Invent Something

You know that list you’re keeping in the back of the sock drawer, the one with the great ideas you always intended to develop when life got less crazy? Well, push pause on crazy and bring that list out.

One recent Saturday, I went into Shark Tank mode. What does the world need that I might be able to give it? I reached into that figurative sock drawer (it’s a computer file now) and brought out my own list of cockamamie ideas. There were dozens. Some were actually pretty good. How to decide which to double down on?

Akiro Morita, the legendary CEO of Sony during the ‘70s and ‘80s, once described his company’s then-signature gadget, the Walkman, as “simple and fancy.” That’s probably the denominator of any great invention. It’s simple and fancy.

I looked at my list.

Some of the ideas were simple but not fancy:

Multi-purpose pizza tool  Basically a spatula with one sharp edge, so it both cuts and serves.

Sibling-rivalry shirt  One shirt, fits two. When the little bounders start fighting, boom, you put ’em in the same shirt. You can’t stay mad at someone when you’re wearing their shirt. (Or at least you can’t get a good swing.)

Jacket for weiner dogs Looks like a bun.

 

Some of the ideas were fancy but not simple:

Smelling salts in the binding glue of college textbooks.

Car windshield de-polarizer  Allows your sunglasses to still work while you’re driving. (Note to self: not sure if this is possible.)

PoopFinder  For nighttime dogwalkers. A harmless tracer in your dog’s food makes his stool glow in the dark. (Note to self: ditto.)

 

Some were tech-y:

Chelsea In For Charlotte  Phone app for volunteer soccer coaches. Tells you when to substitute your players, and who for whom, and at what position. (Algorithm figures who’s been out longest, the skill and fitness levels of the girls, the score of the game, and the troublemaking potential of each kid’s parents.)

LadyBadenPowell’sList  Phone app for matching Girl-Guide-cookie sellers with potential buyers. Remedies the imbalance of a glut of cookies in some neighbourhoods and desperate, unquenched demand in others. (“How can I get the cookies if I don’t know a young girl in a beret?” the single slacker dude wonders.)

Fughettaboutit  Phone app that defends the free time of overscheduled kids. When Mom tries to jam one more activity into an already full calendar, the cursor locks up.

 

A few were maybe too high-concept:

All-in-the-Family Kickstarter  Blood relatives vote on which kid in the family has the most promise. Then everyone coughs up ten bucks a month to fund that kid’s dream. (For the investors it’s a business proposition:they are paid back at six percent.)

Vancouver SunChaser Tours  A climate-controlled bus zips tourists around the city following the fugitive blasts of sunshine. (Drivers are in constant radio contact with each other, like whale-watching skippers.)

 

By 11am I was left with a small handful of serious contenders:

The Marriage Saver  Quilt stuffed with goose down on one side and thin acrylic pile on the other. Because we have different thermostats.

The Boogie Spoon  Baby spoon attached to a lanyard that velcro-fastens around the child’s wrist, the way a boogie board does. So when the child “accidentally” drops the spoon over and over again –Watch Dad have to pick it up! Too fun! – the parent effortlessly reels it in.

“There Oughtta Be a Word”  Board game. Contestants are given a scenario (e.g., “That particular sudden sinking feeling when your computer just crashed and you haven’t been backing up”) and everyone makes up a fitting neologism. Best word wins by vote.

 

And then, by noon, I had it. My winner. My killer app.

It’s actually a pretty recent idea. It hatched one evening last summer.

Jen and I were sitting eating smokies with friends on the deck of their townhouse in Richmond (a Vancouver bedroom community.) Their place looks southwest over the ocean. As we watched folks cycle back and forth along the dykes, herons striking poses in the marshland, both of us had the same feeling. It was like we were a thousand miles away. What a shame to have to go home after dinner. We could easily spend a weekend out here just exploring. We’d walk the dog to the nearby fishing village of Steveston, hit Pajo’s for fish ‘n chips, tour the cannery, take the kids to the aplayground, maybe catch an outdoor play at the shipyards. It’s be like one of those “36 Hours in…” concentrated vacations that the New York Times does up so well.

The weird thing was, while we were thinking all of this, our hosts were quietly feeling the same pull toward our neighborhood. We live on the North Shore, in Upper Lynn Valley, on the flank of Mt. Fromme, where the city ends and a thousand kilometres of wilderness begin. In their own flash-vacation in our hood, they’d hike the trails, noodle around by the suspension bridge, see the Ecology Centre, grab French-pressed coffee at the café in the woods, swim in the river, cruise down Bobsled — one of the great non-technical mountain bike trails anywhere. Lynn Valley, done and dusted.

You know where this is going. Both couples looked at each other. What if we switched? You take our place one weekend, and we take yours?

There’s the invention. And here’s its name:

The Vancouver Home Swapping Network.

It’d probably work in any big city, but here’s why I think the concept works especially well here: Vancouver is the City of a Dozen Faces. It’s super geographically diverse. Sleepy Deep Cove and the cosmopolitan West End feel like they share no DNA at all. They’re their own ecosystems. Same with, say, Commercial Drive and Crescent Beach. Same with Chinatown and Granville Island. We all visit these other neighbourhoods, but when we do it’s usually a stealth mission: in and out in a couple hours. We never stay long enough to do the neighbourhood up. For that you need a beachhead. All the better if your hosts have left their bikes, their skis, their skimboard, maybe their dog, and for sure a map and some local intel.

Sometimes it’s not just a change of place we need, it’s a change of state. I read recently about an American rapper who, after years of toiling in poverty and obscurity, hit paydirt. So naturally he moved to a mansion in the suburbs. He figured all that quiet would coax out the songwriting muse. But it turned out to be a little too quiet out there. He’d lost the pulse of the people. So he called up his agent who had an apartment downtown and proposed trading places for a few days. Each got their needed recalibration.

The other big advantage to this kind of holiday, of course, is that it’s cheap. Nobody gets on a plane. You just drive across town. The family from Ambleside starts heading south, and the couple from Yaletown starts heading north, and somewhere in the middle they meet at a Starbucks and exchange housekeys.

“The Vancouver Home Swapping Network.” Simple and fancy.

By now it was early afternoon. I had my idea. The question was, how to take it from blue-sky dreamin’ to a commercially viable plan in what remained of the day?

Clearly a snappy logo was in order. Through the website Fiverr I found a graphic designer in Sri Lanka. For five bucks, he came up with this:

At this point you normally want to do a whole lot of market research. To, a) make sure that your idea doesn’t already exist, and b) that a business case for it does exist, and c) that you’re not deluded in thinking it’s brilliant.

I hadn’t time. So I just called up a couple people and ran it by them. One’s a city planner, one writes about real estate in the city. They kind of liked it.

I sent it to an editor friend at a local city magazine. Could it be a story? It could if it became a thing, he said, the next expression of the micro-tourism trend.

Making it a thing? Now that is a proposition for another Big Day.

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