As an entrepreneur and startup CEO, one piece of advice that I hear time and time again is to focus. Focus on the project at hand, the market where you have the most potential for commercial interest, and the relationships that can yield the best outcomes for your company.
I absolutely agree with the need to focus, but I want to challenge that notion a bit. If we operate with our blinders on, focused only on what's going on inside of our four walls, we run the risk of missing out on opportunities that can arise where you least expect them.
I recently connected with a Harvard MBA candidate, Jad Esber, who introduced me to the concept of "engineering serendipity." He believes that some of the most exciting opportunities in life come from seemingly random encounters, and that with a healthy mix of focus and openness to the unknown, you can carve out a path that will lead to inspiring interactions.
That concept really resonates with me, as I've seen serendipity play a significant role in how my company, Affectiva, has evolved, as well as how others in our network connect with one another in unexpected ways.
Here are a couple areas where an open mind can bring unexpected outcomes.
Forging unexpected partnerships and cross-pollinating across industries can help you think differently.
It's easy to be insular, mixing only with people in your industry and direct network. But the most inspiring ideas often come from the outside. In fact, books like Frans Johansson's The Medici Effect suggest that collaboration with people from all different backgrounds is crucial for innovation.
I saw this come to light at Affectiva's Emotion AI Summit a few years back. The Summit draws people from seemingly unrelated industries -- health care, media analytics, academia, automotive, and more -- who are curious about how A.I. will impact their respective fields. One of the attendees was Joe Dusseldorp, a plastic and facial reconstruction surgeon and clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School. He was listening to a session about A.I. in advertising when he had an a-ha! moment: What if he could use A.I. to track progress for postsurgical patients, measuring if he'd been successful in recreating their smiles? This moment led to him use our technology and fueled his research.
I still find this fascinating: Who would have thought that a talk by an advertising executive would plant a novel idea in the mind of a plastic surgeon? There may not have been a direct professional reason for Dusseldorp to attend an A.I. conference, but in opening himself up to other industries, he was able to advance his own work.
Expand your network, even if the connection isn't always obvious, to find new advisers or investors
As I'm sure other entrepreneurs will agree, travel -- to different conferences or meetings or events -- is a huge part of the job. At times it can be exhausting. But taking those chances to connect with new people is crucial to your business's growth.
Last year, I was invited to present at a conference in South America. It was a super busy time for Affectiva and my team and I went back and forth on whether or not I should attend. Ultimately, I decided to make the trip. At the event, the entrepreneur speaking before me caught my attention. I sent out a quick tweet saying how much I enjoyed this man's presentation, and figured that would be that. But as luck would have it, when I got to the airport for my flight home, he was there. We struck up a conversation and found that we had lots in common, so much so that I onboarded him as an adviser on the spot. And he introduced us to Motley Fool Ventures, who joined our Series B raise.
That chance encounter ended up being extremely worth the trip, opening my network and leading to an investment. But it never would have been possible if I hadn't taken the time (and gone geographically out of my way) to attend that event and meet new people.
So even when it's daunting or time-consuming to deviate from your focus, I encourage you to stray slightly, and allow serendipity to take its course.