I want to talk about the importance of having the right idea at the right time in the right market. Before we get there, though, I’d like to tell you about a brilliant inventor who had so many amazing ideas that his work tripped over the boundaries between art and science and spanned everything from aeronautics to alchemy to anatomy.
This scientist was not university-educated, and many of his peers failed to take him seriously. That did not dissuade him apparently; he spent decades filling journals with his observations, his plans and his sketches of impossible products few believed were viable. He sketched a flying machine that looks much like the helicopters we know today. He described an underwater breathing apparatus – scuba gear. He imagined tanks for war and single-span bridges for wide bodies of water.
The innovator was Leonardo da Vinci, and he worked in Italy at the turn of the 16th century. Like so many modern inventors and entrepreneurs, da Vinci often found himself with half of the equation for success. He ran circles around most of his peers in terms of ideas, but he was short on relevance; there was no market for many of his visions. We might study such figures of the past and reverently say, “They were ahead of their time.”
But being ahead of one’s time can kill a great business idea.
Finding “the next cool thing,” just in time
In 1999, I founded BlackholeTV.com, an Internet video company. It was, if I may say so, a great idea. The premise that end users would be interested in using the Internet to publish and consume amateur video content was forward thinking at the time. Factor in elements of crowdsourcing, content tagging, and super-targeted advertising, and interesting business models could be developed.
The market was taking steps in the direction of Internet-based entertainment, but then the infamous dot-com market crash happened and, to investors, the appeal of Internet video evaporated quickly. Today, of course, is a different story. YouTube is the second most popular search engine in the world, and people watch nearly as much “TV” on their computers as they do on their traditional screens. The founders and shareholders of YouTube also fared well thanks to Larry and Sergey (i.e., Google) buying it for $1.65 billion.
In business, being early is not always a good thing. Entrepreneurs need to be early enough to attract the favor of investors and customers (or in some cases attract eyeballs to view their website), but not so ahead of the market that no one can understand the need for their products. Leonardo da Vinci might have sketched the forerunner of the helicopter, but even if he could have produced a prototype, it’s hard to imagine that mode of transportation making sense to many people in the 1500s.
When I founded Embotics in 2006, the need for both innovation and relevance was foremost in my thinking. We explored a few strategic directions and then saw a need for virtual machine (VM) lifecycle management that the market was on the brink of recognizing (in fact over the years this market has evolved into cloud computing management, the current focus of Embotics).
We knew we had to be forward thinking, but not so ahead that our customers could no longer see where we were going. Ever since then, Embotics has kept close tabs on where our customers are, where they need to be, and how we can help them get there. We stay out in front in our industry, but we are ever aware that if we sprint too far too fast, we could torpedo our own success.
Striking a balance that leads to success
So how can entrepreneurs find the right balance between innovation and relevance? The following five guidelines can help.
1. Listen to the market
It’s important to understand where your target customers are right now and predict the challenges they will face tomorrow. Just understand that they might not be ready to discuss the products they will need in five years – they have problems to fix today. Help them solve their immediate pain points, and they’ll be more likely to follow you into the future.
2. Predict the roadblocks
What’s happening inside your customers’ enterprises will affect the pace of your business. If their budgets are drying up, if they are grappling with plateaued projects, if they face external pressures that demand precedence over new projects, there could be roadblocks to adoption of new products. Entrepreneurs who can predict those roadblocks based on deep knowledge of the market are in better position to overcome them.
3. Remain flexible
Last year, the market expected widespread adoption of Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization platform, and Embotics was prepared to support it with a comprehensive management solution. That widespread adoption was delayed, but it didn’t hurt us. We pivoted quickly to meet the realities of customer requirements, focusing instead on enhancing our value-add for the VMware virtualization platform. Flexibility is essential to longevity.
4. Be an educator
As an evangelist for virtualization, cloud computing, and all they can offer business, I can’t help but see what my customers will need next year and in the next decade. They might not be ready to hear it as soon as I want to talk about it, but I can help them get there by positioning my company as not just a vendor, but also as an educator. Through a company blog, free webinars and white papers, entrepreneurs can help influence and build the markets they want to serve.
5. Heed the lessons of history
Countless great ideas never make it into the market, simply because they present themselves too early. This has been borne out in every century since the Renaissance, and modern entrepreneurs would do well to heed the lesson.
Jay Litkey is the CEO of Embotics. He is a serial entrepreneur with extensive experience launching, financing and growing software companies. Jay has been a pioneer in emerging high growth markets that include virtualization, enterprise systems management automation and Internet video content distribution.