Mark Gilbert's Blog

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Seeing the Lines

For most of the last two years, I’ve played chess with a couple of the guys in the office.  One of them, Jack (not his real name), has played a LOT of chess in his time, and has competed often.  So, when I say that I "play chess" what I’m really saying is that I move pieces around the board and try to make Jack work for his win.  It’s all in good fun.

Even better than being able to laugh off a fabulously bad move, or marvel at a stellar one, is simply learning to play better.  Jack is more than willing to explain why he made the move he did, and what it "got him" – better position, opening up possibilities for later, forcing me to move one of my pieces out of his way, and so on.  He’s also very good about explaining the pros and cons of the moves I make, showing me how moving my bishop there instead of here would have been a stronger move, and why.  He is a very good teacher.

One of the points that he frequently comes back to is the concept of "lines".  With the exception of knights, chess pieces move in straight lines. As a result, positioning those pieces so they are on "good" lines becomes very important in the game.  More than once I’ve seen him move a rook (for example) onto a particular column on the board, and then not touch it again for 5 moves.  What I discovered on move 6 was that he was herding my king to that line, and removing the intervening pieces one by one.  He could see how the game was likely to unfold, and put the rook into position to be ready to strike when everything was in place.

It’s a skill I’ve struggled to gain, let alone master – to be able to see the lines, and move pieces accordingly.

What I’ve realized in the last week is that I’ve actually been playing another game of chess at home.  For the last 18 months, I’ve been working on a prototype of a system that I think has commercial potential.  For most of the last year, I’ve been letting thoughts about how I would take this commercially simmer and stew in the back of my head, and collecting thoughts as they came up (a lot of my side projects work like that – collect ideas until I reach critical mass, and then move on it).  Part of that simmer-timer was to compile a list of systems and applications that would conceivably be competition.  This past week it was time to start organizing those thoughts, and really start moving the business side of this little endeavor forward.

In the course of checking out those other systems, I realized there were already two applications that did much of what I wanted mine to do.  I never seriously suspected that what I was building was, at its core, unique, but I had hoped that there were pieces that would make mine easier to use, easier to extend, easier to deploy – something that would set mine apart from the others and allow me to capitalize on it.

Which brings me back to chess.  I think I’m having trouble "seeing the lines" again.  On the surface it looks like what I’ve built very closely resembles what is already out there.  Trying to field a third product that does the same thing seems silly, especially since I can only devote about 5 hours a week on it.  At that rate, I simply can’t afford to go up against those other products with a product that merely replicates what they do.  In other words, I can’t play by their rules.  I need to find my own line.

I think my options at this point are 1) find a way to distinguish it in the current market, or 2) create a new market that I’m the first and only player in.  I don’t see the strategy – the line – that will lead me, 5 moves from now, successfully down either of those roads. 

To further complicate things, I’m also been asking myself "Are these my only two options?"  Am I failing to see yet another line?

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October 15, 2010 - Posted by | General

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