I taught my students about how to brainstorm business ideas today. We focused on looking for problems in need of a solution, and that great entrepreneurs are always looking for problems to solve.

We first talked about solutions that seem obvious now, but weren’t when they were first introduced - the car, the cell phone, breakfast cereal. We talked about primary and secondary ‘problems’ that products can solve. For example, how the car can be much more than a transportation solution; a pastime, a butt warmer, a status symbol.

But then we started to get into more contemporary ideas. We looked at social media: Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter1.

Helping college kids with an easier way to connect online? Letting you send self-destructing photos to others? 140 character microblogs?

A student raised his hand.

Aren’t these super first-world problems?

Yes, they are. Not every business has to solve problems for the second or third worlds. In fact, most businesses don’t. People will happily pay for something that solves a minor annoyance. Here are the tips I gave to the class, from a post by Chris Guillebeau in April of last year:

  1. A solution to a problem
  2. A response to a clear need
  3. Something that makes people happier
  4. Something that removes a negative

It’s awesome if you can solve world hunger, cure disease, or dig wells for clean water. These missions for humanity need our world’s brightest minds. But most businesses today are solving first world problems. For better or worse, it’s a natural result of people with first world incomes being able to pay for solutions to first world problems.

Don’t shy away from solving ‘first world problems’. People are happy to pay for the right solution.

  1. Because they monetize eyeballs and impressions, they aren’t exactly models of monetizing first world problems directly, but great examples of building multibillion dollar businesses around first world problems. 

Each semester I have over 100 students create new Dropbox accounts. I’ve used this to max out my Dropbox referrals, and have also done so with a number of close friends.

This year, I’m opening it up a little bit. I can probably help max out 5-10 of you on your referral credits for Dropbox.

If you are interested, send me an @reply on Twitter with your Dropbox referral link, and while you’re there, give me a follow. I talk tech, business, and education.


Update: I got more than enough for class tomorrow. I’ll post again next time I’m getting classes set up. Thanks for the feedback everyone!

Everyone fails. But it’s not the failure that defines you, it’s how you respond.

I coach the 9th grade boys basketball team at my school. We’ve worked together for three months to get better. Today the boys faced a talented team in a winnable game. Starting down by 15 in the second quarter, they fought back to within one late in the game. They had two looks in the last ten seconds to pull out a victory and missed both shots.


But as a coach, I’m OK with failure. It’s a learning opportunity. It’s a stepping stone towards greatness. Remember, it’s how you respond to failure that defines you.

Those kids could have given up after the first quarter. Or after one was shoved into the wall by a guy 6 inches and 100 pounds bigger. Or when one was forced to foul out of the game with 3.5 seconds left. But not these kids. They secured a rebound and got another good opportunity before time expired.

They fought back. They didn’t give up. When the odds were against them, they kept going.

How about afterwards?

As the player who took the last two shots walked off the court, upset with his performance, his teammates corralled him, let him know they were glad he took those shots. He turned to a teammate and said, “let’s get better.”

Failure is a prevalent force in sports, in education, in startups. But if we work hard to get there, and take it as a learning lesson afterwards, we turn failure into a step on the bridge to success.

The Failure Resume

Tina Seelig, author of What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, and Stanford professor, invites her students to create a Failure Resume to encourage them to learn from mistakes.

I have taken and modified this same activity with the students in my Teen Entrepreneurship class. 10 slides with either a photo or single sentence describing failures they’ve experienced. I’ve encouraged them to think outside my class, outside school entirely. Failures can be academic, athletic, social, familial, entrepreneurial, etc.

When the students present, they will look at each experience and describe what they learned from it, or advise others on how to avoid doing the same.

A couple of students have shared their decks with me already, and I am eagerly anticipating presentation day.

Far too many of us are ashamed of past failures, swept under the rug in an attempt to divert attention. But showing how we have survived, and even learned from failure is a far greater testament to our character than success. Remember, it’s the before and after that matters, and failure is only permanent if you give up.

If You’re Not Failing…

If you’re not failing regularly, you’re not trying hard enough. You’re not giving yourself the chance to win. It’s time to develop a system to deal with failure. Anticipate it. Learn from it. Get better.

