An idea worth acting on?

For much of my career, I have led the creation of new software applications.

In each case, something that started off with an idea led to a more detailed concept, that led to a set of requirements and a prototype in some kind of iterative, evolving scenario. And in each of these cases, it eventually transitioned from a one-person project to a multi-person project – ultimately with a whole company numbering tens or hundreds of people built around the product.

I’ve always had a stream of ideas flowing through me. Some I write down. Some I prototype. But very, very few do I act upon at all.

In fact the ideas that I have turned into a product were often other people’s ideas that I embraced, built and then took further.

Why do so few of the ideas get acted on?

Every idea has some motivation, some problem to solve. And every idea will cost something to build. So there is an implicit (or explicit) value calculation that gets done to figure out, “is it worth it?” That can be in terms of money return on investment. It can also be in terms of the social or other value created by the investment.

A few years ago I was having lunch with my friend Cameron and lamenting to him that it was hard to find/make time in my schedule to pray. Without getting into all of the good answers to that question, one that came up went something like this…

  • Cameron: “Have you tried praying while you drive?”
  • Me: “I’ve tried that. I get distracted too easily. It doesn’t work for me.”
  • Cameron: “Try making a prayer track with prompts to remind you of what you want to pray for with silence in between to allow you to pray.”
  • Me: “OK. That might just work. I’ll give it a shot.”

So I did try it. And it worked amazingly well. I put in prompts about my family and various enduring topics like work, small group, etc. It probably took me an hour with GarageBand to put together the track. Not a bad return on my time for as much as I used it.

But then I realized that to make changes, I might be spending another hour or at least a half hour to update this track and get it onto my phone.

What if there were an easier way to update the track?

Out of this was born the idea for an app I call Pray On The Go* … use a record button in an app on your phone to quickly record audio prompts for yourself. Then have the app play them back in order with time to pray for each one. Insert a few music tracks in your list to break your prayer time up a bit.

As I thought about this idea, I started to write down the details. It wouldn’t be easy. I’d have to learn Objective C or get some help writing it. Still, I kept refining the idea until I had a detailed specification.

That value calculation I mentioned earlier took a while to mull over. Even now, I’m not sure this app will ever bring in any revenue. If others find it useful, will they find it worth paying money for? I ultimately decided to invest the time and money and created the iOS app which you can find here.

That was great for me and a few of my friends. But I had to turn away all my friends with Android phones. And not wanting to create two completely different code bases for this app, I decided to rewrite the app using Flutter to target both Android and iOS. Now you can find the Android version of the app here. Eventually I’ll bring this Flutter code base to the iOS app store so that I can keep my maintenance work to a minimum.

The ROI on this investment goes in a few different directions:

  1. I’ve already benefited from the learning experience by actually writing the app.
  2. I’ve created something that may be of value to some people.
  3. TBD: I may yet come up with a way to generate some revenue from this.

But even without the last one, I’m glad I didn’t leave this idea on the shelf.

As I use the app, I definitely find it useful. But I also find that I get bored with it and want it to do more. I really think the ability to pull in more types of content and to share prayer requests would make the app more compelling. So, I find myself once again doing little ROI assessments for things like adding sharing features to make it easy for people to share their audio prayer requests among a small group.

I’ve already started creating AWS Lambda services to support these sharing features where for me the learning ROI is compelling enough to proceed. (Lambda has been long on my list to explore). But I can see the investment expanding significantly and the rest of the ROI is just waiting out there for me to attempt to compute.

I’d love to hear about an idea you’ve had that you have left on the shelf, or maybe even started to dabble in, but in any case, just can’t quite let go of it.


*I initially called it Drive Time Prayer. But then realized the application is much broader. This kind of prayer track can be useful anytime your hands and eyes are occupied and your mind is doing a routine task that leaves room for thinking and listening.

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