As an entrepreneur advisor, I am surprised at how often I hear the same or very similar proposals of incremental innovation to an existing process, versus a really new or breakthrough solution. If you are seriously looking to start the next billion-dollar startup, you need to get beyond the realm of enhancing a current solution. Investors are looking for breakthrough solutions to fund.
For example, I often hear proposals for new online social media or collaboration platforms, maybe more specifically tuned to inventors or artists, or easier to use, and populated by experts, to compete against Slack or Facebook. What I don’t see often are new solutions that force me to rethink how we work together, or really use AI to make the collaboration process more productive.
Today there are a wealth of disruptive technologies available, including the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), advanced virtual reality (VR), and high-function robotics. But we all know that these are not solutions by themselves, but require integration into an innovative framework to solve real customer problems.
That integration is the breakthrough that you should be looking for as an entrepreneur. I believe that creating these solutions is not rocket science, but it does require a mindset that is determined to look beyond what the rest of us can see. Here are some keys to that mindset that I have seen working for successful entrepreneurs:
- Think customer-centric rather than technology-centric. Rather than starting from a mindset of pushing the limits of technology, be determined to first find a customer need that can only be solved by the technology you know. Remember that your goal is to build a successful business, and customers are in control of making that happen.
For example, Zappos led a revolution in online shoes and clothing, not because of any revolutionary shoe technology, but because they sensed a clothing customer obsession for customer service, including long phone conversations and unlimited free returns.
- Take a deeper dive into your idea before you declare it. High-level ideas rarely make good business solutions. The deeper you dive into an idea, twisting and turning it to find novel ways of linking things together, the more likely you will find something even you haven’t thought of, to make your solution memorable to customers and investors alike.
One of the ways to do a deeper dive into validating your solution is to build a campaign on a popular crowdfunding platform, like Kickstarter. From the work and feedback, you will learn much on how your solution will fare with customers, before building the product
- Tap expert sources in other domains for ideas. Many aspiring entrepreneurs are too paranoid to share ideas and learn what they need to turn an idea into a disruptive customer solution. Actively solicit insights from outside domain experts, and follow-up to expand your thinking relative to your own domain. Be forever curious and optimistic.
Elon Musk, for example, admits to reading up to two books per day in various disciplines, including physics, engineering, product design, business, technology, and energy, to give him insights on new solutions and new opportunities, despite his large portfolio already.
- Build a prototype and experiment with real customers. I often hear entrepreneurs talking about ideas they have been honing in their head for years, or even a decade. Even years ago good entrepreneurs, like Thomas Edison, admitted they learned more from building mock-ups and prototypes than from gut instincts and theory.
Edison was famous for prototyping, staying positive, and never giving up on his electric light bulb ideas. He is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He never talked about a solution until he had a working model.
- Nurture advocates and partners with complementary skills. Mentors and advocates will keep you focused and positive, and will develop your ability to speak to investors and customers with authenticity, credibility, and confidence. Assimilate a team with the range of skills you need in your business, including development, operations, and marketing.
Even Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, while they had each other, and some advanced degrees from Stanford, still benefited from the help from other stars in business including Eric Schmidt, Andy Bechtolsheim, and billionaire Ram Shriram.
If you are new to the entrepreneur lifestyle, it’s probably good to start with an idea that is incremental innovation, to get your feet on the ground, and understand how the funding and business creation process works. But let me assure you, the real joy, satisfaction, and full potential comes from breakthroughs that change the world. Try that mindset next time!