While attending Hebrew University’ Transdisciplinary innovation program this summer, I met 20 brilliant creative minds from Brazil, Russia, China, England, Ghana, South Africa and Israel. It’s amazing what happens when you group 20 human beings from around the world and you place them into a room full of whiteboards and tell them to “go wild!”. So many cool projects have started… from a toothbrush sensor that can instantly read your stress levels, to an app that uses computer vision to instantly spot a fake Chanel bag, and the list goes on and on. I was inspired by what I experienced and so I wrote about 3 wild successes that grew from humble scribbles.
3 Huge Successes That Began on a Paper Napkin or Whiteboard
“Ideas shape the course of history,” used to say John Maynard Keynes, a British economist who’s solely responsible for transforming the theory and practice of macroeconomics and the economic policies of governments. Ideas also shape the courses of our individual lives, being the sparks that ignite the engine of change. But ideas come unannounced and usually much less often than we’d like. That’s why it’s so important to be ready to capture all ideas that show up at the door to our consciousness before they leave and never return.
Who knows how many successful ideas would be forever lost if it wasn’t for the humble whiteboard and the even humbler napkin. From the Voyager airplane to the modern fire hose nozzle to Southwest Airlines, many of the world’s most influential inventions, businesses, and deals started in a messy break room or at the bar over a couple of drinks.
For this article, we’ve selected three huge successes that, in our opinion, best illustrate the broad range of ideas that can be captured on a paper napkin or whiteboard. They show that even in the age of ubiquitous pocket-sized computers, there’s still room for traditional note-taking implements such as napkins and whiteboards.
Introduced in 1975 in the San Francisco area, Pet Rock has turned into a huge, puzzling success just a few months later, with the sales numbers far exceeding one million units. While many people remember the bizarre fad that turned its father, Gary Ross Dahl, into a millionaire, not many people know that the idea for Pet Rock was conceived after a few drinks at the bar and jotted down on a napkin.
Inside the ventilated box (Pet Rocks need to breathe too, you know) was a single rock, peacefully resting (as Pet Rocks usually do) on a bed of excelsior. There was also a leash and a brief instruction book, which went over the basics of Pet Rock care and training, among other important things.
During an interview with the Oakland Tribune, Dahl said, “I packaged a sense of humor for a very bored public.” Indeed, the humorous execution undeniably played a huge role in Pet Rock’s enormous and totally unexpected success, but the baffling product would never have existed if it wasn’t for the brilliant initial idea captured on a paper napkin. An idea like this can occur to anyone at any time. What separated Dahl from most people was his ability to capture the idea and flawlessly execute it.
Pixar’s Acquisition by Disney
In January 1996, Steve Jobs, who was in charge of Pixar at the time, found himself in a conference room, contemplating how Pixar stood in relation to Disney, who was helping Pixar produce movies such as Toy Story 1 and 2. Disney was used to producing their movies in-house and hated the idea of not being fully in charge. Being well-aware of Pixar’s poor financial situation, Jobs knew that an acquisition offer from Disney was around the corner. The question was whether to sell Pixar to Disney now or wait until later.
“Steve took a whiteboard pen and made two columns: Disney and Pixar. Under the Disney column, he would write the points that gave Disney leverage. Under the Pixar column, he would write the points that favored Pixar,” writes Lawrence Levy in To Pixar and Beyond. One of the points under Pixar read, “BETTER DEAL IF WAIT,” and that’s exactly what Pixar did.
The company waited until 2006, which is when Disney purchased Pixar at a valuation of $7.4 billion, making Steve Jobs Disney’s largest single shareholder at the time. One can only imagine how many other historic decisions have been made with the help of the humble whiteboard.
The Go Programming Language
Go is an open source programming language created at Google in 2007 by Robert Griesemer, Rob Pike, and Ken Thompson. According to the famous creation myth of Go, “Rob Pike, Ken Thompson, and Robert Griesemer were waiting for an unusually long C++ build to take place when they decided to theorize a new language. What started on a whiteboard in 2007, shortly after that turned into a specification, which then was open sourced in 2009 with two compiler implementations,” explains Raunak Dugar, a software engineer at Peel.
These days, Go is one of the most trending programming languages in existence, respecting many conventions of the C programming language but improving brevity, simplicity, and safety. Apart from Google, some of the most notable companies that use Go include CloudFlare, Dropbox, Netflix, SoundCloud, Twitch, and Uber.
Of course, software engineers and innovative startups are used to relying on whiteboards to capture disruptive ideas and innovate entire industries. Whiteboards are hands-on, collaborative, accessible, and, unlike their digital alternatives, affordable.
You may not invent the next big programming language or start a successful airline company, but your ideas can turn into big successes nonetheless. It could be a brilliant idea for a book, just like the one J.K. Rowling got during her train ride from Manchester to London in 1990, or you could realize what business move would be the best for your company, just like when Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon met Jet founder Marc Lore in 2016, and the two instantly started sketching out on a whiteboard how they could combine the two companies, which eventually lead to the largest-ever acquisition of an e-commerce company.
So, make sure you’re never too far away from a whiteboard, so none of your game-changing ideas slip away from your conscience, never to return to you. There’s no shortage of good uses for a whiteboard, so it’s not like the whiteboard is going to sit unused until a good idea decides to knock on your door.
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