What’s on your Failure Resume? How has that helped you reach greater success?

The stigma around watching TV during leisure time rubs me the wrong way. Somehow, enjoying TV in any capacity has become the villain of leading a happy, successful, productive life. I strongly disagree. Like any form of art, TV can enrich, enliven, even inspire.

Did he just call TV an art form?

Yes. Art. The time, passion, sweat, and tears that go into creating some programs goes beyond that of the great classical books, music, and visual arts.

Of course, for every classic novel there are a thousand self-published pieces not worth your time. Similarly, there is a lot of cruft to dig through to uncover any great song, photo, or movie. Such is art. The truly great ones, the ones worth your time and intellectual investment, are rare.

I admit that TV can overtake too much time and mental energy. For some, it saps the brain of emotion and independent thought. I don’t write in support of zoning out, mindlessly spending your hours at the screen in the living room.

I write of those who heavily invest ourselves in our interests, who dive in to in a great storyline. Those whose brains race during a well-executed reveal, whose hearts rise and fall with the success and failures of top-shelf character development.

For those, watching TV isn’t passive, it exercises the mind. It isn’t shutting doors to the outside world, it opens new platforms for social discourse.

Just like a Shakespearian play, a Beethoven symphony, or a Dickensian Classic.

So don’t apologize because you take time away from work, side projects, or other endeavors to watch a show. You can be successful, happy, and productive, even if you watch TV. Perhaps more so, for enriching your life with the art of masters.

Update: Joshua Howland, friend of the site, and a prolific self-taught developer, responded by e-mail this morning:

I think learning to program, writing a book, or shipping an app as a side project often comes at the cost of your leisure time. So sometimes I go months without TV. I sincerely think it’s a decrease in my quality of life when that happens. But we often have to sacrifice enjoyment in life to accomplish something creative.

Well put, and an excellent counterpoint to mine. Setting priorities is the key. Sacrificing leisure time in order to make more is a worthy pursuit. We must find that fine balance between creating and overworking. One is a healthy endeavor, while the other induces stress and frustration.

In short, spend your time on what makes you happy and enriches your life.

One of the local universities offers a program where students can take concurrent enrollment classes that count towards both high school and general ed college credits. This is a great way to graduate high school with a transferable associate’s degree in tow.

I had a student ask me what I thought of the program. He is about to register for 10th grade and is considering applying to it.

No way

UCAS is a great program. Very successful students go through the program and exit high school two years ahead of their college-bound peers. It has a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. All of which I strongly encourage students to take. So why wouldn’t I recommend it?

It’s simple. This kid is social, outgoing, and would miss some of the amazing opportunities high school offers. He would miss out on clubs, sporting events, dances, student government, and more.

High school isn’t for everyone. In fact, some very successful people skip right over it. But there are other ways to get ahead in schooling if that is the goal.

I graduated from my high school with nearly 45 credits under my belt. We had CP classes, similar to classes that offer AP credit, but without the required test. I also took half-days during my senior year to go down to the local universities and take classes. I didn’t have to go to a separate building two cities away from all of my friends and extra-curricular activities. And even though the first two years of high school were hard, my junior and senior years were some of the most fun of my life.

Rushing through college is a sucker’s game if you don’t know what you want to get out of it. I rushed to finish my degree. I had no clue what I wanted to do, I only knew that I wanted to graduate ASAP.

While I love my career choice, I fell into it rather than discovered it as a perfect fit for me. I didn’t take my time to find out what I wanted to do. I followed a trail set by a family of educators. Heck. I almost changed my major to accounting one semester before graduating in Business Education. (Happy to say I dodged a major bullet there.)

UCAS and other programs that help you get ahead are great if you know what you want to do with that degree. It’s a great way to save money on college tuition, and it can be a great fit if the typical high school scene just isn’t for you. To those students, I heartily endorse UCAS and similar programs.

But if you are the type of person who will get involved in clubs, dance, drama, student government; or if you enjoy getting to know new people, dating, dances, care-free drives with your friends; or if you just need a little more time to figure out who you are and what you want to become; find other ways to get ahead that allow you to still be a part of your high school. It just may be some of the best years of your life.