Just because I’m an “innovation guy”, doesn’t mean that I can: 1) wear red underwear over blue tights like Superman or 2) try to reinvent everything. The art of innovation is also knowing when and how to use what already exists. I was recently advising a startup founder with a grand vision for a new kind of tech education for corporate employees. I agreed that he was onto something…but he was trying to slice strawberries with a chainsaw. (I prefer an axe.) His efforts were stalling as he wooed major players in the category for support. Having worked with lots of large companies, I know getting one company to buy in can be slower than tweezing Alec Baldwin smooth; getting multiples is like re-implanting each follicle. So this entrepreneur was stuck with a big idea that might take forever to coordinate and millions to build. He also lacked a clear plan for getting customers…whose demand for the product was far from guaranteed. Yes, he had it all. There was a better way – and it meant thinking small.
Here are a few things I suggested to him (at least the ones I can share):
My well-deserved break from innovation
- Start small: Build a minimum viable product. In his case, it’s creating one course that represents his vision. Real classes perform a lot differently than theoretical ones described in a business plan.
- Test and refine using multiple channels: He needed to release his ideas into the wild before they start to smell like a dormitory fridge. I suggested using multiple channels to get exposure and feedback on the content – Udemy, Skillshare, Slideshare , etc. Based on user response, he could refine his ideas and get enough proof points to to attract investors, customers and eventually, hot bodies to his 100ft yacht.
- Consider embedded distributors: There are countless training companies that have hundreds of corporate clients. They have sales forces, relationships with HR departments, and fluffy stress balls with their company logo. Why try to replicate that? Why not just develop the content, license it, and collect royalty checks like the fat mailman on Seinfeld? Plus, if he can sign non-exclusive licensing deals with existing providers, he can use multiple channels to distribute. Otherwise, he can decide whether or not to build his own platform when the contracts expire.
- Choose your battles: Sometimes you have to decide a) if you truly have a big idea, b) how hard you’re willing to fight to perfect your vision and c) if there’s an easier way. There’s nothing wrong with having a nice little content business that almost runs itself. True, you won’t control the distribution or the user experience, but you can have a steady income stream, low overhead, and the freedom to work on other things. It’s not quite a yacht stocked with models, but it’s definitely a fishing boat full of bait and mid-range sonar equipment.
- Forget about permission: The beauty of living in the digital era is no longer having to ask permission. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have to prepare countless PowerPoint decks to AOL executive to convince them to let him make Facebook. Similarly, no entrepreneur should wait for a major corporation to bless his business plan. If you build it (well), they will come…with checkbooks open. Unless your business makes checkbooks obsolete, that is.