Christopher Kelly is the president and co-founder of Convene, a company that integrates service, culinary, technology, and human-centered design to transform the workplace experience. Convene was named one of Forbes' most promising companies in 2014 and one of Inc.'s fastest-growing companies. In his role as president, Chris is responsible for innovation, new growth initiatives, and brand development while jointly developing company values, culture, and strategy.
Great companies are made by solving big problems. Yet too many aspiring entrepreneurs make the mistake of starting with "I have an idea" instead of "I've identified an audience with a problem that I can solve better than the status quo." This more practical approach to a business model might sound less exciting and more complicated than the stroke of brilliance you had in the shower, but that's how real businesses come to life.
When I need an idea or am assessing a new opportunity, I close my eyes and think about what the world could look like in five years. Instead of focusing on where I am and finding a path forward, I've created a vivid picture of what the future will look like and worked to be one of the people who helps ensure it.
Right now, we're living in the greatest time in history to be an entrepreneur. Tools have never been more powerful or accessible. Our increasingly connected world--and the decreasing cost of access and data--enables distributed capabilities to be linked to produce unthinkably large results.
Companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Waze are just the start of rebuilding businesses for the 21st century. Watching these companies execute their visions on such a grand scale reflects the most powerful piece of advice I've ever received, thanks to Marty Neumeier's book "Zag." "Find a parade and get in front of it." To truly succeed in business, find your problem to solve by looking at how prevailing trends are changing our world.
Looking Through a Macro Lens
My company's "parade" was seeing work as a verb--not a place--that happens anywhere. We realized the world had not accommodated this new reality. When we looked into the future, we saw on-demand workplaces operating like hotel rooms and taxis, making hospitality an important differentiator.
With this in mind, we set out to create the infrastructure for a hospitality-enabled workplace where services and amenities would be centralized and made available on demand, much like they would be at a full-service hotel.
We became the change instead of being changed. To get ahead of your industry's parade, follow these three strategies:
1. Solve for the future instead of now.
The change that you see today will create an opportunity that never existed before tomorrow. If you solve problems that people have now, they will likely be irrelevant or resolved by the time you get organized. Like in chess, think a move or two ahead.
When thinking about the future, you have to believe anything is possible. During brainstorming sessions about your industry, don't go backward or criticize. Only build on people's ideas to keep the ball rolling forward.
We use the principle of yes to help in this regard. For example, once we sensed that it was difficult for companies to gain access to business services--such as concierge services and catering--we worked to establish business services within each of our conference centers. We continued to build on this idea until we came to one conclusion: Office buildings should operate like full-service hotels, with the sleeping rooms swapped for desks.
2. Create a crystal-clear image of what your product or service will be.
You need to pull yourself and others to where your product or service will be in the future as opposed to pushing from where you are today. It's a lot less difficult to lead others to a place that you already have in mind than it is to convince them to follow you to a place you've never been--or, worse, on a journey without an exciting destination to keep them motivated along the way.
In commercial real estate and office buildings, people have difficulty gaining access to the amenities they need. Office supplies, lunch options, and even the temperature of a meeting room affect how a client feels about our service. So we created an image for our business that focused on how to bring a Googleplex-like experience to more people because Google's highly flexible, amenity-filled, and livable office space is desirable for most workers.
3. Build in pieces.
Your vision will likely be greater than your resources, so don't try to do everything at once. Apple started with computers, but its original mission statement wasn't solely about computing. It was about changing the world for the better.
If we'd thought about the cost or current possibilities of our workspaces when our company was formed, we never would have been able to achieve the robust service platform or scale we have today.
It's amazing how far you can go by putting one foot in front of the other over the course of weeks, months, and years. When thinking about your own product or service, don't worry about what you can't achieve now. Prioritize, set achievable goals, and celebrate wins along the way. Latency provides a window of opportunity for companies to build things, and for forward-thinking companies to capitalize on.
We don't live in a world where things that are broken remain unfixed. Companies are making major breakthroughs because they know which parade they want to lead. Only the people willing to dream big and refusing to let their visions get rained on by "impossibilities" will be at the forefront of the future.