I'm just coming off of a one year build of a new startup. As with most startups, it's been a wild ride, with more twists and turns, obstacles and challenges, learning and growth than I would ever have imagined. You'd think after having made the startup journey a handful of times on my own and dozens of times with companies I've advised that I'd be used to the process by now. Yet each time down this path reminds me of how much we discount the stamina, conviction, and resilience required to build something new. As I near the finish line, I'm reminded of the saying, "Nothing is impossible, some things just take longer than others."
So, what have I learned, and how can it help you on your own journey? Well, simply put, nothing is impossible. The constraints we impose on our imagination, innovation, creativity, and vision are just that--self-imposed. We consistently fail to see the future opportunities that exist beyond the context of the present. It's the human condition, but it's also what makes great innovation possible for those who dare it.
"The constraints we impose on our imagination, innovation, creativity, and vision are just that--self-imposed."
Thomas Kuhn, who popularized the term "paradigm shift," wrote in amazingly detailed terms about how radically context can change the realm of the possible in his timeless book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. What? You haven't read it! Do yourself a big favor and read it, now! This should be required reading for every entrepreneur because it radically alters your understanding of how big change happens in ways that surprise us. You know, the familiar phenomenon where you look back and say, "Of course! How did I miss that?"
In the case of the startup I've been working with over the past year, I was reminded of how tall and deep the barriers to the future are. When I'd present the initial idea to friends, colleagues, and even family, the response I'd get was that it was ludicrous. I was presented with countless reasons why it wouldn't work. And they were all very good reasons, in fact, really, really good reasons that sometimes made me doubt the idea myself. I'm not going to get into what the idea was here, because it really doesn't matter. The fact is every startup I've been part of follows the same trajectory of doubt, rational argument against its success, and unassailable logic that dismisses its merits.
Seriously, stop and think about how often we fail to recognize the potential for new ideas. If I took you back 10 years and told you that self-driving and auto-piloted cars would be on the highway next to you and that the taxi industry would be disrupted and nearly annihilated by an outsider (Uber) that held no physical assets, what would you have said? Exactly!
"Overcoming the inertia of the impossible requires engaging in a coordinated dance with the future."
Of course, simply saying something is possible doesn't make it so. You don't innovate the future by just wishing it into being. Overcoming the inertia of the impossible requires engaging in a coordinated dance with the future. It's this coordination that separates successful startups from those that end up littering the streets with disappointment.
What I've found in my own experiences as an entrepreneur, and also in those of other successful entrepreneurs I've worked with, is that choreographing this dance with the unknown requires at least three critical attitudes and behaviors if you're going to stand a reasonable chance of causing any significant new idea to gain traction.
- Don't get so stuck on the specifics of your original idea that you ignore the ability to co-create with the future.
One of the greatest eye-openers when you bring any new idea to market is the degree to which it will change over time as you encounter unexpected and unpredictable forces in the market that threaten to alter your original idea. I use the term "threaten" intentionally, because when this happens you have two very distinct choices; be unyielding and defend the hell out of you original idea, or allow your idea to be shaped by these forces in a way that makes it something new and different. You'd think any sane person would go with option two. But that's not always true. Entrepreneurs get so stuck on their vision that they become nearly religious about letting go of it. That's when commitment turns to arrogance. Being arrogant with future is like staring down a tsunami--it's not a contest you're going to win. The real magic of bringing a new idea to market is the serendipity that naturally occurs and reshapes the idea in a way that makes it a natural fit for the future. The idea and the future evolve concurrently. Allow that to happen and embrace the new changing idea rather than building a fortress of defenses and resentment around the old one.
- Don't discount the naysayers. Instead, use their objections to build value.
"Innovation is always a negotiation between the possible and the impossible."
Inevitably, you'll be assaulted by very smart people with good reasons why your idea won't work. It gets tiring listening to that sort of drivel. And yet, you need to. You'll need to keep moving despite the naysayers, but that doesn't mean you can't learn from them. Innovation is always a negotiation between the possible and the impossible. Eventually, the latter becomes the former and the cycle repeats. But for a brief period both of these exist simultaneously as a new paradigm forms and is accepted. Think of the quote often mistakenly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, "first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." What's missing in this quote is that in each of the first three stages you need to be gaining support--or at least attention--from the very same people doing the ignoring, laughing, and fighting!
- Overestimate the time, money, and stamina it will take to build a new idea.
I have never seen a new idea that hasn't nearly drained it's owners of time, money, and stamina. The nature of radical change and innovation is that it has to push you to the absolute limits of endurance before you near success. Sorry, I wish I had better news for you on this one, but the best you can do is overestimate all three and still expect to fall short. The simple advice: be ready for it and keep the resources in reserve to deal with it.
- Constantly remove your own constraints from your vision.
As your idea morphs with the marketplace, so will your vision. But there's a nasty side effect at play here. With new vision come new self-imposed constraints. What's worse is these new constraints come with a more refined understanding of the market, greater investment in your reshaped vision, and usually, the agreement of others who have joined your cause. In other words, it actually gets harder, not easier, to reshape your vision as it evolves! It's called sunken costs. You start to feel guilty about abandoning something that is clearly not going to get you where you want to go just because you've invested so much into it. Be conscious and cautious of this. Don't be seduced by guilt. The choice to change tracks--hell, even lay down new ones--is always yours!
In the end, what's possible is always more than we could imagine. But that's the nature of innovation, to expand our notion of possibility, to grow in unimagined ways, and in the process remove one more thing from the ranks of the impossible.