As a biology student turned venture investor, I view the ecosystem of startups a little differently than most. The “Series A Crunch” is a standard carrying capacity problem, blue ocean markets are little more than keen takes on speciation, and predation, parasitism, and mutualism run rampant.
The greatest founders have a high biological (busiological?) fitness and often have strong offspring. But just like the weaker male gorillas, less brute force and more cunning tactics can yield children as well. For the most part, I think people see these parallels. Yet there is one concept in the startup ecosystem that has this student of Darwin cringing from the implications: disruption.
I take issue with the notion of “disruption,” particularly in the field of education, where real futures of real student minds are on the line. I don’t want the process disrupted, because that means the old system must die by failure and abandonment. In the case of education, that’s an entire generation.
I’d like to propose instead we view evolution in the business world the same way it is seen in the natural world — through a combination of gradualismand punctuated equilibrium. Gradualism (otherwise known as “incremental innovation”) is the process of small change over time, and we see evidence for it in the geologic record. But sometimes there are big jumps, large changes that lead to a new species, or new abilities. This is known as punctuated equilibrium.
Consider the classic example of Darwin’s Finches. They all started the same, and as they were isolated on different islands, each adapted to the specific needs of the niche (“peripatric isolation”). Some got longer beaks to reach in flowers, some thicker to break hard nuts.
The internet is like the galapagos, made up of islands with niches. The mainland had its species — it’s books, pens, and way of life. Now it’s time to reach a new equilibrium, many little equilibriums, according to the world around us. Eventually, people will take boats to see the pretty new birds.
I quit. I stopped everything I was doing to launch something, to launch my thing. I love to think ‘back in the game baby’. The excitation, the true feelings, the adrenaline are so complex to explain, it’s like being a junkie for years, stopping for a while and one day, falling back in the beloved addiction. The game / drug I’m talking about is one of the best I’ve ever known: entrepreneurship (love could be the other one). And now that I’m launching a new startup I (re)discover some common questions asked by others. One of them pops up frequently: ‘how did you come up with this idea’? Sometimes I wonder wether it’s the right question or the exact thing people want to know because some of them go one step further by asking next ‘how did you know this one was THE idea’. Argh if I want to be honest I’d say ‘question too hard, sorry, next one’ or use the simpler (and more cliche) answer like ‘well it’s like orgasm you’ll know when you’ll experience it’.
Because I feel that the more I tell the story the more it can become confused, even in my own mind, I want to put it here. Let’s start with the easiest part of the question ‘how did the idea come up?’.
The starting point is the summer 2012. Back then I’ve decided with my former partners to stop my (officially speaking) first venture. The key thing at that time was my deep willingness and desire to stay an entrepreneur for my entire life. Trust me it is worth to take it into account. I was so desperate to stop my startup and to work for someone else that my mind instantaneously thought about tons of new business ideas. I uber think now that the mindset is really important, I spent the last year with the kinda mindset which reminds you every single day ‘launch something as soon as possible my friend — you’re wasting your time these days’. If there should be one golden rule, it’d be this one. Cause this specific mindset turns every complaint into an opportunity, every book, every remark, every discussion with people into another opportunity.
Some guy went outside in the rain with a kite, received an electric discharge, came back inside his house and melted glass, put a filament inside and innovation happened: Light bulb!
Ok! I know that the guy who flew a kite in a storm was one person and 128 years later another guy put a filament inside a vacuum glass bulb.
When you see entrepreneurs trying to innovate, they struggle to do their homework: Everything that exists… doesn’t matter. Every experience before that… doesn’t matter.
And they use Steve Jobs as an example: “He didn’t listen to anyone. He didn’t believe on market research”. But if you pay close attention, you will see that Steve Jobs did exactly the opposite.
Apple’s secret was to be the first to feel the gaps, what features were missing on products that already exist in the market.
It is hard to carry all the music that you love: iPod.
Why do I have to carry my iPod and a phone?: iPhone.
It is hard to read in a small screen: iPad.
It is hard to hold a large device: iPad mini.
It is still heavy: iPad air.
Steve Jobs didn’t think: “you know what? Forget about this Graham Bell guy. I will reinvent what already exists”.
With the aid of the film, Apollo 13, let’s briefly consider the concept of failure and its role in innovation, problem solving and decision-making.
