Guest post 2: How do you harness your passion to solve a social need?

The following is a guest blog post by my friend Anthony Paglino who will contribute every Wednesday leading to the March 27th release of the iCurious Travel: A Cultural Guide to China, available exclusively on iTunes. Follow Anthony on Twitter @iCuriousTravel  or on Google + for updates.

Harnessing your passion blends all of the above. (http://trinimocha.onsugar.com)

Harnessing your passion blends all of the above. (http://trinimocha.onsugar.com)

In the introduction of this series, we covered how a perfect storm of liberated financing through crowdfunding, extremely affordable world class education through the Internet, and the desire to do good for the broader world through sustainable business practices are giving opportunity to the passionate and motivated.

But how do you translate your passion into a marketable product? This is the journey of the creative process all its messy glory.

First know this. Projects don’t always have to be the next cure all for poverty, hunger or disease. They should be fun expressions of your personality that can help bring people together in this globalized world.

Roxanne Turpen took her passion for designing and making superhero capes and turned an obscure skill into a funding campaign that raised more than $45,000. However Roxanne’s cape business was years in the making before she pulled the trigger on her Kickstarter campaign.

It’s important to remember when starting your new passion project that success does not happen overnight. While working on your passion project, over time you become more adept at understanding the challenges and possibilities for your product. Roxanne took two years of testing out ideas before she finally felt that the cape manufacturing business was the right fit at the right time.

And here is the second lesson you will learn in your crowd funding endeavor: The best way to become a successful entrepreneur is to fail fast and often.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, offers a good lesson from his graduate school days at Stanford where he tried to create a way for people to order pizzas online. The concept didn’t take off because he sent the request through fax, and nobody at the restaurant checked their fax machine. Good idea, but wrong timing. Failing fast at online pizza delivery gave Brin more time to create the algorithms that would later be the world’s most powerful online search platform.

Although we can’t all be multi-billionaires, the creative process is similar: Try lots of things and see what works.

My experience was roundabout and mainly on purpose because figuring out where my passion would be economically viable was not a given.

At the beginning of 2012, Apple introduced a new platform for self publishing called iBooks Author. An innovative tool, iBooks Author has an easy to use and master interface, allowing hobbyists and enthusiasts to publish beautiful and cleanly designed interactive textbooks that are published through the iTunes store.

When Apple released iBooks, it provided the market and medium where I could write about my time in China, but I was still unsure about what exactly to write about, which angle to take, and whom exactly was my target audience.

I first entertained the idea of documenting the production of handicrafts in rural China where I learned how to weave bamboo baskets with an elderly couple in a neighboring village. Based on that experience with bamboo baskets and all the fun I was having, I cooked up an idea to travel around to other parts of rural China and document this rapidly disappearing heritage.

Unfortunately, the idea didn’t stick because the logistics and practicality of handcrafts as a main theme didn’t fit the budget, or the timing, and was just downright obscure. I will say that some day in the future, I would still love to pursue this avenue.

I had to reevaluate what my goals were. And here is where the third great lesson in crowd funding comes in handy: Start with the “Why.”

Why are you building this product? Why will it help other people? Why should I be interested? By starting at the end goal of why your project matters, you can focus on the specific tasks you need to get to that end point. Simon Sinek puts it succinctly that people buy why you do, not what you do.

Unfortunately, I started with the “what,” a book about my experiences in China, which is a broad subject. I needed to take a step back, and refocus on the why.

At the end of the day, I wanted to equip more travelers visiting China with soft language and culture skills to increase interaction person to person and to combat the rampant mass tourism industry that kills spontaneous experiences. Why? Because interactive and thoughtful travel has the potential to make the world a more peaceful and prosperous place through cultural exchange. But to get to that point of meaningful cultural exchange, you need language abilities.

I looked at what would be relevant to travelers in a book form, and the answer was quite clear.

During my senior year of college, I embarked on the biggest adventure of my life up to that point. I enrolled in a summer study abroad course in China through the University of Florida.

To mentally prepare and plan for the trip, I bought a thick, Bible-esque tome from Lonely Planet on Southwest China that, in retrospect, consisted of 500 semi-relevant pages of information on places I would never go to. Because the turnover rate of restaurants and hotels in China is lightning fast, the places listed, and the things to do would certainly be out of date by the time I arrived. I paid close to $40 for a book that ended up being 10 percent useful to me.

This seemed like an economic opportunity to fill the gap in the marketplace where traditional publishers were not embracing new trends and consumption habits.

I also took into account my specific skills and experience. Since that first summer studying abroad, I then spent four subsequent years traveling around China, mainly from the seat of my bike but also by non-airconditioned train, smoke filled overnight buses, shockless minivans, doorless three wheeled trikes, and on occasion by a six-person horse cart with a schizophrenic horse. I racked up a lot of knowledge and know-how from those misadventures on effective and fun ways to get your travel on in China.

From a professional perspective while living in Beijing between 2009 and 2010, I got involved with an online startup teaching Mandarin and produced a bunch of short series about travel and language that eventually landed on YouTube.

Naturally I moved from a comfortable cityscape in the capital to working in tourism and hospitality in the southwest province of Yunnan in a rural town called Dali. It was a unique experience to witness and participate in the agricultural lifestyle up close, an opportunity few Westerners get to see over prolonged periods of time.

Drawn by Yunnan’s natural beauty and ethnic diversity, large flocks of tourists descend into the usual tourist hot spots, gorging on pre-determined itineraries developed for the masses and pushed by generic tour companies. Big money brought by big tour groups breeds more development of once small communities into large hollowed out theme parks. A sad sight. Unfortunately, these once pristine places are for the most part highlighted in Lonely Planet’s and Fodor’s travel books.

Although the Chinese language market for tour books is a whole other ball game, the English language market was approachable. I wanted to help people get past the Disney-kitsch new “old towns” and interact with real people and exchange real ideas in, you know, the “Real China.” Through Apple iBooks I could create an interactive travel guide focused on language and culture to grease the friendship wheels.

This felt right. This felt like I had a chance to make a difference. An opportunity to start a dialogue.

And when it comes to making this work from a business standpoint, which would you rather choose? The $10 digital guide with low overhead and full of relevant information that will last, or the $40 out-of-date brick that is dead on arrival?

Now that I had my idea, my business case, and my why?, I needed to figure out a way to get this project off the ground. At this point in the timeline I was still unfamiliar with crowdfunding.

In part 3, we’ll talk about the importance of sharing your idea with close friends and family first because you never know what great information and feedback they will share with you. For example, my uncle  was the first to introduce the catalytic idea of crowdfunding.

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