Much is made these days about the “pace of innovation.” Everything is moving faster. Supposedly. And entrepreneurs are under pressure like never before to move as quickly as possible. Right? Well, I would have to agree that a constant sense of urgency is an omnipresent feature of the high-tech entrepreneur’s life. And I don’t think anyone would argue against the notion that things move faster today than they did before the Internet.
But I think people often confuse the pace of innovation with the pace of change. What has clearly accelerated is the pace of change. Is this pace producing better stuff? Or just more stuff?
I think the pace of true standout innovation, innovation that is validated by sustained business success over time, is rarer than we think and doesn’t actually happen all that fast. Just because you’re doing things digitally, just because your production methodology changes, doesn’t mean you can skip taking the time to learn. In fact, looking for shortcuts almost always guarantees failure.
True innovation moves not at Internet speed, but at human speed. Until all new things are made by great sentient mind-machines of the sort found in the science fiction of Iain M. Banks, the pace of true innovation will stay at a human pace. Some of today’s most successful high-tech companies started quite small. But they either had patient investors or the leadership to inspire a lot of patience in their investors. Looking back, I think if I had been a little more patient I could have done some things I was not able to do. My personal interest has always been around really big projects and, in my eager youth, I underestimated how much actual time (not just resources) it takes to do things on a big scale. Patience. Understanding that excellence takes time. These are important things.
Few products are home runs. Betting it all on one mighty swing of the bat will almost always mean a strikeout. I would challenge young entrepreneurs who think they have conceived not just a better mousetrap, but a mousetrap so extraordinarily innovative that it will forever redefine mousetraps. Take a moment to identify any iconic product or service that was not preceded by numerous failed attempts to do the very same thing. Almost all “home runs” are hit after numerous times at bat and many strikeouts.
The question is, will your failure be the lesson that enables someone else to be successful or will you get the benefit of your failure? Apple’s iPod was not a new idea, it was an old idea beautifully executed (okay, “old” in Internet time). Google’s search advertising was not a new idea, it was Yahoo’s idea optimized by Google right over the top of Yahoo. Quality products or services that have lasting value generally have had a significant (human speed) time component behind them–launch, feedback loop, refine, feedback, iterate.
So assume that your idea–however good it might actually be–may not be, as initially conceived, a home run. Be patient and persevere. And don’t let failure or lack of stunning initial success discourage you. But you gotta believe, too. Definitely.
Just out of college, I worked for Jim Morris of Xerox Park and Carnegie Mellon fame. Morris used to say (I paraphrase here) that sometimes you have to almost force your ideas down other people’s throats because really good ideas often seem too far-fetched. You almost know you’re onto something when people say “no one will want that.” (Caveat: It also might be that people are saying “no one will want that” because your idea sucks.)
Okay, so you have a realistic business plan, backers with realistic expectations, and you are the soul of zen-like patience. Now, go hire a social media agency, get on Facebook and Twitter, and you’re on your way!
My own background is in software. The first successful product I worked was FileRunner for the Mac (way back in 1992 when Windows 3.1 was released). Walt Mossberg reviewed it in his Personal Technology column and said, “FileRunner is the Mercedes of synchronization software in my view.” I was so happy. But you know, we had to put it in boxes and get shelf space for it in brick-and-mortar stores.
Today, an engineer with a great software idea thinks, “The Internet is my distribution channel” and, too often, ends his thinking at that point. But, if getting customers to walk down the aisle and pick up your box was the challenge in the past, getting them to even know your product exists, brilliantly conceived as it may be, is a major major challenge today. Look at what mobile developers struggle with in both the iPhone and Android marketplaces.
How do you fix this awareness and preference problem? By following the fundamental principles of classical marketing. You might market virally and be all over YouTube and Facebook, but if you don’t know your target customer, talk to them in a language and voice that resonates with them about something they care about, feel a need for, no “click here to download” distribution solution will ensure your success.
So, be patient and persevere. Believe and stick to your guns. Take your timeline and double or triple it. And when you’re ready to go to market, know that, no matter what marketing channel is in vogue at the time, customers are motivated by their own definition of their own needs. Period. Customers buy benefits. They always have, they always will. So pay attention to the classical marketing fundamentals and resist the siren call of the cool tactic du jour that shortcuts sound product development and outbound marketing based on actually knowing the target, what they want, and how they buy.