Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

The beauty of beta mode

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on March 19, 2012

Everyone should have the word ‘beta’ after their name. In fact, I’m thinking of putting it on my website when I give it a redesign.

It’s a reference you’ll probably recognise to new websites and businesses which often first go public in ‘beta mode’. It denotes that fact that they are still in a  a process of testing, experimenting, failing and debugging. Gmail was famously in beta mode for more than five years.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn says the startup approach can be applied to real people: their lives and careers ought to be in ‘permanent beta’. “We are all works in progress” he says.

Thing is, many people try to get out of the beta version of their lives as soon as possible, and into ‘finished’ mode: the complete career, the complete marriage, the complete house.

And us creative types: online publishers, designers, film makers and journalists do the same thing when we make something new. We rush to get it into perfect mode as swiftly as possible.

The problem with this approach to anything is it is extremely limiting.

Firstly, it limits ideation and iteration: two important parts of any creative process. If you aim for a perfect first shoot, it means your first idea has to be the best. Therefore you ignore all other ideas. You’re also less open to changing from that idea when something better comes along.

Quick tip#1: your first idea is never the best one.

Some say a good approach is a 10:3:1 ratio. You come up with at least 10 ideas, whittle down to the top three, and then pick the best. I used a similar idea with the Future of News mini-meetups in 2010, where I got people to brainstorm a large number of ideas around a problem, aiming for quantity over quality.

Secondly, and with more serious consequences, aiming for perfect limits your mindset. Rushing out of beta mode into finished mode makes you do dangerous things:

  • avoid taking big risks
  • avoid starting projects you don’t know for certain will work
  • discard projects you don’t think will make any money
  • delay or discard big dreams and plans for the future
  • settle

What if you were always in beta?

Imagine how your life would be if, instead of aiming to get out of beta-mode, you relished being in it.

Imagine relishing experimentation, failure, uncertainty, being scared and unprepared. Think of the things it would make you do. The projects you would start for the hell-of-it, and the serendipity that would create. The places you would travel to just to see what it was like, the events you would go to just because.

We would be more bold and more varied in our careers. Young people wouldn’t feel pressured into a specific career early on, or feel like they couldn’t move on to something completely different. More risky innovative projects would get started and finished, which in turn would affect and inspire more people. People wouldn’t wait for permission or the ‘right time’ to get going with something.

Quick tip #2: you don’t need anyone’s permission and the ‘right time’ never comes.

More people would get their hands dirty. We would stop trying to plan and prepare for things we can’t control. And if things don’t work out it’s not a deal-breaking catastrophe, just an opportunity to take stock, change-up and pivot to something new.

That’s what good startups do when they’re in beta mode, because it’s the best way to deal with the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. Isn’t it time we accepted our lives & careers today are filled with just the same uncertainty? 

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