Thinking by Association

“Good artists copy but Great artists steal” – Pablo Picasso

Try googling ‘Uber for X’ and you will find startups solving a totally different problem than Uber but are similar to Uber in the way they solve the problem: on-demand and connect customers with freelancers who are available at the push of the button. Product Hunt has curated a list of such ‘Uber for X’ startups. There are Ubers for everything imaginable: Uber for dog walking, Uber for groceries, Uber for home cleaning, Uber for pizza, Uber for haircuts, Uber for security, Uber for chocolate chip cookies etc.

Taking inspiration from an entity, scenario, feature or business model and applying it in a totally different context is what we can call Thinking by Association or Associating Thinking. You look at a something and a light bulb moment hits you that something similar can be applied in a totally different context.

Some interesting businesses (some of them very successful) have had their fair share of Associating Thinking.

Research students would be familiar with Citation Analysis – examination of frequency, patterns and graphs of citations in articles and books. Basically, it uses citations in journals and other works to link to other works or researchers. It is said to have highly influenced Larry Page and Sergey Brin (PHD students themselves) in the development of the PageRank algorithm.

You would be associating McDonalds with Obesity. Can you imagine associating McDonalds with Eye Surgeries and in a positive way? Arvind Eye Care is a fabled pioneer of low cost eye operations. It was founded by a retired doctor Dr. Venkataswamy (fondly known to his admirers as Dr. V). Restless to solve the problem of avoidable blindness and faced with the constraints of severe shortage of eye doctors in the country, he hit upon a brilliant idea that revolutionized eye care in India and saved millions of people from losing their sight. He was inspired by the McDonalds process of standardization. Most of the work in an eye surgery would be done not by expensive (and very scarce in India) doctors but by highly trained, far less educated and expensive paramedics and nurses. Only the critical part of the surgery would be carried out by doctors.

1 Arvind Eye Care.jpg
Eye operations at Arvind Eye Care inspired by McDonalds

Mark Benioff is said to have got his inspiration for Salesforce from Amazon – “why not sell software over the Internet”? Slideshare, acquired by LinkedIn for $119 million calls itself the Youtube for powerpoint presentations. Scribd bills itself the Netflix for documents.

Jim Yurchenco was the IDEO engineer who helped build iconic products like Palm V and the Apple mouse. In this fascinating article in Wired post his retirement, he talks a little about having been tasked with the Apple mouse. The Xerox mouse in those days cost $400 to make! Yurchenco’s job was to transform it into something made on the cheap by the tens of thousands. He made two important ‘associations’ that transformed the mouse.

One was the inspiration from the Atari Trackball found in Atari Arcade machines. The track ball just floats unlike the ball used in the Xerox Mouse. Just let gravity do the work. And the result was less friction and fewer parts. The Atari machine also used optics instead of mechanical switches.

2 Atari Trackball.jpg
Atari Machine that inspired the Apple Mouse

Yurchenco’s second great association was the steering wheel of the car. You don’t pay attention to what you are doing with the steering wheel. The steering wheel need not be accurate – you just adjust the wheel until the car goes where you want. The same thinking went into the computer mouse. So, he designed the mouse with less stringent demands on accuracy which meant fewer parts and lower costs.

Returning to the Picasso quote, when an artist just copies she would be having trouble in living up to the original. But stealing some inspirations carefully while adding your own can result in extraordinary work.

When thinking by association, I think if the following is the route your brain takes, then it is deeply flawed:
I want to start a business à Uber works in this way à Why can’t I do this for food or cleaning or dog walking à What is the problem I am solving with food or cleaning or dog walking?

A high profile startup Homejoy (Uber for Cleaning) shut down a few months back. Though plagued by non-market factors like regulations, the service was flawed on unit economics.

Instead the best associations happens when you clearly understand the problem in a business (often as a result of having thought about the problem for a very long time) and understand the constraints and you look for inspirations somewhere else.

Sometimes associations can be included in some features in your product. Khan Academy was inspired by games to motivate its young users to learn more and added gamified features. Topcoder was inspired by baseball cards to find a way to rate the top programmers who compete on its platform.

Rob Morris, a trained Psychologist earlier this year launched Koko, a social media network that calms your mind and is very positive.

Rob Morris was inspired by Stack Overflow where he got help from strangers (who owed him nothing) on Stack Overflow whenever he was stuck in his programming problems.

Wired writes about it,

“It was as if Whisper or Secret had repopulated its trolling avatars with actual humans who, for some inconceivable reason, gave a shit about my shit. It was weird and strangely helpful.”

“Koko is a mobile social media platform focused on mental health. It’s what you’d get if you were to combine the swiping gesture of Tinder, the anonymity of Whisper, the upvoting of Reddit, and the earnestness of old-fashioned forums. It is, in other words, an online social experience unlike anything else out there.”

Keep an eye out for associations!

Would like to leave you with a few thought provoking associations:

  1. How can you apply inspirations from the popular Ice Bucket Challenge (people challenging each other for example) to healthcare or fitness?
  2. Can the Netflix model be applied to Toys?
  3. Can Kickstarter be used to collect income taxes?
  4. AirBnB for food to provide employment to millions of unemployed women home makers in India?



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