The Apollo 13 movie documents the heroic efforts of the NASA flight team in successfully returning their crew of three astronauts to earth in their ill-fated, aborted, mission to land on the moon. There’s a compelling scene where the flight engineers discuss the crippled space craft’s desperate power situation that concludes with Flight Director Gene Kranz’s (portrayed by Ed Harris as pictured at left) determined declaration:
Been hearin’ complaints ‘n’ controversy about Techweek this year. People gripe so you figure there’s gotta be a good reason, right? Yeah, I hear you. Yer sayin’, where there’s smoke there’s fire. But all them critics completely miss THE HIDDEN ROOM that you and me stumple upon—the hidden room that makes this thing truly amazing. Now the dust is settled, lemme take you on a tour o’ what I seen. Continue reading WHAT MAKES IT GOOD→
Graduation season is upon us — and that means approximately 700,000 U.S. students will be receiving master’s degrees and another 150,000 or so will be getting their doctorates. For some, the path forward is clear: the math experts will be snapped up by hedge funds, the software engineers will have their pick of start-ups, and elite investment banks and consultancies will duke it out for the top MBAs. But a significant number of those students will fling off their mortarboards only to find themselves bereft of job prospects.
Fourteen years ago, that was me. I was graduating with a master’s degree in theological studies; aiming for a career in academia, I had been utterly unconcerned about the practical applicability of my degree. But when I was turned down by every doctoral program I applied to, I suddenly needed a plan to earn a living. That led to a variety of professional adventures, ranging from journalism to documentary film-making to nonprofit management to serving as a presidential campaign spokesperson.
But one of the hardest parts of the journey was the initial step — entering the workforce after two years of rigorous graduate studies and explaining my degree (no, I wasn’t training to become a minister) and, even more critically, its value in the marketplace. If you’ve earned a graduate degree that puts you on a less-than-certain professional trajectory — one that naysayers may even declare “useless” — here are a few strategies that have worked for me.
The truth is, your subject matter knowledge may be irrelevant to anything going on in the business world today. Expert in ancient Roman politics? Biblical exegesis? South American literature? Anyone will want you at their dinner party — but maybe not working at their company. That’s why you need to emphasize your skills, not your content expertise. In college (studying philosophy) and in divinity school, I learned to read abstruse texts with careful comprehension, and fashion tight, logical arguments. That’s an applicable business skill, even if witty badinage about the writings of Thomas Aquinas is not.
Next, you’ll want to position yourself as a potential fount of innovation. How so? Check out the writings of thinkers like Frans Johansson, who argues in The Medici Effect that the best ideas arise from interdisciplinary intersections. You’re never going to win the argument that you’re better qualified than someone who has studied a relevant business discipline — or who has worked in the field for years. So don’t even try. You’re differently qualified, and your unique perspective may be just what the company needs to move to the next level.
You’ll also want to cite your work experience. Many graduate students serve as research assistants, teaching fellows, or writing-center tutors — and you may even have had internships in your field. Those provide valuable “real-world” credentials that will likely be more impressive to potential employers than your degree itself. Can you lead and inspire those in your charge (i.e., a classroom full of twenty skeptical undergrads)? Bridge cultural divides by enabling non-native English speakers to better express themselves? Solve difficult research challenges and unearth crucial facts? Those are abilities that any workplace would covet.
Finally, I’ve found that my theology degree serves another, unexpected purpose: it allows me to make meaningful connections with the people around me. Some could care less, of course. But others have a personal interest in religion or theology; when they find out about my studies, they’re eager to talk and share their own stories. I’ve seen personal sides of colleagues that never would have come out otherwise — their longing to find a calling, or their own faith journey. In a world where business is driven by personal connections, it’s been a powerful vehicle to engage deeply with others. Many people have strong feelings about, or interest in, religion. But even if it’s a shared interest in geography, or urban planning, or British literature, it can be a powerful way to cement a relationship.
In practical terms, my theology degree wasn’t relevant to my subsequent professional life (though I did finally make it into academia, teaching at business schools in addition to my work as a strategy consultant). But it was very relevant to my development as a human being. Grad school may or may not be worth it, depending on your individual goals and circumstances. But if you’ve taken the plunge and are now entering the work world, you owe it to yourself to make the best case possible in explaining its value to others.
Loop Lonagan here. I’m at a place where my natural greed ‘n’ avarice can do some good fer dis poor worn-out world. This is the Chicago CleanTech Competition—what you might call a race between high-tech global janitorial services. Ten distinguished judges will pick the best o’ da best—companies that’re really doin’ somethin’ to deal with the mess we’re makin’ outa our little corner o’ God’s creation. What we got here is da last ten finalists in our great city and tonight that gets cut down to five.
Every one o’ these companies is a specialist with a different slant on how to get the job done. You know as well as I do—the only company that succeeds in this world is the one that makes good business sense. But are those the ones that’ll win? Probably not. But we’ll see.
The MC makes sure we know today is Earth Day, which gets a shrug all around. Then he explains how the winners move on to the big international GCCA event and compete with companies from Europe ‘n’ Asia. You heard all about that organization, right? If you didn’t, see the link and the video at da bottom. I got no time to explain.
