The Case for Interruption and Disruption
A few months ago I came across a piece by Jeff Nolan, titled Incrementalism and “The New New Thing,” which struck poignantly at a raw nerve. He called attention to the incrementalism gripping Silicon Valley despite the flush amount of capital available for startups. Much of the attention and hype has surrounded social networking and Web 2.0 startups but each new entry is a slight improvement over the previous. But only discontinuous, quantum leap innovations create disproportionate value. So what’s next?
Umair Haque’s An Open Challenge to Silicon Valley put it in even stronger terms as he labels the current crop of Web 2.0 startups and their incrementalist approach “trivial” and “banal.” I certainly could see the banality of the Web 2.0 echo chamber. Say a company creates a service for users to share picture slideshows online. The next competitor provides a widget for picture slideshows with better transition effects. Then the next entrant will provide the ability to incorporate simple audio effects into slideshows.
Haque’s answer to “what’s next?” is to challenge revolutionaries or entrepreneurs to solve bigger problems. What are some huge problems facing this world? Haque mentions skyrocketing food prices, unstable financial systems, and a worsening energy crisis. To this list I would add terrorism, a deteriorating and increasingly costly healthcare system, global warming, and war.
The incrementalism Nolan and Haque decried is alive and well. Petty, self-appointed social networking gurus argue about the incremental virtues of Identi.ca over Twitter, Facebook over Myspace (NWS-A), FriendFeed over Twitter, Twitter over Facebook, and countless other variants of this rock-paper-scissors silliness. The other 99.9% of the world’s population couldn’t care less.
At the time I read Nolan’s and Haque’s posts, I was mired at SocialOptimize creating social networking applications for clients. My former partner and I collected exorbitant dollars per hour for our work but I felt as if we drastically overcharged for our services. I came to realize that what we produced were inconsequential products that added little to no value to the economy and society. Even the companies that employed SocialOptimize derived scant value from the apps we delivered. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy games and distractions as much as anyone but these apps constituted neither good games nor good distractions. They were merely companies’ halfhearted and “me too!” attempts at having a presence on social networks. The companies didn’t really even want these apps; they just got caught up in all the Web 2.0 hype.
As an investor, I’ve always been a contrarian but my entrepreneurial endeavors started to look like a vapid run with the herd. Haque’s and Nolan’s posts landed profound psychological kicks to my posterior. So I immediately interrupted my usual programming and have since been obsessed with searching for opportunities to address bigger problems.
My search for meaning has turned out to be fortuitous and delightful. It has taken me many months as I tried to vigorously filter noise from signal, short-term cash grabs from sustainable opportunities. Opportunities never appear scarce; the trick lies in carefully identifying and selecting the ones I can have the most impact on and the most fun with.
So I was ecstatic when I decided to join Design Engine Lab, a leading industrial design firm, as partner and chief strategist. Industrial design is an entirely new world to me and I’ve jumped in with complete enthusiasm. I am steering the firm gradually away from servicing clients and toward developing our own internal products and spin-off companies.
We have designed a new, patented interface technology that we will first apply to the lighting market. Our technology has the potential to curb energy usage drastically wherever it is installed. Some of Haque’s big problems are beyond the scope of my circle of competence, but global warming is one which Design Engine Lab’s greener and cleaner technology can have a very positive impact. Our technology will also affect the delivery and efficacy of healthcare, another big problem, by mitigating the environmental risk factors attendant in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Our technology will be used in hospitals across the United States and that specific segment alone represents a multi-million dollar market.
We’re also forming a joint venture with another company to develop a portable landing zone that will dramatically improve the success rate of emergency extractions of injured people via helicopter. I’ve accompanied helicopter pilots on test flights and have received nothing but the most eager feedback. I’m very excited about this product because it will actually save lives in the real world.
At Design Engine Lab, we conduct serious play looking for ideas that have global implications. Sometimes, that means huge ideas requiring complex execution. But we also engage in what I coined Bite-Sized Innovation®. Small does not have to mean incremental if the result is drastic. We attempt to make small changes that lever up to create huge consequences. Some of our upcoming medical device projects will reflect this Bite-Sized Innovation model. The best part of all this is the intensely joyful feeling of play that permeates all our brainstorming and experimentation sessions.
I don’t want to stray too far from the software world. So I’ve been fortunate to have also gotten involved with Sendside Networks as a consultant helping with research, marketing, business development, and fundraising. Sendside is creating technology that will change the way companies communicate with their customers. It is a highly risky strategy as we are trying to forge a brand new category in the Enterprise 2.0 market. But highly risky strategies are the ones that capture or create enormous value if executed well. In this case, the risk is vastly mitigated by a fantastic executive team and boards of directors and advisers filled with quality individuals. The team is the primary reason I wanted to get involved in the first place.
Without giving away the recipe for the secret sauce, Sendside has the potential to replace a sizable portion of the physical mail stream. In our vision, at its most revolutionary extreme, only junk mail and parcels will flow through the mail stream. Successfully bringing about this vision would make Sendside one of the greenest companies in the world, lightening the global burden on our forest lands forever. I have to give a shout out and thank my friend Jeff Barson, Sendside’s evangelist, for turning me on to this opportunity.
I’ve been lucky to have had the luxury of putting a halt to my daily grind to look for game-changing opportunities. I was especially lucky to have come across the two thought-provoking and ego-shattering pieces by Haque and Nolan. Umair Haque wrote in the end of his post that he’d put his money where his mouth is and advise five organizations trying to solve big problems. Umair, if you’re reading this, please get in touch with me. If not, I’ll be in touch shortly.