Chao Lam

Working on the next small things …

Chao, what is your Next Small Thing?

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Are you a fan of Studio Ghibli’s Japanese anime? Did you watch Spirited Away yet again? Were you wishing to adopt the adorable cat, Moon, from Whispers of the Heart? Or fly a glider over the Castle in the Sky?

As a Ghibli fanboy, you can imagine the sugar rush when I came across a tweet reporting that Ghibli Park was going to open in Nagoya, Japan come November! I remember vividly telling myself, "Wow, this has to be on my Bucket List." … and maybe this could be my next small thing.

Call me Chao. I’ve been running a 2+ person company called Next Small Things for over the past 10 years. It’s a vehicle that allows me to indulge my ADHD-like nature: I can’t resist experimenting with new stuff. When problems in my current project look seemingly intractable, I shamefully admit to staring wistfully at the next shiny new thing. So, we try several new online software ideas a year and if we’re lucky, maybe 1 or 2 actually gain some traction and manage to pay the bills.

Naturally, once I explain what Next Small Things is, I am often asked, "So, what Next Small Thing are you working on now?". This idea of an online, sharable bucket list is my current obsession.

Of course, there are a ton of travel sites out there. But they mainly focus on "where are you going next?". Few of us are about to travel at this moment, but almost all of us have travel aspirations! Why not create a website for a community of travel dreamers and not just travel planners? Think GoodReads as a place for book lovers and not Amazon, a site that caters more to book buyers.

Of course, with some technical expertise, you can create your own little Google My Maps and pin down a list of places you would like to go one day. But where is the romance and sense of adventure in that? And who will look at your lonely list?

You may be wondering if I chose this project on a whim. I really have 2 criteria when choosing my Next Small Things:

  1. It has to be a software project that I am excited about or it solves a problem I’m personally frustrated about. This usually means a consumer-oriented service as I’m clueless about selling to big business. And it has to be something that I have a personal intuition about – like fantasizing I were at Ghibli Park right now
  2. I need to at least have some idea how to make this service become popular; most of my successful "small things" involve baking discovery and distribution of the service right into the product itself.

What do I mean by "baking distribution into the product"? A previous Next Small Thing may be illustrative. @ThreadReaderApp is a Twitter bot that converts a series of Tweets into a simple one-page blog-like format that makes for easier reading, sharing and archiving. What is unusual about @ThreadReaderApp is that when you make a request for this blog-like "unroll" (as we call it), it is done publicly on Twitter itself and often seen by thousands of other Twitterers on that thread. Our bot then replies with the requested article usually in the same reply chain. This is a very natural and organic advertisement of our service! Several authors have told me privately that it is a badge of honor when one of their threads receives an unroll request!

​​My guess is that similar dynamics could be at play with our online travel bucket list. If I see an Instagram post of Ghibli Park’s opening day, I would love to be able to comment "@bucketlist can’t wait to go there next year!". This comment would not only automagically add to my list of places I’m dreaming of, but would also subtly signify my personal and public endorsement of Ghibli Park and the Instagram post itself. Our bot’s reply could share a link to my newly updated bucket list, thus making it just a little less lonely.

Our online bucket list idea may not work. In fact, given my track record, it’s most likely to bomb. But that’s actually what gets me going! I like to quickly come up with a simple service and test how well it works and then rapidly iterate based on empirical results and feedback. Of course, it’s not all sunshine and adorable kittens. It feels crummy when my cherished intuitions don’t pan out. But it’s often in those failures, with my ego bruised, that I’m compelled to ruminate on what went wrong 7/24. It’s this uncertainty and constant learning that ultimately makes this still feel fresh after more than a decade.

Folks have asked, "Why small? Why not work on the Next Big Thing" like those who follow the path of Steve Jobs. It’s partly because of my contrarian nature and it’s mostly because I really enjoy this initial ideation phase where everything appears possible. It has taken me two failed venture-backed startups, where we too were on a Captain Ahab-esque hunt for the Next Big Thing, to finally learn that scaling up and managing folks just don’t play to my strengths. It’s my firm belief that innovation comes from small, humble beginnings. The Next Big Thing is invariably birthed from many small things.

For this project, I’m also experimenting with something new in how I create. I’m trying to work and write in public and hence this little essay. If you hate this idea, please let me know why it won’t work. Thank you for saving me umpteen hours of work ahead! If you love it or simply have questions, please DM me! Perhaps you’d like to be an early tester or even a co-conspirator?

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Written by Pseudonymous

October 11, 2022 at 10:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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  1. […] at Next Small Things, we start with a small idea, doable by just 2 of us in a few weeks. It’s the exact opposite of […]

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