A Strange Encounter
Lemme give you summa da local color. Things is movin’ along real nice when I hear this harsh voice all the way from the other side o’ the room. He’s yellin’ at an elderly gentleman for nodding off during the meeting. Then he turns his foghorn on me: “Hey Lonagan, are you going to be writing this up? Because I’m going to call you every hour on the hour till you do!”
Sheesh, I ain’t kiddin’. The guy blares that out right in the middle o’ da meeting in fronta all these gentle souls. I’m wonderin’ if any of them clean tech folks ever ran into anybody like Rong Mayhem before.
I know that Rong singled me out ‘cause of a simple misunderstanding. He thinks I’m some kinda reporter. Well, this ain’t no newspaper and nobody sticks me with no deadline. I’m lookin’ for companies to invest in. So’s I keep takin’ notes.
Then he howls. “Lonagan, what the hell are you doing?”
This time I answer. “Just writin’ down what you say, Rong.”
But he’s got a come-back to that: “You know what you are? You’re a legend in your own mind!” Then he repeats it a couple times.
After that, things quiet down for a while. And I’m smiling to myself, thinking about the poor MC tryin’ to control the meeting. So I glance over the program and get a jolt. Outa these ten companies, I see two graduates from Northwestern University’s Impact Engine. Lemme tell you about one o’ them:
George Page is the founder of Portapure and he’s da keynote speaker tonight. He’s also one o’ da judges, so maybe things’ll work out all right after all. He’s a chemical engineer that worked in Chicago water projects so he’s a practical guy. And he’s on a mission. He wants to make clean water available to anybody, anywhere, anytime. To do that, he makes water filtration affordable for the developing world.
Portapure won this event last year and ended up among the top 30 in the world. I first seen him at BNC Venture Capital when he invented a pocket size water purifier. I’ll tell you about that one first:
Picture this: Say yer goin’ into the jungles of Haiti to do disaster relief. Yer gonna be
there for weeks and the water is mostly muddy streams and swamps. This is da 3rd World. There ain’t no EPA out there to slap people with fines fer makin’ a mess. Still, you gotta get yer butt out there no matter what the conditions. So whaddaya do? Pack in lotsa fresh water, right? Think again. Got any idea how many pounds a few gallons o’ water weighs? It’s impossible to lug all that with you. Airdrop it, maybe? Not a practical solution.
As it turns out, you don’t even need to carry a canteen. Instead, you take along a little pocket-size device called PocketPure. It weighs next to nothin’. Any time you get thirsty, you stop at a convenient swamp and make yerself some clean drinking water—one cup at a time. You can stay in the field as long as you want ‘n’ you never run outa water.
Up till now, all anybody had was water purification tablets. Those take half an hour to work and you still gotta filter out the dirt somehow. But technology moves forward and you might as well take advantage of it. As you might’ve guessed, Portapure is sellin’ these things to NGOs by the boxful.
Drinking water is in short supply across the world. Lotsa people in all kindsa places die of E. coli and such. Kids even. That brings me to Portapure’s next product:
This one’s on a bigger scale. It’s a three-phase filter with a 5-gallon capacity—just right for yer typical grass hut. Hey—people in the developing world want clean water for their families, too.
This thing filters both bacteria and viruses outa real filthy water. I’m talking real nasty critters like cholera, typhoid, amoebic dysentery, E. coli, coliform bacteria, cryptosporidium, streptococcus, salmonella, giardia, and of course, yer ordinary dirt ‘n’ sediment—it’s enough t’ make yer flesh crawl. This device filters out 99.99% o’ that muck—the definition of clean water according to the World Health Organization. And the filter lasts for maybe 10,000 gallons! This thing was tested in an NSF certified lab and reduced the E. coli count from 5490 to less than 1.
This keeps getting better. He sells these things to NGOs, but there’s another angle. Clean water’s at a real premium. It’s like liquid gold in some places. And folks livin’ there wanna make a living just like anybody else. That gives Portapure a natural distribution network and a sustainable solution that pays for itself. At the same time, they’re putting people to work and boosting the economy in these far-flung places.
This company’s got its share of ‘em:
Impact Engine graduate
GCCA Global Top 30 company
Chicago Innovation Awards 2011 Up & Comer
Office of the Treasurer Small 2012 Business Plan finalist
Tech Cocktail 2011 Finalist
Here’s a good video on Portapure:
I wanna tell you ‘bout the other companies and who won. But I ain’t got room to do it justice here, so I’ll be back with more.
Images and video courtesy Portapure, CCEA, GCCA, Impact Engine, and AP.
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