The Path Not Taken
The Advantages & Pitfalls of Being a Pioneer
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference — Robert Frost
Every morning, my commute which takes roughly 40 minutes begins by listening to a Podcast on my iPhone that is connected to my car by Bluetooth. Almost everytime a podcast begins , I cannot stop thinking that halfway across the world, in Germany, there are electric power stations powered by the Ethereum platform. Very soon, driver less cars will be part of an Internet of Things (IoT) where the car pays the charging station using Ether as currency.
There has been an incredible change in device communication over the years. Bluetooth was developed by by Nils Rydbeck and Johan Ullman in 1989. A decade later, Bill Joy envisioned Device to Device (D2D) communication as part of his “Six Webs” framework, presented at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 1999.
Today, as Stephen Tual, CEO of Slock.It (an Ethereum based blockchain startup) explained to Coindesk:
“What’s really exciting here is that people are going to be able to use smart contracts to contract with a machine directly, rather than contracting with a human being or a corporation,”
Not being part of this technology revolution is being left out of a renaissance. So, every time I embrace a new technology, I see an entrepreneur moving closer to his dream of making the proverbial ‘dent’ in the universe.
Who is An Early Adopter?
Early adopter or lighthouse customer is an early customer of a product, service or technology. The term was coined in Everett M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (1962). The technology adoption curve called the Roger bell curve is illustrated below:
Part Un: My Experience As A Typical Early Adopter
Personally, I am an early adopter. I truly fit in the 13.5% on the Roger bell curve. My reward is gaining the experience necessary to test uncharted waters so that I can overcome fear. In other words, it has always been about internal growth rather than external gratification.
Be it Virtual Reality (VR), Apple Watch, Digital Currencies or Drones, I typically buy a pioneering product early. In some ways, I am an innovators best ‘guinea pig’.
One of the biggest criticism of early adoption is that the first version of the product can be ‘buggy’ or error prone. So far, every single product that I have tried has been a worthy investment. And yes, the software was clunky but then it almost always gets better. That’s the beauty of technology today — software is easily upgrade able.
Until today, early adoption has expanded my horizons in addition to providing a great return on my investment. There are occasional regrets but so far, they have been few and far between.
Part Deux: Smart Pioneers
Y Combinator was a pioneer in the field of seed acceleration. It has the distinction of being the first seed accelerator. Today, there are more than 1000+ accelerators helping entrepreneurs succeed. Founded in March 2005, Y Combinator literally led the seed accelerator universe.
Y Combinator’s motto is “Make Something People Want which brings me to Product / Market Fit.
To be a smart pioneer, entrepreneurs should understand that a key learning that accelerators are emphasizing and VC’s appreciate is recognizing the right Product/Market Fit.
Marc Andreessen defined the term as follows: “Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.”
Many people interpret product/market fit as creating a so called minimum viable product that addresses and solves a problem or need that exists (source:wiki)
Today, many entrepreneurs that have been supported by prestigious accelerators realize that they should be pitching to small and medium companies rather than multinationals. Quite often, even if the entrepreneur is approved to be on-boarded, the vendor on boarding process for a large matrix organization can take months. Therefore, what I have learnt from my interactions with entrepreneurs is:
- Don’t solve for problems that don’t exist just because you possess sophisticated tools.
- For your minimum viable product (MVP), target the right market.
- It could be wise to start with the right set of companies (smaller scale players/players with the right risk appetite/players without the capability to develop the efficiency your product creates)
- Get traction with the right market and then scale up to the standards of larger corporations. You have evidence of success now.
- Engage in Parallel Processing: Be in continuous dialog with bigger corporations because openings don’t come easy and the internal environment changes constantly.
- Use your lean mentality and agility to your advantage.
- If it’s possible, start a dialog at the top of a large organization
Part Trois: Change Management
Early adopters can make for very effective change managers. This is because they love to spearhead change, design strategies and lead teams through the bluest of blue oceans. Especially in large organizations subject to a matrix structure, leading change can be an incredibly difficult but immensely rich experience. It is much more exciting, albeit fraught with risk, to sell a vision to a team than it is to go on with business as usual.
Usually, executives who have faith in their vision and know that they will be able to see it through understand the downside very well. Despite the deliberate risk taking, it is also a deep seated desire to disrupt the organization from within than to allow external forces to ‘unbundle’ it’s heritage one business at a time.
Early adoption has to be viewed in the light of the right ‘risk-adjusted’ Return on Investment (ROI). Just like equities or any other asset class, if you are conscious and willing on take on the risk, you will be rewarded appropriately.
Understanding change as a pioneer, on balance, has been revolutionary and eye-opening. I do recognize that it could be smart to be a second mover. However, in the words of Einstein:
“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”
Just once, be a pioneer and take a risk while you can swim against the tide. Its much worse not to find the will to do so later and regret than it is to fail the first time. In other words, take a calculated risk while you have resources to lose. Very soon, you could ‘run out of ammo’.