Archives For Start-ups

I feel that in 2016 we find ourselves on the precipice of so many major technology-driven transformations that it was impossible for someone like myself not to be overly self-indulgent in better understanding the many trends and their driving forces. If you appreciate the magnitude of what’s coming, you’ll understand I chose the term ‘precipice’ for good reason. Life in 10 to 20 years will be quite different than it is now. Though it may seem to some in 2025 0r 2035 that the evolution was gradual, the impact will probably be lumpy to many.

As has been the case with previous tech driven change, there will be positive and negative impacts, but I believe that the impacts will be felt more soundly by wide swaths of the population than in prior times. Imagine what life will be like the day after cancer is cured. Imagine how many drivers will lose their profession once self-driving vehicles become the norm. Imagine how good you will feel when a high performance pill is taken that has been personalized to your genetic makeup. Imagine the financial markets when the world turns to the bitcoin currency standard. Imagine the perfect prime rib steak being grown in a lab without the collateral damage of bovine methane that contributes to global warming. Imagine the townspeople arriving with their pitchforks as described by Nick Hanauer if economic disparity is left to grow unmanaged. Imagine being able to solve almost any problem perfectly by buying some cheap AI over the web. Then imagine the person who you used to pay to solve that problem wondering what they are going to do for income and how they will pay off the loans on their PHD.

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After the light bulb flashes an epiphany about a new product, service, or solution the next step for me is invariably a stream of consciousness document that captures ideas as they enter my consciousness.

These are normally led by the beauty of the business model and why it would work in today’s economy. There are various frameworks that I rely upon,

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English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone... Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference (Photo credit: Wikipedia)]

How many times does a hot new product or service come out and you say, “I could have thought of that” or “Why didn’t I think of that?”  Our high value US economy is increasingly dependent on innovation.  When people mention China’s economic rise, we depend on “innovation” as our figurative ‘USA, USA’ chant.  We are high-value, and everyone else is low-value, right?  (Not really, folks) There’s good money where innovation meets market need.  Everyone wants to capitalize on innovation, but in reality, inspiration leads to breakthrough innovation. Ere go, inspiration is the goal.

The Importance of Your Inspiration Quotient

This is a subtle but importance difference that business tomes rarely discuss because people think inspiration just happens to some people, and cannot be produced. I disagree. We all have an inspiration quotient, and in this blog post, I contend that practicing the Arts is the way to capturing inspiration in the art, in life, and in whatever endeavors you undertake.  If you want to hire, invest in or become an inspired innovator, hire, invest in or become a musician, painter, writer, sculptor or dancer.  If you want a company full of innovators, promote art as a central human development priority in your organization. Formalizing the practice of art in order to engender inspired innovation is not covered in your MBA text, and is overlooked in the general business media.  I’ve seen various innovation maps, innovation cycles, and innovation process charts, and none of them mentioned inspiration or the Arts. So, I’m putting it out there for business gurus to analyze, formalize, institutionalize and potentially monetize.  The pathway to inspired innovation is practicing the arts.

You might be thinking, great, another thing to add to my to do list of in order to be a top performer.  As you’ll read later, it’s only as time consuming as you want it to be, but here’s your scientific justification.  I’m a true believer in the line of thinking that one can change one’s success in many areas by disciplining yourself to adopt new habits that are out of your norm in other areas.  Said another way, if you drag your sorry ass out of bed and get yourself to work out early every morning, it will carry through to help you push through that next development cycle or to make the key point that lands a difficult sale. These habits can create actual physiological changes in your brain as well, if you want to get scientific.  Train your mind. So what?  We’ve heard that all before.  I’m busy, where’s the business rationale for art?

Well, the greatest disruptive innovations come from an ethereal asset that comes to us unexpectedly, and by seeming divine providence, known as “inspiration”.  Michelangelo had it. Benjamin Franklin had it.  Alexander G Bell and Marconi had it. Steve Jobs had it. You can’t learn it in business school.  You can’t order it on Amazon. You can’t force your engineers to engender it just because they listen to music or know a programming language.  I contend that great inventors like da Vinci and Steve Jobs achieved their greatness from inspiration, and that inspiration was due in great measure to their passion for practicing various forms of art. Historians might track back recognition of the importance of studying and practicing art to ancient Greece or Mesopotamia.  Inventors of the stature of a Ben Franklin, who began his professional life as a writer and lived his entire life as a satirist, were enormously multi-dimensional. Unfortunately, you can see a declining importance assigned to the Arts today in the tight budgets of US schools. We mistakenly view the study of art as a pathway to an artistic profession, rather than as a pathway to innovation in many professions.  Unlike Mr. Franklin or Michelangelo, we risk becoming a cradle to grave nation of intensely focused specialists on an org chart with an inhibited aptitude for the inter-dimensional imagining that is required for inspired innovation.  It is not critical thinking, it is imagining. Kids are born with a deep desire to make these neural connections, and we formulate that desire away. Think about this when you are discussing Arts budgets on your local PTA.

