Right now, Edlyn Yuen has no idea how -- or even if -- her project, Prompt, will make any money.

That's not the point. The point is to figure out what people want from Prompt, and to figure out how people interact.

Wait. Let me step back for a second.

I first heard about Prompt when I got an email from my friend Shala Burroughs, and she mentioned the project in her email signature. If Shala was suggesting all her friends check Prompt out, then I should check it out.

The premise was simple: Each day I would get an email from Prompt, with a word or phrase. All I had to do was respond to the email with whatever the day's prompt inspired in me, if the mood struck me. Seven days a week. The next day, you get a new prompt, along with a randomized list of other people's responses to the previous day's. So you'd get to see what the word or phrase inspired in other people.

After a few weeks, Yuen, the brains behind Prompt, shifted the project to five days a week and set up a Google Docs form to make people more comfortable in responding - though the responses from people were all listed anonymously, Yuen figured some people might be more comfortable responding if even she didn't know who they were.

Prompts have run the gamut, from "family traditions" to "mcdonald's" and from "mondegreen" to "potato" (more on that last one in a bit).

"When I was starting Prompt," Yuen told me, "I was really curious about how people find their voices on the internet."

She'd worked in venture capital, for a big firm in New York City. She listened to entrepreneurs pitch their ideas and she realized she wanted to be a maker, too. She loved helping others realize their vision, but she had a vision, too. She just needed to figure out what that vision was.

She had an opportunity to take an interim step when Ed Zimmerman asked her to be entrepreneur in residence for VentureCrush. It gave her the chance to talk to more people and firm up her ideas.

"The more I talked to other people about what tactically they wanted to do, the more I thought about how I see the world," she said, "instead of reacting to what everybody else thinks."

Many entrepreneurs she spoke with said they thought they needed to raise a lot of money to build the first prototype. Only after that would they think about gaining an audience for their solution.

Then Kickstarter and other platforms showed people you could launch an idea based on a video -- based on a vision. Maybe you didn't have your prototype, but you had the vision of your prototype and you could build an audience based on the idea, and iterate as you moved forward.

That's what Yuen is doing with Prompt. She's building the audience and iterating as she goes along. Whatever the end result is might not look anything like Prompt. It might be an idea that comes out of Prompt, an iteration of Prompt, a whole new social platform focused on the idea of Prompt. Or none of the above.

There's someone who often responds to the prompts with a haiku. A few people do, but there's one person who does it pretty regularly. She doesn't know who that is, but she can tell which ones are from that person. The audience using Prompt ranges from young Millennials to Boomers. They hail from around the world (though a large portion of the audience is here in the U.S.).

Oh, and the potato prompt? It sparked probably the most variety of any Prompt to date, Yuen said. It sparked 67 responses.

"Potato was one of the prompts that I thought was kind of a throwaway," she said. "It got more responses than any prompt has. It was so strange and different."

There were recipes, people talking about how they felt about potatoes. One story was about how the respondent's parents met while buying potatoes. Some posts were about the different things you could call a potato.

"It was so interesting to think about ... how people's minds work," she said. "If you asked me to come up with 67 things to say about potato, I couldn't."

And that's the reason Prompt has become so valuable to Yuen, no matter what she does with it next. Getting insights into how people's minds work, how they respond to different topics and issues -- all is incredibly valuable to a young maker-slash-entrepreneur.

Published on: Nov 23, 2015
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