Spend less time talking, and more time prototyping, especially if you’re not very good at talking or powerpoint

Paul Buchheit, creator and lead developer of Gmail, on the role of prototyping and “20% time” in innovation:

We did a lot of things wrong during the 2.5 years of pre-launch Gmail development, but one thing we did very right was to always have live code. The first version of Gmail was literally written in a day. It wasn’t very impressive … but it was live and people could use it… From that day until launch, every new feature went live immediately…

The great thing about this process was that I didn’t need to sell anyone on my ideas. I would just write the code, release the feature, and watch the response. Usually, everyone (including me) would end up hating whatever it was (especially my ideas), but we always learned something from the experience, and we were able to quickly move on to other ideas.

The most dramatic example of this process was the creation of content targeted ads (now known as “AdSense”, or maybe “AdSense for Content”). The idea of targeting our keyword based ads to arbitrary content on the web had been floating around the company for a long time — it was “obvious”. However, it was also “obviously bad”. Most people believed that it would require some kind of fancy artificial intelligence to understand the content well enough to target ads, and even if we had that, nobody would click on the ads. I thought they were probably right.

However, we needed a way for Gmail to make money, and Sanjeev Singh kept talking about using relevant ads, even though it was obviously a “bad idea”. I remained skeptical, but thought that it might be a fun experiment … The code was rather ugly and hackish, but more importantly, it only took a few hours to write!

I then released the feature on our unsuspecting userbase of about 100 Googlers, and then went home and went to sleep. The response when I returned the next day was not what I would classify as “positive”. Someone may have used the word “blasphemous”. I liked the ads though — they were amusing and often relevant. An email from someone looking for their lost sunglasses got an ad for new sunglasses. The lunch menu had an ad for balsamic vinegar.

More importantly, I wasn’t the only one who found the ads surprisingly relevant. Suddenly, content targeted ads switched from being a lowest-priority project (unstaffed, will not do) to being a top priority project, an extremely talented team was formed to build the project, and within maybe six months a live beta was launched. Google’s content targeted ads are now a big business with billions of dollars in revenue (I think).

Of course none of the code from my prototype ever made it near the real product (thankfully), but that code did something that fancy arguments couldn’t do (at least not my fancy arguments), it showed that the idea and product had real potential.

The point of this story, I think, you should consider spending less time talking, and more time prototyping, especially if you’re not very good at talking or powerpoint. Your code can be a very persuasive argument.

The other point is that it’s important to make prototyping new ideas, especially bad ideas, as fast and easy as possible. … This is also where Google’s “20% time” comes in — if you want innovation, it’s critical that people are able to work on ideas that are unapproved and generally thought to be stupid. The real value of “20%” is not the time, but rather the “license” it gives to work on things that “aren’t important”.

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