As an entrepreneur advisor, I am surprised at how often I hear proposals of an incremental innovation to an existing process, versus a new or breakthrough solution. For example, I often hear proposals for new online social media or collaboration platforms to compete against Slack or Facebook. What I don't see often enough are new solutions that force me to rethink how we work together, or that really use artificial intelligence (AI) to make the collaboration process more productive.
If you are seriously looking to start the next billion-dollar startup, you need to get beyond the realm of enhancing a current solution. Investors want to fund breakthrough solutions.
There are a wealth of disruptive technologies available today, including the Internet of Things (IoT), advanced virtual reality (VR), high-function robotics, and, of course, AI. But these are not solutions by themselves, they require integration into an innovative framework to solve real customer problems.
That integration is the breakthrough you should be looking for as an entrepreneur. Creating these solutions is not rocket science, but it does require a mindset that is determined to look beyond what the rest of us can see. Here are some keys to that mindset that I have seen work for successful entrepreneurs:
1. Think customer-centric rather than technology-centric.
Rather than thinking about pushing the limits of technology, be determined to first find a customer need that can only be solved by the technology you know. Remember, your goal is to build a successful business, and customers make that happen.
For example, Zappos led a revolution in online shoes and clothing, not because of any revolutionary shoe technology, but because they sensed a clothing customer's obsession for customer service, including long phone conversations and unlimited free returns.
2. Take a deeper dive to validate your idea before moving forward.
High-level ideas rarely make good business solutions. The more you twist and turn your idea to find novel ways of linking things together, the more likely you will find something truly unique that will make your solution memorable to customers and investors alike.
For example, you may want to build a campaign on a popular crowdfunding platform, like Kickstarter. From the work and feedback, you will learn plenty about how your solution will fare with customers, before building the product.
3. Tap expert sources in other domains for ideas.
Many aspiring entrepreneurs are too paranoid to share ideas and learn what they need to turn an idea into a disruptive customer solution. That's a mistake. You want to actively solicit insights from experts outside your industry to expand your thinking. Consider what you can learn from another industry that might be adaptable to yours. Be forever curious and optimistic.
Elon Musk, for example, admits to reading up to two books per day in various disciplines, including physics, engineering, product design, business, technology, and energy, to give him insights on new solutions and new opportunities.
4. Build a prototype and experiment with real customers.
I often hear entrepreneurs say they have been bouncing an idea around in their head for years, or even a decade. At some point you have to take action. Even Thomas Edison admitted that he learned more from building mock-ups and prototypes, than from gut instincts and theory. He was famous for prototyping, staying positive, and never giving up on his electric light bulb ideas. He is famously quoted as saying, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." He never talked about a solution until he had a working model.
5. Nurture advocates and partners with complementary skills.
Mentors and advocates will keep you focused and positive, and help you develop your ability to speak to investors and customers with authenticity, credibility and confidence. Assemble a team with the range of skills you need in your business, including development, operations, and marketing.
Even Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, while they had each other and advanced degrees from Stanford, still benefited from the help of other stars in business, including Eric Schmidt, Andy Bechtolsheim, and billionaire Ram Shriram.
If you are new to the entrepreneur lifestyle, it's probably good to start with an idea that is an incremental innovation, to get your feet on the ground, and understand how the funding and business creation process works. But let me assure you, the real joy, satisfaction, and full potential comes from breakthroughs that change the world.