Great technology leads to innovative solutions that are possible, but not necessarily great businesses. Rube Goldberg illustrated this principle many years ago in cartoons, but I still find inventors that are creating solutions today looking for a problem. In addition, every solution has to fit into the current political, cultural and economic environment to make it a viable business.
For example, hydrogen-fueled engines were invented over a century ago, with a continuing promise of breathing air and exhaling pure water vapor and having over 200 companies active in the hydrogen sector today. Yet, due largely to non-technology business considerations, including pricing, safety concerns and support infrastructure, there are none that most people can name.
Every entrepreneur needs to keep a priority focus on these big-picture business issues, well before he commits his resources and his future to a technology that he loves. Here are some specifics that I recommend as a startup advisor for maintaining a properly balanced perspective.
1. Keep up on business issues as diligently as on technology issues.
Most technologists pride themselves on their link to relevant technology developments, but very few apply the same discipline to business and big-picture changes. Good entrepreneurs know they have to be experts in business as well as technology.
2. Regularly communicate with major business leaders in your domain.
Business leaders are the ones who best understand the balance that must be achieved between a technology and business success. Effective communication is not a debate, but active listening and an exchange of perspectives in a personal and informal environment.
3. Develop written business plans as detailed as product plans.
Good technologists produce written product specifications, to help them personally be confident that all the technical requirements are covered. Yet their business plans rarely get more than a page or two written. Defining a good business is as complex as defining a good solution.
4. Participate in business leadership groups outside your technology.
Effective personal networking involves reaching outside your level of expertise, and interacting with people who can balance your perspective. Activities that broaden your focus to societal, environmental and economic issues will help make you a winner in business.
5. Find a business advisor with credibility to challenge your assumptions.
Sometimes it takes some humility to even ask for input, and even more to really listen to negative feedback. Most successful entrepreneurs, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, maintain mentor relationships with key advisors that they highly respect.
6. Focus on advancing return on investment, rather than state of the art.
By prioritizing customer need and value first, you will more likely achieve the satisfaction of seeing your paradigm shift become reality. Technology opportunities require effort and money, so they should be driven by value to customers, rather than the intellectual challenge.
Finally, remember that investors fund business people before technology. They look for expertise and experience in building a business as a higher value than expertise in building a solution. An even more fundable alternative is a pair of founders, one with business credibility and the other with the relevant technology expertise. It’s a clear example of how one plus one can equal three.
Successful entrepreneurs must understand and fit into the world today, and it’s getting more complex every day. In today’s world, social and environmental values often are more important success drivers than technology. The most important technology in business may be the business intelligence and big-data tools to curate the real needs in every business segment.
In fact, most customers no longer care about and many actively fear and avoid new technology. Thus technology is best hidden under better user interfaces, and simple yet powerful solutions to their problems. Can you imagine Facebook and the iPhone being sold as paradigm shifts in technology? Yet both are new technologies that have garnered huge business opportunities.