Courage, Innovation, Gmail – A Few Thoughts

Posted by Jayasankar

Safe and conformist is easy. There is much less chance of getting blamed. “ Hey I tried my best. And, you too had agreed it was a ‘sensible’ way. ”

“I think , in general, people are uncomfortable with things that are different. Even now when I talk about adding new features to Gmail, if it isn’t just a small variation or rearranging what’s already there, people don’t like it. People have a narrow concept of what’s possible, and we’re limited more by our own ideas about what’s possible than what really is possible. So they just get uncomfortable, and they kind of tend to attack it for whatever reason.″
Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail

It is not normally appreciated as to how much courage it takes to create and stick on with new, paradigm changing, great stuff. Initial rejection from all except a few is almost a given. After all, people are being asked to change. Sometimes from a tried, tested and trusted way.

The creator should be able to distinguish legitimate concerns from the complaints that arise from the all too human resistance to change.

And of course, great solutions happen mostly when someone is solving his own personal itch, creating something he himself would use.

Later, if his product/innovation is successful, he can also watch wryly a lot of the same people joining the bandwagon, conveniently forgetting their initial reaction.

Business guru Tom Peters repeats often that only pissed off people change the world. Here is an addendum ‘courageous pissed off people who realize that they are fallible, who don’t feel entitled , who are good students of the world around them and are not afraid to risk being unpopular.’

I recently came across a man who perfectly fits within this template – Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail.


Most of us use Gmail. And we love it. But think back to when we started using it.

We signed up mostly because of the size of the mail box. Wow, so much space when all the other webmail services screamed at us that our 4mb mailboxes were full.

We logged in and were first puzzled and then unhappy about the software as such. WHAT? No Folders? That’s INSANE. What are these LABELS? You are gonna bunch mails together based on subject?

A few years down the line the once undisputed market leaders are trying anything to stem the flow of people switching over to Gmail. And failing.

No wonder.  Gmail is so cool. It has also made its competitors better by forcing them to play catch up.

In Jessica Livingston’s ‘Founders at Work’ Buchheit says email and email software was something he had been thinking about for a long time before gmail as he had been unhappy with email for a long time.

Pay attention. Notice which things are working and which aren’t. Experiment and iterate. Question your assumptions. Remember that you are wrong about a lot of things. Watch for the signals. Lose your technical and design snobbery. Whatever works, works.

He talks about the difficulty in getting email done inside Google because of the ‘we only do search’ attitude prevalent. In fact he is created the revolutionary Adsense program (in a day supposedly) as he was being asked repeatedly how email will make money.

And of course, Gmail had all the privacy groups up in arms initially, because Adsense meant that email, which may contain the most private of our thoughts will be scanned for keywords. Automatic email scanning is exactly what is done by spam filters which had been in use for quite some time then but Adsense was…. well, new.

Now Adsense is the primary method of delivering advertising in the internet. It has become a multi-billion dollar profit generator for Google, second only to search and thousands across the world make good money off it.

What will we do to the next Paul Buchheit? the next guy who tries to improve our lives a wee bit ?

Of course, we’ll shout him down.

A lot of ‘human nature’ is very uncool. The best we can do, as garden variety human beings, is to be aware of it.

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