Lightning in a Bottle

The Importance of Napkin Sketches

Not all napkin sketches turn into good ideas. But all good ideas started with the napkin sketch, or some simple means that allowed us to snatch the spark of innovation out of the ether and quickly pin it to the corporeal realm. Much like sneaking up on a leprechaun as he dances a jig at the end of a rainbow, these bright ideas can slip right through your fingers leaving you empty-handed and wondering, “Did I really see what I think I saw?” Too often, we ignore our intuitive voice. Reason and sensibility discount it as a passing fancy, something that could never work; it sounds too - out there. Visionary entrepreneurs capture and nurture that initial spark to build a foundation for the long-term success of their ideas. It’s the magic that transforms you into a bleary-eyed, product obsessed founder. It makes the enthusiasm for your Great Idea contagious. It’s what evolves into the core and mission of what will become your product, your company. Never forget what that moment was. That lightbulb, lightning bolt flash that sparked you to look beyond what is and say, “why not?”

How can you tell the idea is a good one and isn’t just some fluff passing by as you sip an afternoon latte? You don’t, at least not right away. This is where the napkin sketch begins to serve a real and important purpose. It is your idea in its simplest and most pure form. It’s the map that leads you back to that “Aha!” moment. And when you’ve shared your napkin sketch a few times with others, its brilliant simplicity keeps you from spinning out into buzz-word land. From it, you should be able to explain What, Why, and How succinctly and simply. These are the only three things you really need to know to share your idea. Answer these three questions and you have a chance of capturing the interest of co-founders, collaborators and investors. Let me tell you a little story and you’ll see what I mean.

Lightning Strikes: The Inception of FlagPoll

Several months ago (when I was still an elected member of the County Board of Supervisors), I attended a state association of counties board meeting, listening to the executive director tell us about the vital advocacy and lobbying work they do on behalf of county governments. He shared statistics with us to explain how well they keep the membership informed on critical issues and how many communications they send (in a timely manner) to do just that. The emails all contain calls to action imploring the members to pick up the phone or keyboard to contact their legislators. This raised some red flags to me, coming from a marketing and technology background, I quickly assessed that the organization has no way of knowing if or when any members actually follow through on the calls to action that they send out. Their efforts are one-way, one-to-many communications with no means of knowing the efficacy of the emails. Further, we are unable to capture and leverage any of the comments from members who did call or email their representatives. There was no way to measure success, engagement or interest. This sounded crazy to me. Surely there was a better way to do this work.

Then the executive director made a plea to us, the board, asking us to please be sure to follow through on those calls to action. He went on to say that they really need the voices and feedback from the membership to fortify the lobbying position of the organization on key issues. I thought about all the emails I had received from the association in the past few months and quickly figured that I had only responded to 1 in 8 or so. This is not a good rate, and I am an engaged and active member, serving on the board of directors and two steering committees! I inquired more deeply. Why didn’t I respond? What would it take to get me to add my voice to important issues? The problem is a common one; I am time-strapped and busy. My day job keeps me in motion, constantly. My family needs my attention. The volunteer work I do as an elected official and by extension for the organization is important, but it takes second seat to the work I do to feed the family. I truly wanted to respond to all of those emails. I had opinions and comments for all of them. What I didn’t have was time to stop what I was doing, go read a long piece of legislation, pick up a phone, and call to speak to a legislative aide who probably didn’t care a whole lot about what I had to say or, alternatively, draft an email that has to be perfectly, perfect. Yeah, no.

The problem became crystal clear to me. An efficient, informative, secure feedback loop for elected officials to weigh in on key issues was non-existent. Leaving feedback had to be super easy for busy county officials. We needed to capture their comments to amplify them through the association’s advocacy work. We needed to increase engagement with the membership and get them involved in better policy creation. What does this look like?

I flipped over the notepad provided by the hotel and uncapped the accompanying Bic pen and started sketching. The pen flew over paper, arrows and circles and little boxes with names fleshed out this idea before it could slip through my fingers like tiny fish in a pond. Catching lightning in a bottle is a term you hear to describe these moments. My new idea had achieved inception! (Yes, there is actually work that happens before the beginning.) I was stoked!

At the end of the board meeting, I waited until most of my colleagues drifted out before pulling our Executive Director aside to show him the sketch and explain the What and the Why part of the idea. He pondered it a moment and then he saw it, that spark, and it caught him, too. Then we showed it to another member of the staff, and they shared in the enthusiasm for the idea. You can tell when people get something, their whole demeanor shifts as the idea becomes something in and of them, too. They were excited about the idea and immediately offered to help develop it as subject matter experts (SMEs).

We talked for a while, and I went on my way with this glowing ball of excitement in my chest. It was time to share the concept with my Coshx team. Would it pass muster with savvy developers who’ve built dozens of products? At Coshx, our engineers have heard a lot of ideas. As the Chief Visionary Officer, with a background in developing visions and strategic implementation plans, I’ve heard a lot of ideas. Some of them have real merit and some of them don’t. I’ve seen the unbridled enthusiasm of would-be founders bounding through the doors convinced they have the next breakthrough app, software or disruptor. And now I am one of them, and I had the napkin sketch to prove it.

It’s daunting to share a treasured idea. We worry about it getting squashed under the harsh glare of skepticism, and so we tend to play our cards close to the vest. We coddle the idea in an attempt to see it gain strength before exposing it to the baleful eyes of the world. This is a terrible mistake for an entrepreneur. For an idea to flourish, it needs to be aired out, tested, uttered aloud. We need to share the spark with others and see what happens. We need to be ready to answer the What, Why, and How questions over and over from multiple perspectives. We need to be willing to say we don’t know. We need to accept that sometimes, and maybe even often, we have to rely on the help of others to turn our idea into a 3-dimensional product.

Tend the Spark: From Idea to Defining MVP

First, find people you trust, whose opinions and expertise are valuable to you. Make sure they are the ones who will push, pull, tug at and question all the assumptions that are inherent in your idea, because at this point there are hundreds of them. Then take those first brave steps beyond inception to refine the idea from the perspective of solving a problem.

  • Corral your biggest assumptions into neat piles and begin to flesh out hypotheses to test.
  • Call on your SMEs for guidance.
  • Poll groups of would-be users to find out if you are on the right path.
  • Remove anything you can that is superfluous and does not directly solve the problem.
  • Keep listening to your intuition, your team and your SMEs.

A good idea, a spark that will ignite, can withstand this kind of tending, and it will even glow more brightly for the effort.

Stay loose: Initially, it’s our job to listen and to stay open, so we can see the possibilities. This is not the time to settle on technology or hard solutions.

Get clarity on the problem: We collaborate to craft the idea into something with more weight. We gently begin to tease out the problem and test its veracity. Is it really a problem? How do you know it’s a problem? Who’ve you asked? What did your SMEs say?

Test assumptions: We talk about the users and their expectations and the myriad assumptions that rest in the User Experience realm. It’s time to frame up some hypotheses and tests. I mean why go to the trouble of hiring a development team and spending thousands of dollars only to discover that the users you thought would use your product actually don’t care about the problem you thought they have? It happens. More often than we want to believe, even to the best ideas. Because ideas aren’t products.

Be nimble and resolute: The process of moving from inception and infectious enthusiasm to product owner and founder is one that takes entrepreneurs on a wild ride. Those who are nimble, resilient who can see beyond what they think they know to query what is possible are the ones who can harness lightning in a bottle and see that spark of an idea catch fire.