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To Be a Better Entrepreneur, Look to the Past

Sure, all entrepreneurs look to the future - but I've learned that the best ones don't overlook the past.

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As entrepreneurs, we are obsessed with the future. We question established objects, processes, and products. Then we think about how we can reinvent them. We push boundaries, disrupt industries, and build the future. This entrepreneurial obsession drives us forward, but to be better designers of the future.

But we cannot forget to look to the past. In fact, sometimes we get so involved in changing things, that we fail to stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us.

Think about print media, for example. While it may seem today to be a dying medium, it took hundreds of years to evolve news and information into something that could be easily accessed and immediately understood. Once the Web exploded, online media companies jumped at the opportunity to push the limits of design. But look at what’s happening today. Many news sites are returning to the fundamentals, looking more and more like their physical predecessors. Flipboard, for example, became hugely successful—and it simply mimicks the layout and feel of a print magazine.

Think about medicine. Cutting edge tools and technologies are constantly being invented to help improve health care, but in the process we're leaving behind effective medical practices that have nothing to do with technology at all. In Abraham Verghese's TED talk, he argues that the most important innovation for medicine in the next 10 years will be human touch. New technologies are increasing the gap between people, and this can be detrimental to human health.

Think about Apple products. They look different and futuristic, but their design is deeply rooted in Dieter Rams's more than 20-year-old 10 principles of design, which assert that "good design is as little design as possible." Apple creates products that look totally new, but every detail is based off of something that's familiar, from folders, to thoughtful typography, to the "desktop."

Sometimes we get caught up in change (I am admittedly terrible at this) just to be different, instead of creating change to solve a real need and to improve something for the better. We confuse uniqueness for usefulness. Imagining the future is the job of the entrepreneur, but why not also look to the past—often—for inspiration.

My new motto is such: Create new things and disrupt existing ones, but remember that the past holds some interesting insight into what solutions are best for our future.

Last updated: Mar 20, 2012

RILEY GIBSON is the co-founder and CEO of Napkin Labs, a start-up that builds tools to help companies turn their Facebook fans into an army of collaborators for new insights and ideas. For more, check out the Napkin Labs blog.
@RileyGibson




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