I love this time of the year. One of the many reasons why is because it is a time of reflection, and things slow down a bit after a certain date, allowing me more bandwidth to think about things that during the regular work weeks we just don’t have enough time for. For me particularly, that certain date is this Friday, December 15. The college starts its break until the New Year – so we will not be here at the Innovation Hub, although our doors remain open for our tenants, and there will be personnel here for some dates except for the obvious holiday ones.
One of the things I will try to ponder about during this time off is the acquired skill of being able to forecast where the next disruption will occur. During our Startup NOW accelerator sessions, I have gone a number of times with the participants over the elusive entrepreneurial mindset. Solving a problem in a new way – with new technology, new uses of old technology, or a new combination of resources and processes – makes you an entrepreneur. Solving a problem in a known way – which is what most people do – makes you a worker. There’s nothing wrong with that. There was nothing wrong with making phone calls with a flippy phone when those became available, they had electronic boards inside like the touch tone phones did ten years before. In fact, it was disruptive because it used a cellular network – no need to be attached to a wall, nor have a wireless base attached to a wall. Flippy cell phones solved a problem in a new way, with new technology (the network). At least for a while. We humans have a tendency of wanting to get rid of absolutely all of our problems, which is good.
The entrepreneurial mindset is nurtured by experimentation and play. This coming “down time” is the time that we can devote to this. How many times have you seen some new business model, some new idea, and you thought “How come I did not think of such a simple, common sense thing before?!” If you are not devoting time to experimentation and play, and you just take whatever the world offers you in a zombie like manner, you will have a hard time becoming a disruptor.
But there is a caveat! If you though training to acquire this mindset was hard, well it may be even harder if you consider what Bill Gross, founder of Idea Lab, found out in his research which he documents in a very good TED Talk that we refer our entrepreneurs to. He analyzed over 200 companies – both from Idea Lab and outside – in a very scientific way, and found out that TIMING and TEAM / EXECUTION where the top factors in disruptive success, over the actual IDEA, BUSINESS MODEL and FUNDING, in that order. So there you go. You can spend all this “down time” looking for that serendipitous idea that scales to become the next unicorn, but if something as basic as your timing is not right, you may not end up anywhere significant in your success scale. He talks about Z Online Entertainment and YouTube. Z launched in February of 2001 as a video content online platform with the best lineup of talents from the entertainment world, targeting teenagers and young adults. It had a defined business model and at one point it received over 750,000 monthly visitors – but back then it was hard to view video content online. In a couple of years, Z was bankrupt, and in February of 2005 YouTube launched, with no clear business model, but excellent timing, according to Gross. Broadband penetration had just reached over 50% in the US, and the software programs that compress data and enable faster transmission via video (codecs) had been developed, solving a big problem Z faced.
I came across a similar case that has left me wondering for some time, so I decided to do some research. It was 2010 based on my recollection, and I was about to park in downtown Coral Gables and found that the meters pointed me to “Park by Phone”. I thought “what a great idea!”, so following the prompts at www.parkinghelp.com, I sent my $5.95 for the first year’s subscription, and in a few days got my little foam board sign on snail mail with my assigned customer number to hang on my rear view mirror. To my surprise (embarrassed to say now), not too long after signing up, I had to park in downtown Miami and found out I could not use “Park by Phone”. They had this different “Pay by Phone” system for smart phones. Within a year, “Park by Phone” was also supplanted by “Pay by Phone” in Coral Gables. I decided to keep the little foam board sign on the door pocket of my car since – hey! I paid a good $5.95 for an item that cost pennies to produce and became immediately useless to me. By late 2011 I recall being in a meeting with a potential investor for my company at the time, and I recall him showing me a text on his smart phone prompting him to add more money to his “Pay by Phone” meter.
I use “Pay by Phone” since. I’ve travelled to other cities, and I can use it. It is everywhere. Today I looked at “Park by Phone”, and they are only in nine locations. Many of these don’t even look like full cities. Timing dwarfed them. Even though I was a full time entrepreneur in 2010, I did not have the fully developed mindset I teach now our entrepreneurs at the Innovation Hub they need to get. That is why I feel embarrassed now. In hindsight, there were clear indicators that should have prompted me to view “Park by Phone” skeptically. The biggest one perhaps was the fact that the first generation iPhone had been out already for over 2 years. And most embarrassing is the fact that I already had one by 2010. To add insult to injury, another giveaway that did not stop me to think was the very obvious flippy phone image prominently depicted on the foam board sign. Incredibly enough, this image appears on their website to this date!
So I will spend this Holiday break intently looking at the world around me with the set of eyes that engage the entrepreneurial mindset. I will be looking all around me, I will be looking at places I visit, roads I travel and people I deal with looking for the flippy phones that surround us and point us back to the early part of this century.
On a positive note, and connecting the dots backwards – as Steve Jobs pointed out as the only way to connect them (more on that in a future article) – I finally realized the value of my $5.95 little foam board sign. It’s up to you to, my reader, to decide if I did or did not get my full money’s worth.