Turning vague ideas into a living project

Founding Mother, Chard & Stripes

So sometimes, it’s best to keep ideas to yourself.

What I mean is protecting your intellectual property street style: getting your ideas past the seedling stage where they’re at risk of being crushed by naysayers.

But beware: Budding ideas kept in hiding too long could die from a lack of sunlight.

Sharing your ideas is how they grow and come to life.

I have two living projects now, Chard & Stripes and Vertical Village Alliance.

The idea for the latter sprouted while I was caregiving for my father who had dementia.

The basic idea is to gather neighbors in apartment buildings to help each other.

I shared my idea with my mother, who thought it was a good.

She shared it with former neighbors in Chicago, each of whom responded with a sound of delight.

And our current neighbors loved the idea too.

When I told family beyond my mom, I got a positive response and a skeptical one related to liability. But the idea had grown into a plan and I wasn’t deterred, especially because liability can be managed.

More than that, my soul wouldn’t let it rest.

Which of your ideas is it time to share?

OK, I’m stretching here to make some points:

#1. The only lukewarm response I got came from a sister who lives in a house.

In other words, not an apartment dweller, or member of my “ideal audience,” as they say.

#2. If your family folk aren’t ideal (take that how you will), share carefully depending on your history.

A cool response to your idea could mean you’re sharing too broadly.
Don’t go for the most folks you can tell but an ideal “minimum viable audience.”

Seth Godin is an author / entrepreneur / teacher who brought the term “minimum viable audience” to my attention. In his words, that’s “the smallest group that could possibly sustain you in your work.”

And when your ideas are vague, your work is making them clear.

My idea for Vertical Village Alliance had no confusing stage:

Almost as soon as it came to me, I had a plan for how to start.

Putting my plan into motion is revealing bigger ones, but I pretty much had a plan from day 1. The name and messaging filled in later. Chard & Stripes was the opposite. It took years to incubate.

(Technically, that’s true for my village work too because it partly grew from my childhood in Kenya.)

Like I said in my first post on this blog, I got an idea to make something I thought was missing: a source of doable things “everyday” people could do to improve their communities. I was clear in my heart but confused in my head beyond sharing what I was learning on the topic.

I could have done that on a Facebook page except I had misgivings about Facebook. So I started a newsletter that I announced to family and friends (soon, I’ll share tools so you can do that too). I called it The Practical Patriot and got about 20 subscribers, which was enough to sustain my “clarity work.”

The minimum viable audience for Chard & Stripes’ clarity phase has never exceeded 30 people.

What happened when is a bit hazy for me now, but The Practical Patriot became New Dealer News, which I wrote alongside a newsletter sharing what I was learning trying to remake my career.

Eventually, I stopped both.

At one point, I launched a website around health and wealth creation (which was pricey given my lack of money) that confused everyone who laid eyes on the thing. Embarrassed, I took the website down and turned to paper to tease my thoughts apart until I had the guts to give it another go publicly.

Meanwhile, in 2013, I was in a woozy state of waking up when the words “chard and stripes” floated across my mind. I fell in love and was thrilled the domain was there for me to buy. But I had no clue what Chard & Stripes would be.

At one point, I thought it would be a t-shirt company, until I learned t-shirts take tons of water to make.

Then I thought Chard & Stripes might be a blog, but about what?

Only in 2018 did it hit me: Chard & Stripes was the community center I’d been dreaming of running since my youth, and the means to discuss everything I tried covering in my newsletters that “failed.”

All I needed was a unifying idea, which I came to call “prosperity making.”

Meditate on a possible idea or theme for your project.

Then, make an offer to an audience—as ideal as you can discern—and fulfill it the best you can. And “If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late.”

Co-founder, LinkedIN

Like I also said in the first post on this site, “Clarity comes by taking one step after another. And work becomes good by doing it consistently, which is easier to do when you promise it to others.”

I might feel embarrassed about past versions of this site save for three things:

#1. It was clear enough to keep public.

#2. I believe the Bible when it says “the LORD rejoices to see the work begin.”

#3. The work was (and still is) energizing, which is what prosperity is about in my book.

To my subscribers: Thank you for sticking with me as I work to make this platform better.

To you with a project wanting to be born, …

Your ideal minimum viable audience might mean some friends who stick it out with you.

What offer will you make and when will you start?

P.S. On the day I launched Chard & Stripes, I had a lawyer submit a trademark application to protect the name. Why? Because brand names can become lucrative and I didn’t want anyone to swipe it & cash in!

Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Harmon is a scientist turned storyteller and Founding Mother of Chard & Stripes, a “school” of prosperity making and word-of-mouth marketing platform for kind people, products and businesses in food, fashion & more. Subscribe to her newsletter here.