follow discussions.

Mr Rabois has published nearly 500 answers with his thoughts on management practice and the Silicon Valley business ecosystem. He says he finds Quora valuable for sharing specific insights with an audience, while helping him refine his own thoughts. “The highest [return on investment] derives from organising my own thoughts into a structured outline,” he explains. “An arresting question impels me to think. And writing is an excellent, if not the best method, for clarifying thinking.”

Quora was launched by former Facebook engineers Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever in 2010 with a mission to create a question and answer website for sharing knowledge.

Medium, meanwhile, was launched in 2012 by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams for people to contribute to as frequently or infrequently as they wish without the commitment of a traditional blog. The site is invitation-only at present because it is still in development, although Mr Kendall is already joined by thousands of other business bloggers, including Josh Elman of venture capital firm Greylock Partners and Hunter Walk, the former head of product at YouTube.

In November, Medium hired Kate Lee, a former literary agent with International Creative Management, as its director of content. Ms Lee admits that, as an editor, her bias is towards polished writing, but she says Medium has proved an effective environment in which to work out one’s thoughts and gain feedback.

. . .

With so many outlets available from Quora to Medium, many executives may struggle to know where to start. John Butman is the founder of Idea Platforms, a company that helps businesses and executives spread their ideas, and author ofBreaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas. He advises executives to choose the channel that suits them best. “If you’re high up in an organisation, the impulse might be to create a beautiful and perfectly integrated platform of blogs, talks, tweets, press exposure, the whole thing. But you can’t do it all at once, you have to start somewhere,” he says. “Pick one platform to start with, such as Twitter.”

With opportunities such as Medium and TED talks remaining off limits for most executives, Mr Butman advises that the traditional blog still has its place for testing an idea. “I think that’s what blogs are made for – to test ideas, to try stuff out. You’re not expressing it perfectly yet but you can get reaction and find what people care about,” he says.

Back in Chicago, Mr Kendall is preparing a panel submission for next year’s South By South West Interactive Festival. He is using Twitter to share and test his ideas for traction before deciding on the best idea to submit. He concedes that heading up a five-person start-up means it is easier for him to test his thinking publicly than an executive in a big corporation. “It’s tougher for the senior guys when everything they say is under analysis,” he says.

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How to use your blog to generate and test ideas

Prototype: instead of waiting to go live with a new product feature or upgrade, Shawn Graham, author of Blogging for Badass Small Businesses, advises that you use your blog as a vehicle for gathering feedback throughout the development process. “That way you can float an idea and make iterative improvements based on reader comments.”

Start small: When you start blogging, it doesn’t matter if you have a small audience. “It doesn’t even matter if no one visits it for a while, it’s about trying out some stuff,” says John Butman, founder of Idea Platforms, a company that helps businesses spread ideas.

Engage with your audience: Don’t just lead, participate and engage with your readers via comments or on Twitter.

Be topical: If you are looking for your blog post to “break out”, Mr Butman advises that you try to connect your idea with a news event or something happening in the zeitgeist in order to give it topicality and relevance.

Why bother? Mr Graham says the benefits of blogging include driving traffic to your site, interacting with prospective customers, gathering real-time feedback, building credibility as an original thinker and generating leads.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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