Tech entrepreneurship is sexy these days. The likes of Facebook, Apple, Google, and Twitter are now part of the daily lives of billions of people. Personally, I spend over 3 hours each day using the products and services of these four companies. While most people are happy to be users of technology, an increasing number are asking themselves whether they can also be producers. Can’t they build the next Facebook or Apple? The simple answer is yes.
However, this is not an unequivocal yes. In fact, it comes with many qualifications. It takes the unique combination of a revolutionary idea, relentless execution, and luck to build the next tech industry leader. Let’s work our way backwards through each of these. Although some people claim that you create your own luck, which I believe is facilitated by relentless execution, luck is a very difficult skill to teach. I like to think of it as a catch-all for the fit between your abilities and the market realities which prevail during a particular period of time. Relentless execution, on the other hand, is possible to teach. It’s a lengthy topic which covers everything from your sales and marketing strategy to the value of performing rapid iterations and dealing with failures. I’ve touched on some of these topics in previous posts and plan to write about other strategies for successful execution in the future. What I’d like to write about today is the first leg of the stool: how to come up with a revolutionary idea.
For the engineers among us who thought I would be giving you a step-by-step instruction manual to come up with the next game-changing idea, I’m sorry to disappoint you. If I had such a recipe, I would have already built each of the tech products you will be using in your daily lives ten years from now. What I can offer, however, is a simple way to greatly increase your chances of changing the world through technology. It all starts by asking the right question. In particular, identify a problem that you experience in your daily life, and ask yourself how you would change the status quo to produce an optimal outcome. Then think about how close you can get to this optimal outcome through technology.
Let me give a few examples to illustrate how this approach works in practice. In the past, you needed to go to the library to learn because that was the central location where the majority of the world’s information was found. Frustrated by the need to go to the library whenever you wanted to research something, the invention of the internet made it possible to imagine a readily accessible website containing as detailed information on as wide a range of topics as the library. Enter Wikipedia. Since the internet also produced many other websites beyond Wikipedia, there was a need to index and search the content of all these websites to produce the most relevant and reliable information. Enter Google. Too shy to ask someone out in person, you could think of a world where it’s possible to make such introductions without a face-to-face interaction. Enter Match.com. Too short on time to visit many different travel agencies or online booking websites to find the best flight fare, you would seek to have all this information aggregated and easily comparable on the web. Enter Kayak.
Wherever you look in your life, it’s very likely that you’ll be able to identify a suboptimal status quo. What you need to do is imagine what this area of your life would look like in a utopic world without constraints. Then try to get as close to creating this utopia as possible. Due to the constraints and the incremental nature of innovation, you’ll likely fall short, even very short. But it might be just enough to revolutionize the lives of billions of people.