In America we are taught that we make, shape, and create our own destinies. It's a religion with particular standing among entrepreneurs, who have fled and shed the corporate straitjacket in order to invent their own futures. But guess what? It's time we realized how much of our future is out of our hands. Scary, huh? That's not to say we need to surrender to outside forces, but that we need to plot our entrepreneurial shenanigans based on them.
Two recent incidents shuttled this to the forefront of my mind. The first was an interview I did with Ray Kurzweil for Inc.'s "Entrepreneurs We Love" issue. Ray is one of those rare individuals who combines brilliantly inventive conceptual work with pragmatic entrepreneurial chops. Even so, Ray talked at some length about the importance of what he called "enabling factors" to the success of his ventures. Timing is everything, he told me. In one specific case, Ray had an idea for applying his years of insight into "pattern recognition" to predicting stock market behavior. He had been toying with this notion for years, but had to wait for four specific enabling factors, including high-speed processing and instant access to mountains of market data.
The second prompt was a story I heard on National Public Radio about an innovative New York City business called Fresh Direct. Fresh Direct delivers high-quality foods -- meats, cheeses, prepared foods -- to targeted geographies. (They are rolling out their business zip code by zip code). It's a hugely successful business model with a stunningly loyal customer base. Indeed, the areas that it covers have become criteria for acceptably "livable" parts of New York. The story reported on the way that skyrocketing real-estate prices are driving people to look for apartments in marginal areas, but their willingness to move there is contingent on Fresh Direct's delivery range. In other words, Fresh Direct is an enabling factor for real-estate development.
I don't think that nearly enough attention is paid to the role of enabling factors, both in terms of starting businesses, and growing them. That's a big mistake. These outside dimensions need to be studied and monitored, because in today's interconnected, interdependent world, businesses are far from self-reliant, no matter how much we delude ourselves into thinking we are. Let's take a quick look at some of the issues these may involve:
- Technology. As in the case of Ray Kurzweil, are you contemplating a business based on a level of sophistication that hasn't quite arrived, or that, in the alternative, has showed up but is just too expensive? When will the cost of these practices become competitive, and can you afford to wait? Similarly, are there untapped opportunities that are sitting on the horizon based on technological innovation and the inevitable march to lower costs? And in a related vein, what opportunities are uncorked by, say, the emergence of new technologies like Wi-Fi or satellite radio?
- Distribution. The emergence of search marketing on Google and other search engines has been a boon to small companies who previously had no way of reaching -- in a laser-like fashion -- consumers who were interested in exactly the products they were marketing. That's a powerful enabling factor, for sure.
But at the same time, there are de-enabling factors. Vendor consolidation, for example an -- ugh, ugly word but you know all-too-well what it means -- makes it difficult for small companies to compete. But there could be a shift in the prevailing winds, a kind of re-enabling backlash, that could be of huge benefit to smaller players. Are you watching?
- Legal. Increasingly, legal concerns are playing a role in business growth. The legitimacy of peer-to-peer networks, for example -- which is thrusting up to a Supreme Court decision -- could be a enormous enabling factor, or a disenabling roadblock, to scores of entrepreneurial businesses. Just as the Supreme Court decision that legitimized the videocassette industry was a huge boon. What determinative legal issues in your business are hanging in the balance and how can you capitalize on them?
- Consumer. I've saved what is perhaps the most important gaiting factor for last. Consumers -- including B2B end-users -- need to be "ready" to accept your product. (It sounds very Zen, but it couldn't be more true). Swirling social and cultural forces completely outside of neatly constructed plans can mean the difference between success and failure. Marketers of a certain vintage remember that before there was the phenomenon of Miller Lite and the light beer brigade, there was a failed brand called Gablinger's that just didn't have the requisite enablers lined up behind it. What were they? Probably the biggest was a concern among men -- the largest beer-swilling constituency -- about calories and body presentation. A similar enabling factor: a de-macho-izing of society, driven in large part by the women's movement.
Another case in point: It has recently been reported that that move by McDonald's to healthier foods has made the company the largest buyer of apples in the country, as well as a huge purchaser of other fruits and vegetables. That's an opportunity for growers, and for everyone else in the supply chain. Here, the enabling factor for those who supply these products has been the public outcry about McDonald's role in obesity. For companies in the "healthy lifestyle" business, this shift in the zeitgeist is a huge enabler.
The bottom line: we need to dial down our egos, and recognize that forces outside our own companies -- and our own brains --- are key drivers of business success and failure. Which means that even though you may be steering the car, something else is often driving it.