Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates have all gone on public record with their love for science fiction. Like those legendary entrepreneurs, I too use that love to shape my strategy of where I invest my time, energy, bandwidth, and capital.
I've spent some time working with legendary investor Brad Feld--one of the people behind Rock Band, Sphero, Fitbit, and dozens more successful startups--and we quickly discovered our mutual reverence specifically for near-term sci-fi (stories that take place over the next five to 10 years). For venture capitalists, who often try to exit their investments in three to five years, near-term sci-fi is a perfect entry point to the future.
About five years ago, Feld introduced me to sci-fi author Eliot Peper. Peper and I have occasionally corresponded ever since, and a while ago, he sent me a draft of an essay he was writing about why business leaders need to read more sci-fi. (The essay morphed into a 2017 Harvard Business Review post and a February 2019 TechCrunch article.)
Peper and I started emailing back and forth about the topic. We had a pretty fascinating conversation about what entrepreneurs can (and should) learn from sci-fi. He posits four assertions:
1. Don't predict. Reframe.
Eliot believes that the best sci-fi writers might:
... appear to predict the future, but in fact they do something far more interesting and useful: reframe the present. They invite us to look at the world from new angles and through fresh eyes. And cultivating beginner's mind is the problem for anyone hoping to build or bet on the future.
As a startup founder, you do something similar as you imagine solutions to address unmet market needs. Email, postcards, telegrams, and carrier pigeons are all forms of connecting individuals through written word over time and space. Did the postal service predict email or is email just a better reframing of a postcard?
Revisit your business model. Think about the unmet market need you're addressing. Ask yourself: If you were to satisfy that need in a radically different way, what might that look like? This exercise in reframing could have allowed Blockbuster to survive or preempt the arrival of Netflix.
2. Noticing is better than ideating.
Timing's impact on a startup's success is well-researched. Coming up with startup ideas is good. Noticing a big idea floating on the horizon is better.
That's why, every year, I scan the business environment in which I work. Specifically, I look for the cutting-edge innovations being used by other members of the ecosystem.
If you do this, you can then look to adjacent business environments to "notice" if the innovations being used elsewhere can be brought here. ComiXology used this approach to sell itself to Amazon in 2014, as Wired described at the time.
3. For answers to life's biggest questions, inquire within.
During our email exchange, Peper wrote: "Taking a journey through an imagined future can sometimes reveal as much about the nature of reality as learning scientific principles from a Nobel Prize winner."
To me, that's spot-on. I believe strongly that investing in self-awareness is important. By better understanding yourself--say, through reading--you can become more resilient, creative, and confident. Those are all traits successful entrepreneurs need in large supply.
4. Read to think differently.
It doesn't necessarily have to be sci-fi. Just make sure you're reading something you love. As Peper wrote in his TechCrunch article: "To make sense of the world around us, to catch a glimpse of underlying reality, to notice those invisible forces, we must step outside ourselves. Reading is one way to do that."
That said, creative imaginings of the future can inspire great ideas for technological innovations. Last year, my love of sci-fi had me scouring the planet for biotech startups that used brain implants to restore vision. The same kind of tech could eventually allow us to enjoy the augmented reality contact lens--which, of course, is right out of sci-fi.
Peper wrapped up our correspondence by sharing a quote from author Neil Gaiman: "We have an obligation to imagine ... individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different."
I agree. It's why you should read more science fiction today.