Past Is Prologue: 13 Startup Lessons From How We Got To Now

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A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

In 1862, Charles Darwin predicted that an insect with an extraordinary tongue must exist by observing an orchid which stores its nectar at bottom of long stem.

Darwin surmised the anatomical structure of the phantom insect based on the mechanics required to pollinate the flower. 130-years later, scientists discovered X. morganii praedicta, a moth with a freakishly long tongue which fed on the orchid’s pollen.

Successful entrepreneurs make similarly educated guesses. By observing innovations and existing market conditions, they anticipate emerging technological trends.

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While creating a new course for UC Santa Barbara’s Entrepreneurial Program entitled, “The Past, Present and Future of Entrepreneurship,” I was recently blessed to come across Steven Johnson’s PBS series and accompanying book, How We Got To Now. Mr. Johnson doesn’t just tell us How We Got To Now, he also points to How We’ll Get To Tomorrow.

Mr. Johnson entertainingly describe the lives of unsung heroes of entrepreneurship and in doing so, he cleverly highlights thirteen attributes common to most significant innovations. Today’s entrepreneurs should take these historical commonalities to heart, as a means of predicting the future.

1.     The Hummingbird Effect

Innovation in one field has unintended consequences on society, which result in logical, and thus predictable, consequences. Entrepreneurs who recognize such ramifications are well positioned to shape and commercialize emerging innovations.

Example: The inventor of flash photography used it to highlight the horrors of New York’s City’s tenement slums, which ignited the worldwide 19th century Progressive Era.

2.     Innovations Spawn Unintended Uses

Numerous innovations were ultimately utilized in ways difficult to predict.

Example: Edison thought the phonograph would electronically deliver mail as spoken “letters” while Bell intended for the phone to play remote, live music.

3.     Innovations Are Networks of Ideas

Every innovation is an amalgamation and extension of preceding discoveries. The lone inventor working in isolation is largely (but not entirely) a myth. Innovations generally thrive in a lively environment of collaboration and competition.

Examples: Knowledge of the anatomy of the human ear led to the understanding of sound waves, which resulted in the creation of a machine to record frequencies, which Edison and Bell leverage to create the phonograph and telephone, respectively.

4.     Innovators Are Generally Unassuming And Modestly Compensated

Entrepreneurs are more often driven to solve problems, rather than to seek financial rewards.

Examples: Nearly every entrepreneur mentioned in the book is anonymous and very few of them became rich. I could list their names, but rest assured, you’ve never heard of most of them.

5.     Slow Hunches Lead To Breakthroughs

The collision of small ideas combine to form big ideas. It pays to document your thoughts so you can recall them and combine them with future hunches.

Example: Galileo first had the hunch that led to the pendulum clock 20-years before he built the first prototype.

6.     Breakthroughs Often Result From Cross Pollination

Successful innovators connect the dots between disparate disciplines. Thus, curious entrepreneurs with multiple hobbies and varied interests are best positioned to identify such cross-pollination opportunities.

Examples: Guttenberg leveraged the wine press to create the printing press, the railroad jackscrew was used to create modern municipal sewers.

7.     Nothing Happens Quickly

Most substantial innovations require time for the underlying technology to be refined, the proper infrastructure to be developed and for potential users to recognize and accept the need for the new solution.

Example: Cell phones were initially demonstrated in 1973, but not commercialized until 1983, 20-years before massive consumer adoption was attained.

8.     Adjacent Possible Dictates Timing

The scope of what is commercially possible is based on the technologies and infrastructure in place when a new discovery is made.

Examples: Conceptualization of a programmable calculating machine occurred 153 years before commercialization because the means to reliably compile programs and store data did not yet exist.

9.     Simultaneous Invention Occurs When Adjacent Possible Is Reached

When the adjacent possible is obtained, a discovery becomes evident simultaneously to multiple parties. At such times, speed of execution is key to an entrepreneur’s success.

Examples: Calculus, theory of evolution, telescope, telephone, radio, jet engine, polio vaccine and the integrated circuit.

10.  Innovations Evolve From Industrial To Consumer Uses

Many inventions are initially too large, complex and expensive for consumer use. However, as the technology is refined in a business setting, it often evolves to a form factor and price point that facilitates consumer usage.

Examples: Watches, cleaning solutions (e.g., Clorox), air conditioning and microwave ovens.

11.  New Measurement Abilities Spawn Innovations

The ability to measure and standardize a phenomenon allows innovators to exploit it.

Examples: Accurate clocks enabled train travel and geographically distant commerce, while the ability to accurately measure bacteria in a petri dish led to modern medical care.

12.  New Technologies Create New Problems

Solutions create new opportunities because such breakthroughs often beget new problems.

Examples: Printing press led to the need for reading glasses while urbanization resulted in air, water and sound pollution.

13.  Innovations Are Amoral

Technological advancements are neither inherently good nor evil.

Moral implications arise from how innovations are applied in practice.

Examples: Ultrasound saves mothers and their unborn children’s lives while also enabling gender-based abortions. Film and radio helped Hitler mislead a nation, yet those same technologies have also educated and entertained billions of consumers.

Using the Mr. Johnson’s lessons to anticipate technological trends is akin to surfing. If you are too early, the wave will crash upon you and wipe you out. If you attempt to ride a wave too late, it will gently roll under you, providing you with no momentum. However, if you time the wave just right, its force will take you on an effortless, exhilarating ride. Business success can be similarly effortless when you accurately identify an emerging innovation and properly time your market entry. Cowabunga, the waves are bitchin’!

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about killer burrito or majestic rainbows.

Image: Minden Pictures/Superstock

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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