Where Have All The Ideas Gone?

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“Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope of further developments.”
Julius Sextus Frontinus, 10 A.D., Roman Engineer

It happens to every generation – the feeling that there are no new frontiers. The inevitable gloom that comes knowing that everything worth doing has been done. It even happens to people who should know better, such as David Packard who stated in The HP Way:
“During my sophomore year at Stanford…I remember lamenting that I had been born one hundred years too late, that all the frontiers had been conquered and that my generation would be deprived of the pioneering opportunities offered to our forebears. But in fact, we went on to make breathtaking advances in the twentieth century.”

Shoulder Standing

It has been said that researchers in the hard sciences stand on the shoulders of each preceding generation while academicians in the soft sciences stand on the faces of those who have gone before them. No matter how it is derived, there are always new frontiers to explore in every academic field of study.

The same phenomenon is evident in the business world. It is easy to fall into the trap laid before each generation and believe that “there are no new business frontiers”. However, it never has been and never will be a true statement. It may be hard to identify emerging frontiers, but you can be guaranteed they are out there.

As noted in Innovators vs. Inventors, you do not have to originate the core idea underlying a venture to be a successful entrepreneur. In fact, most entrepreneurs are not inventors. Most pursue business opportunities conceived by others. Although I am a successful serial entrepreneur, none of the adVentures I have been involved with have been my idea. Ideas are plentiful and cheap. Solid execution is rare and expensive.

Competitive Frisbee

As noted in The Fringe, point of view is worth at least 30-IQ points. In the late 1950’s, when Frisbees were relatively new, two Americans were playing catch in London’s Hyde Park. Within a few minutes, a curious crowd formed. Eventually, one of the members of the crowd called out to the Americans, “Who is winning?”

A simple game of catch takes on an entirely different perspective when the viewer does not understand the underlying dynamics of the game.

A similar lack of understanding of the proper context is often the reason that The Herd is not able to forecast or take advantage of new frontiers. For instance, when the phone was first demonstrated to President Rutherford Hayes, he is reported to have said, “That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?” Cleary, Mr. Hayes did not understand the phone within the context of emerging telecommunications industry of his day. When the phone was demonstrated to him, it had limited utility as the telecom infrastructure did not exist. In President Hayes’ world, it was logical for him to wonder, “What good is a phone that can only call one or a handful of people?”

It is doubtful that a visionary such as Jules Verne would have made a similar remark.
Mr. Verne is often heralded as a prescient sage who predicted numerous inventions years before their ultimate manifestation.

In reality, Mr. Verne predicted nothing. Instead, he leveraged his astute study of technological trends to determine which cutting-edge technologies would gain mainstream acceptance. As such, it was not a huge leap for him to suggest that one day the world would be populated with airplanes, submarines and numerous inventions reliant on the widespread adoption of electricity, such as fax machines, elevator and electric powered mass transit. This is the same technique that an entrepreneur on The Fringe should utilize when trying to determine which technological / sociological wave to ride.

You do not have to become a pocket-protector Geek to remain current of technological trends. If you managed to stumble upon this Blog, it is likely that you are acutely aware of the numerous successful tech oriented sites which offer daily technology updates, including TechCrunch, Gizmodo and Tom’s Hardware. In addition, most business magazines do a credible job of watering down technological trends and making them palatable for the average layperson.

However, as outlined in Conventional Wisdom, keep in mind that the popular press’ primary goal is to create controversy in order to generate sales. If you evaluate tech trends from this somewhat cynical perspective, your perception IQ will be elevated and you will be in a better position to filter out the meaningless, sensational content and not become unduly swayed by the authors’ dramatic stirrings.

Much has been written regarding how mature companies suffer from such technological blindness and become victims of their own success. A similar phenomenon affects some successful entrepreneurs who lose touch with the latest technological trends and thus no longer have the proper context by which to extrapolate and identify the new frontiers.

Beware this pitfall. If you do not adequately stay at the forefront of the technological trends applicable to your adVenture, you may find yourself making statements as equally as inane as Harry Warner, the President of Warner Brothers, when he asked in 1918, “Who the hell wants to watch movies with sound?” It is a good thing Thomas Edison was not listening.

John Greathouse

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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