Inspiration – it’s already inside us all, but we don’t know it yet.  You can’t buy it, put your hands on it, or make use of it when you need to. We Americans hate that, and that’s why you won’t see it on any arrows or circles on mind-bending innovation process maps.  Imagine if an innovation consultant came in to tell your team “Ok, the first step is you want to get your hands on some inspiration.”  Like Peter Senge’s famous work on The Learning Organization, you’d recoil at the idea that everything from there on down would be built on the backs of turtles”.  Managers like to think they can process map everything. So if it’s not on our neat 3D process map, it must be superfluous.  The problem is, inspiration is the most essential element to great innovation.

How You Get Inspiration

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A quick note to articulate the importance of Branding as a separate link to Business on my blog. The cycle times for tech discovery and advancement are ever shortening.  Someone needs to come up with a Moore’s Law* for new offerings. Regardless of barriers like IP protection and network effects, the current state of open systems, usability design, process management, inexpensive global collaboration platforms, et al makes the potential for domestic and international copycats to rapidly deliver similar offerings to commercially successful ‘pioneers’ more and more likely.  In case you had not heard, copycats are longhaired nasty felines and pioneers are often the ones that end up with the arrows in their backs.

How can you, as a pioneer, compete with a newcomer that benefits not only from your lessons learned, but from the ability to possibly raise more money than yourself on the basis of the business model that your team has already proven is commercially viable?  Whether B2C, B2B, or B2G, one good answer is Branding.  It’s true that the best brands are built over substantial time, but there are things that start-ups can do to ensure the marketplace and investors understand that being first can mean that your team, your company and your offerings are better than followers’. Branding is becoming an increasingly important part of any start-up’s survival, and should not be overlooked by small entrepreneurial teams focused on going to market with MVP’s** and achieving market validation.

While I am not a Brand Manager, my instincts on branding have been validated. Future posts will elaborate.

*Moore’s Law is a widely held rule of thumb that integrated circuits double in performance every 18 months.

**MVP refers to Minimum Viable Product, i.e., the concept that to be the best pioneer one must go to market with an imperfect but viable product in order to gain market share and lessons learned as the “perfect product” is developed.

I’ve been living under a rock. The Sphero by Orbotix has been around for some time, and is worth checking out for a very cool glimpse of the future of Arkinetics™. Yes, I said it, “Arkinetics™”, the marriage of AR and Kinetics. Using Bluetooth messaging good for 50 feet, the clever team at Orbotix in Boulder has created a robotic sphere that can be manipulated via your Apple iPhone or Android smartphone to amaze old ladies in grocery stores, play fetch with Fido without getting the glob on your hands, and let kids play games of dexterity on AR playgrounds. I like this idea due to its simplicity, which is apropos for emerging technology. The team was smart enough to create an open platform for developers to create their own games / value propositions. Right now, this is no more than a novelty.  Kids can roll a ball to knock down bowling pins the old fashioned way, right? (But can their Mom do so with them from a hotel room in Tokyo?) I did not see any press releases on their site related to venture investment, but I did see a lot of cool factor recognition. Right now its just a candidate for Smarter Image, and hopefully not competing on the same shelf with the wireless Ferrari.

You can think back to how another robotic company branched out from their original robotic vacuum cleaner product, into defense and healthcare and who knows what else is on their agenda. On the face of it, and without any insight into their team or IP, I think this is the appropriate way to look at a company like Orbotix. Its not what the Sphero does now that counts, its what the team may do in the future. What applications are there for a low cost, handheld, remotely manipulated robot? Companies like this, that may not have a ton of funding (I have no idea if they do), but have a committed and passionate team are what start-ups are all about. They’ll live and breathe the monetization problem until they either come up with a eureka moment, or go on to apply their lessons learned at another outfit with a different vision. In all probability linking together mobility, AR and robotics will be more than just cool when a few more things fall into place. Can you ruggedize it more somehow? Can you attach lasers? Can you embed more robust sensors and a camera? Can you add magnetic strips to the outside of the sphere and create a hovering cover that gets left behind? Can you use an ultra-wideband chip to create an ad hoc network of Arkinetic drones? Will it receive verbal commands? What about changing the form factor completely? This is all top of mind.  Seeing something like this opens the flood gates of possibilities, and no idea is too out there. That’s what great about start-ups. Whatever the future for the Sphero, these guys can say they were at the forefront of Arkinetics™.  In the meantime, you can get some free beers by showing the crowd at the pub how you can move that orange with your mind.