Great businesses are created not by thinking big, but by solving life's tiny, irritating problems



IN STARDUST MEMORIES, Woody Allen’s character, Sandy Bates, sits in a dark train carriage surrounded by life’s losers, the air heavy with careers gone astray and marriages buckling under the weight of the mortgage and too many post-office drinks. Allen stares forlornly out of the train window to see a faster, brighter version of his life pass by, where successful, happy people uncork champagne, conga down the aisle and a beautiful young woman (a pre-stardom Sharon Stone) blows him a kiss through the window.

This image usually comes to mind at East Croydon train station, where my own life divides or, more accurately, the fast train out of London makes its one fleeting stop on its way to Brighton, where I live.

Get the connection right and my evening plays out like a building society advert, as I return to a house full of laughter and pitted olives. But get it wrong and East Croydon represents the death of hope and I take my place on a platform lined by men holding bags of off-licence food.

But over the last few weeks, this pain has been removed and I now time my changes to perfection. This is all thanks to an iPhone app that tells me when the trains are due and, crucially, on which platform they will appear. Now I sit with this digital gold dust in my pocket, smiling like a Victorian missionary among the unenlightened. No more chest pains, no more sweaty blind panic, I have the inside line – “the juice” – and the price of happiness was a mere €6.61 (£5.99).

“Basically everybody’s on the same level once they submit an iPhone app,” said one developer recently. “A user just sees what he sees in the iPhone store, and the applications kind of have to sell themselves to some extent.”

This vision is central to the appeal of apps and Apple works hard to sell its store as a meritocracy: two billion applications have been downloaded so far. Steve Jobs said last month that the company has sold 50 million devices (30 million iPhones and 20 million iPod Touches) capable of running the 85,000 apps currently available. Bear in mind the company takes a whopping 30 per cent cut on each app sold and Apple’s astonishing last quarter financials start to make sense: the company’s quarterly profits rose 46 per cent compared to a year ago, raking in €1.12 billion on net revenue of €6.59 billion.

But there is something deeper in the appeal of apps, which have tweaked the interest of a silent minority, of which I’m a paid-up member. It is this group of amateur dreamers – Lazy Entrepreneurs – who are driving the supply side of the App Store, and a man called Steve Demeter is our new business icon. He is the near-mythical figure who developed the puzzle game, Trism, in his spare time. He claims to have generated €168,000 in profit after only three months; this on an investment of €3,350 and after Apple took a third of his revenue.

I’ve had get-rich-quick schemes by the dozen, but have come to appreciate there are reasons why I’m not (a) in business and (b) rich. The answer lies in a complex stew of psychological flaws and the absence of the four pre-requisites of entrepreneurship: commitment, which I don’t have in spades, venture capital, a never say die attitude (see also commitment) and a saleable idea.

Steve Demeter’s success seems to remove some of these stumbling blocks, and in pubs across the world Lazy Entrepreneurs are expending huge levels of cognitive capacity on thinking up “Killer Apps”.

Apple is relying on us as they face increasing hostility from the pro developers, who have started badmouthing the company. They bemoan its tight controls and monopolistic fees: an app priced at €1, would be heralded a hit if downloaded 10,000 times.

Yet with an average development period of around six months this would bring in just under €7,000 – not much of a return for the effort. What’s more, the big dogs of the media are moving in with their own branded apps, selling them via their own platforms, taking up space and crowding out future Steve Demeters.

But the hope is still there, just. “You only have a few dreams, better make them big ones,” said Donald Trump once, arguably the most misleading piece of business advice ever offered.

The rise of the Lazy Entrepreneur is based on upturning Trump’s philosophy: great businesses are created not by thinking big, but by solving life’s tiny, irritating problems. As a result, the legacy of the iPhone App Store could be to remind us of the joys of thinking small.