Connecting the Dots, Backwards.

Connecting the Dots, Backwards.

I recently gave a talk at a university about entrepreneurship, and when I was telling the story of my first business, I realised something important. I learned so many things that would be important later on in my career, but at the time I didn’t understand. It reminded me of what Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech about connecting the dots and how you can only do it backwards,  so I thought I would share the story.

When I was starting high school, I received my book list, and there were two models of calculator you could choose from, the standard one and a programmable one. I wanted the programmable version, but it was $75 as opposed to $25 for the basic model and our family didn't have a lot of money to spare, so I had to get the basic one.

When I got my new calculator the first thing I did was pull it apart, something I used to do whenever I got an electronic device. On a side note taking things apart would always get me in trouble, especially the day after Christmas when my parents would find my presents in pieces - I did usually put them back together though.

So when I took the calculator apart, I noticed something interesting, the pads for the extra two buttons that the programmable version had where on the circuit board, and they worked! So the only physical difference between the models was the holes in the case and two plastic buttons, that's $25 a button! When I explained this to my two closest friends they didn't believe me, they said: "There is no way it is the same!"

So to prove it I made a couple of buttons out of some scrap plastic (I wish they had 3D printers back then), cut the holes in the case and I had a fully programmable calculator. Granted it wasn't pretty, but it didn't matter, it worked. Now they wanted their calculators upgraded too, but they didn't want the ugly bits of plastic for buttons.

So I told them if they gave me $10 each and I put in $5 that I could buy another calculator for parts, and I could use the buttons from that one so it would look just like a proper one. After I upgraded theirs, the word spread that for $10 I could make your $25 calculator work like a $75 one.

But most people were a little cautious about letting me cut holes in their brand new calculator so to reduce their risk I swapped my upgraded one for theirs plus $10 which I would then upgrade and sell to the next person.

After a while, I had enough money to buy some "stock". I sold about 20 that year, granted it wasn't a lot of money, but each one I sold was a day out at the movies and a hamburger, which at 13 was a big deal.

So what did I learn from my first entrepreneurial experience?

Be Inquisitive

Question the world, find out how things work and if you can make them better. Do not accept the status quo. You are just as capable as anyone else to make a difference. As Dr. Horrible says “The status is not quo.”

Get Outside Options on Your Ideas

If you find out something interesting, share it. A lot of entrepreneurs are too scared to tell anyone about their ideas in case they steal them. Not only does this rarely happen, but the execution is much more important than the actual idea in most cases. If they do steal it, they wouldn’t have the passion for the idea that you have so they will never execute the way you could. But what happens is that you miss the opportunity to get feedback on your idea and see if it interests anyone. I don’t think the couple of people I told were going to run off and start a calculator upgrade business. Instead, I got suggestions, support, and my first customers.

Scratch Your Own Itch

It may surprise you, but you are not alone. For everything that interests you, there are thousands of other people who like the same thing. So instead of trying to come up with ideas or products that you think other people would like, build the things that you want, and I can guarantee you that there will be lots of other people who will be just as interested as you. Not only that but when it's something you want for yourself, you will have a better understanding of what it should be and also have the passion for sticking to it when things get hard.


When it comes to manufacturing electronics, it is sometimes easier and cheaper to build one version and sell it as two different models. That way there is a single manufacturing cost which can have a lower total cost due to increased component volumes. You can also save a lot of money on compliance testing and certification. This approach is also quite common with software where it may be the same binary, but it’s the license that controls the features.

Build a Prototype

It is imperative that you make a prototype for two reasons. Firstly, to not only prove to yourself that it is possible but also to show others that it is real. Secondly, until you build it yourself you don't really know what is involved in the construction. I see so many people send their ideas off to be made by someone else and it either doesn't work as they hoped (or not at all) or it costs way more than expected.

Crowd Funding

It can be a little scary to take other peoples money for a product you haven't built yet but if you are honest and upfront about the risks and keep them updated as often as possible they can be not only a great a source of funding but also motivation. Most people really want you to succeed so don't be afraid to get them involved.

Be Self Sufficient

Similar to building a prototype you should start by making it yourself because not only is it a great learning experience but you know exactly what is required and how long it takes. This experience is invaluable when it comes to getting other people to build it for you in the future.

Put Yourself in your Customer's Shoes

Understand their concerns, questions, and needs by offering trials, information, and support. Don't expect them to do the hard work for you. By having a calculator already upgraded people could see what they were getting and were a lot less concerned about risk.

Target Niche Markets

Target niche markets, you can always grow market width later. Don't try and boil the ocean. The smaller the initial market, the better you can understand it, especially if you are part of the niche group yourself. If you are making smart collars for dogs, it would be silly to target that niche if you don't own a dog and don't have any idea what makes a collar smart.

Just Help People

Forget sales and revenue just try to help people. Instead of having sales targets, I have people targets. My goal is to help at least 30 people each week learn about SDN. It doesn't matter if it's an answer on a forum, a comment on social media or a sale as long as it helps them achieve whatever it is they are trying to do. Granted I still need to eat, so sales are important, but I have found that one usually takes care of the other.

As I recall this story, I realised not only how much this experience changed my life but also the lessons that I learned which remain with me to this day.


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