How To Break Through The Impossible

A habit of pursuing the impossible and making it work is fundamental to growth and innovation—and there's a systematic process with which to approach it.

David Morken, CEO of Bandwidth.com, takes on impossible things. Sometimes he fails, like "when I got my butt handed to me trying to swim across the English Channel." But often he succeeds, like when he finished the 3,000-mile Bike Across America challenge or when he grew his telecom start-up into one of the country’s largest commercial local exchange carriers (CLECs) with $150 million in revenue.

He appreciates the strategic value of turning the impossible into the possible; he knows that innovations and successful products and fast-growing companies chisel out their greatness by doing what competitors view as impossible.

This habit of pursuing the impossible and making it work is fundamental to growth and innovation. Let’s look at how he does it so that we too can apply a systematic process to turn our impossible into possible.

David is a former Marine, a Notre Dame Law School grad, and a father of six who caught the entrepreneurial bug so taught himself to program. After building Bandwidth.com into a major telecom network operator, he is taking on his next impossible challenge. He is attacking this problem following a proven strategic sequence of steps.

Step 1: Come up with the impossible idea.
He sees that something is wrong in the telecom space, an opportunity that current telecom industry has no incentive to pursue.

"We know that you can directly dial a phone number over WiFi using your native dialer," said David.

In other words, it is technologically possible to pick up your mobile phone, dial a number, and have that call routed through your WiFi rather than your mobile network. You can do this without opening a Skype or similar app. But existing players don’t want to make it easy for you to do this because they want to sell you mobile data services.

Further, he knows that most of us spend most of our days within range of a WiFi network. So we should be using WiFi, rather than our mobile network. Yet I continue forking over $250 per month to AT&T for my phone and data plan.

His idea is a new phone, the Republic Wireless phone, that senses when you are near a WiFi and automatically routes your calls and data through WiFi. It switches back and forth between WiFi and wireless seamlessly, without you noticing. All you notice is a lower phone bill: $19 per month.

Step 2: Highlight the barriers.
I spend most of my days facilitating strategy sessions for companies that want to grow faster. Right now I’m sitting in front of a fireplace in my hotel room in Wilmington, Del., preparing for a session this afternoon. At one step in my process, after generating 100 ideas, we pick a few impossible ideas and explore why they seem impossible. If someone shared David’s $19 WiFi phone idea, their colleagues would probably laugh and then argue why such an idea is impossible.

They would say:

  1. To make this phone, you cannot just load an app. You need to get into the OS layer and alter it. Apple won’t let you do that and to do that on an Android you need to produce your OWN handset. David’s company knows nothing about making handsets.
  2. Even if you could somehow build a handset, there is a risk that you would lose money on people who are not around WiFi often, keep using the phone and pay you just $19 per month.
  3. Finally, the customer service challenge of getting into this business would be huge.

Step 3: Brainstorm the barriers away
David said, "All of these hurdles looked like show stoppers" when he and his team first thought about them. In my experience, most smart people—or, better said, people who fear not looking smart—will conclude the $19 phone is impossible. But innovators go back to the whiteboard and attack these hurdles.

  1. We can’t make handsets: After months of effort, David’s team convinced Motorola to build a handset for them with an altered OS.
  2. We’ll lose money: They did market research and found that people were actually rarely away from WiFi, and for their early adopters, WiFi would be even more prevalent. It doesn’t hurt either that when you switch to mobile your call first goes to Sprint and then is routed through David’s Bandwidth.com at preferred rates.
  3. Customer service is too costly: Finally, they tested the hypothesis "other service providers don’t really offer customer service." When I call AT&T, I don’t get a cheerful voice on the other end; I get a robot telling me to hit buttons, send texts to pay, and visit their website. When David and his team looked at it, they saw that other mobile service providers push customers heavily to use self-service, so matching that service would not be too costly.

Republic Wireless has just launched the first WiFi-centric smartphone manufactured by Motorola. For just $19 per month, you get unlimited voice and data, with no contract.
It sounds simplistic but it works. It’s the same thing you’d do if you faced a hurdle climbing a mountain or swimming the English Channel. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.

  1. Come up with an impossible idea … don’t give up!
  2. Highlight the barriers.
  3. Brainstorm them away.

[Image: Flickr user Martin Cathrae]

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