About 10 years ago, I founded a company off of a sketch on the back of a napkin. Well, the 21st century equivalent of a sketch on the back of a napkin: a text editor.
In truth, the concept for ExitEvent, a web-based information and support resource for startups, had been germinating in my head for a couple years. In fact, I already had the product well defined. I had most of the codebase together. I had even secured the URL and a few social properties.
What I didn’t have was the launcher — the magic, interconnected, unique "thing" between product, customer and technology — that would evolve my idea from a nice-to-have web-based directory to a full-blown entrepreneurial revolution.
In one night, all of it would come together thanks to a text editor on my phone.
When Opportunity Knocks, It Doesn’t Wait For You to Fire Up Trello
I like to say that ExitEvent started with a joke. At a pre-event dinner for a startup conference, I joked with a friend that my social life had been relegated to attending startup events and that I should just start my own startup event and enjoy a full social calendar. That’s when a woman I had never met before said that if I was serious, she had a prime space for my startup event.
Hosting an actual event related to ExitEvent — which was named after the term for when a startup exits and everyone gets paid — wasn’t the magic I was looking for, but it was indeed a catalyst. So while everyone else enjoyed dinner, I opened a note-taking app on my phone and started jotting.
While everyone else was attending the conference sessions, I was on my phone, simultaneously calling peers who gave me new catalysts and then jotting new notes. I also talked to a number of people at the conference who could vet these new ideas (talk about being at the right place at the right time) — thus discovering more catalysts and jotting down more ideas.
When I got home that night, I had about a dozen text documents that I ported over to my laptop. It was all there. All I had to do was draw the connective tissue between the ideas. From ExitEvent's inception through its execution to its acquisition, those documents evolved into product plans, marketing plans, customer acquisition plans and revenue plans.
How Much of Your Productivity Gets Sucked Up by ‘Productivity’ Software?
Not long ago, I took a survey (I’m a sucker for ’em) about productivity software, sent to me by one of the dozen-or-so productivity SaaS products I use on a regular basis to keep my current startup, well, productive.
As I was answering questions, I started thinking about all the time and money I sink into SaaS software to make my startup run efficiently. It kind of made me mad, which was probably reflected in my answers, which was probably exactly what the sender of the survey was looking for.
Then I thought about one of the most valuable productivity software products I use. To this day, it’s still TextEdit (or Notepad for you Windows folks). It’s also To Do or Google Docs or Office Online — or whatever. It doesn't have to be a text editor.
The point is: When you’re leading, building or executing, you need to be able to quickly record the ideas and catalysts that don’t come out of a formal brainstorming session.
But it’s not just about recording those ideas for posterity; that’s an exercise in futility. You need a way to stub those ideas out into the bigger picture. That magic moment — when everything comes together for that feature, that product, even that company — is fleeting. And by the time I’ve fired up Trello or some other product design software, I’ve already forgotten why the idea was so great in the first place.
TextEdit has saved me from losing the power and value of those ideas and catalysts several times. Here’s why.
Why TextEdit Is a Founder’s Secret Weapon:
- It’ quick to get to.
- I don’t have to be connected.
- It’s unformatted and unstructured.
- I can easily categorize.
- It’s permanent.
- I can say what I want.
- It saves me from overthinking.
There’s a reason why the back-of-a-napkin analogy came to be. It’s because the napkin is there when the inspiration hits, likely in a bar over drinks. But it’s the 21st century, and we all have napkins on our phones and laptops now, we just don’t open them because it's imprinted on us to wait and use Trello or Figma or something that does all the formatting for us. Structure before inspiration is the antithesis of innovation.
I’ve started writing my blog posts (including this one) in TextEdit. I’ve learned that writing good posts isn’t about the font or the formatting or even the word choice. It’s about getting the insights out of your head — as they happen.
I Don’t Have to Be Connected
While it’s rare that I’m not tethered to some kind of internet connectivity, TextEdit is a lifesaver for those times when I’m not. Again, opportunity doesn’t care about how many 5G bars you have at a given moment.
There’s also the shower to consider, which is where 90 percent of good ideas happen. I’m not saying take your phone into the shower, I’m just saying it’s a long enough walk to get to your phone, and the idea will be gone if you have to tap more than once to start documenting. There’s also the commute, so have a predefined voice solution handy.
It’s Unformatted and Unstructured
It’s ironic that the exact reasons productivity software exists — to build out the format and the structure for you — are the very reasons you need to skip them when inspiration hits. With a text editor, I don’t have to think about how the idea looks. But more importantly, I don’t have to think about where the idea fits.
I Can Easily Categorize
Here’s another scenario where the simplicity of the text editor is a strength. I can have as many documents as I want — for whatever reason I want. Once I’m done, I can categorize the documents into one folder or subfolders. I can break one document into two or merge two into one. And everything has a timestamp.
Alternatively, I don’t have to categorize at all. I don’t have to think about where this idea fits into the grand scheme of my business until later. I don’t even have to worry about whether it’s worth documenting or not. Just spit it out.
When you’re executing hard, you will always generate “new” ideas that you’ve already had before. Documents keep me from duplicating effort or making mistakes. I can come back weeks, months or even years later and realize that my new idea is something I had already thought of a while ago, and I didn’t run with it because I had already found the flaws.
I Can Say What I Want
It’s my document, on my device, for my eyes only. I have the freedom to be honest, long-winded and, most importantly, wrong. I’ve started doing this with some emails. I say what I want first, without worrying about “accidentally” hitting “send.” Then once it’s all out, I can edit it before I copy it to my email client.
Think about this in the context of social media. How many careers could have been saved if that tweet went into a text doc first?
It Saves Me From Overthinking
This is the most important reason. When I don’t start an idea with a Trello card or a flowchart or a design or even a sketch, I’m limited as to how far out I can think. Or speculate. Or assume. I’m forced to keep my ideas and catalysts simple and stupid.
The best ideas stand on their own. If there’s an offshoot or an elaboration or an evolution of the idea that’s important, it’ll come back to you. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t a part of the original idea — it was just a distraction keeping your idea from reaching its fully formed state.