My favourite stories of entrepreneurship are those where just by looking at the world a little differently the innovator spots something that will seem in retrospect obvious to us all. Yet, for some reason it isn't at the time and for everyone else becomes a 'self-kick' later. To sound pretentious, there is almost some strange alignment of societal space-time that occurs. And it is by far most often the case that a great story of entrepreneurship arises from a realization by the innovator of the unmet need for something (be that a market need or simply the human need, which is usually a frustration or surprise at something in the status quo) -- rather than by inventing a per se innovative solution, a priori.
I remember a fascinating story of entrepreneurship I heard in a talk from a passionately driven mother who'd been looking for years for the right kind of job to no avail. Dejected, she'd decided to put career aspirations on hold and pursue the other thing she'd always wanted to do, have a family -- which it seemed that she saw at the time as something of a cop out and an easier route (am not sure how many people who've had a family share that view... as indeed she also came to realise in due course!). In any case, what happened was this -- fast-forward two years and she had at home a no doubt cute but fearless -- and fearsome -- toddler. And white carpets. She pretty soon discovered, many expensive Ribena incidents later, that there were no baby-bottles on the market which didn't require either (i) her constant attention to unscrew or otherwise disentangle some complex-but-secure lid, just to allow the infant to take a sip; or (ii) for those more infant-accessible varieties, require her constant attention, dejected, to the Yellow Pages for carpet cleaners/refitting.
So rather than taking this all on the chin (like her indomitable child), she determined to do something. She researched the space, and found that it wasn't just that her local shops were letting her down, there really was no better solution out there. Now aware of a definite unmet need, and realizing the opportunity, she set about designing a relatively straightforward plastic non-return valve that only allowed liquid through when a child was actively sucking with a seal on the bottle. She patented the idea and turned it into a multimillion dollar business that helped parents across the world. And so solved her career-goal problem too -- through doing something she loved and being open to opportunity and ready to take the steps to capitalize on it, once spotted.
The important thing here is that it's often the personal experience an entrepreneur has, opportunistically becoming aware of a need themselves or friends or family have, and ask- 'could others be having this same problem too...?', then finding out for sure. And then, critically, having the grit and determination to create from scratch the thing that will answer the need, that is so often much more powerful than actively going looking for something to try in their existing work context and expertise-sphere. In practice, this is so often the cornerstone foundation of entrepreneurship.
Will.i.am, of Black Eyed Peas (and successful solo career) fame, is just this kind of entrepreneur. His ability to spot unmet needs and new opportunities, then act on his observations, has transcended even his activities as a musician. We became friends through working with a nonprofit, the X Prize Foundation, which poses large prizes to humanities grand challenges such as the Archon Genomics $10M X Prize and $10M Qualcomm 'Tricorder' Prize, and whose great work I won't have space to cover here, but merits a dedicated blog post, to follow.
Will's latest venture, borne of such a personal perspective realization of an unmet need, translated into something special. A whole new line of cutting edge mobile technology products in fact.
The story was, Will was on a photo shoot with an army of supermodels -- incessantly snapping shots of each other on iPhones clutched between perfectly manicured nails -- and a very talented world-renowned photographer. Will had a great day, loved the images, but noticed something that stood out as bizarre.
Despite the stunning color-balanced and perfected images from the pro photographer's lens, the image that circulated the world online within 24 hours from that shoot came not from the professional. It was instead one of the model's iPhone snaps, which came to represent that shoot worldwide and stand iconic. Yet while smartphones in default go along way to meeting that need for immediacy and in pocket photography power, they fall short of what they could be. Enter iam+.
True to his entrepreneurial DNA, rather than noting this unmet need in passing and moving on, Will dreamt up a creative (and, needless to say, ridiculously stylish) solution, and spent a hard year (even in his shoes -- or, optionally, his titanium-alloy studded platform rocket boots) getting demanding tech projects off the ground rapidly is not easy) building out his dream. The launch-product line itself is something of a 'Pimp-my-iPhone', and comprises the full gamut range of enhancements for the humble version, from a sexy techno-vintage new jacket turning it into a more practical and usable camera, right up to the new range slated for launch early next year -- which will go on to actually beef up the megapixels of a normal iPhone dramatically. And there's the iam+ social network aggregator due soon, allowing users to log in to all their key networks simultaneously from one simple point source.
Will's method of building a development team for the project is of interest to would-be entrepreneurs- - everywhere he goes he talks to people, from all walks of life, (and without a trace of celebrity aloofness, in fact if there's one thing for which he stands, it's opportunity -- witness the work the work his i.am.angel Foundation are doing to help inner city kids in the U.S. and UK escape harmful cycles and into self-empowering productivity). Everywhere he went, he indexed people in his address book by their key skills and talents next to their names, for that rainy day he might need their input. And so with this project, he was able to assemble a geographically and socially diverse group of hardware and software people, around a dream.
Being always open to opportunity is a lesson we can all learn from. To build on that, clearly it helps to be will.i.am (an observation that was most poignant when he relayed the tale of the fundraising -- the defining hurdle of most innovation at some point in its lifecycle. He said, "I'd said to the hardware guy, how much would it take to build this? He said the amount, and I was like -- what, that's only two DJ gigs!").
But that shouldn't be a blocker -- entrepreneurs now have myriad sources of early stage funding for good projects hitting real needs, especially the great current (and expanding) crop of crowdfunding platforms, kickstarted by, errr..., Kickstarter.com. And now its brethren, becoming increasingly niche and domain-specialized. Angel investors are being enabled by the web also to share dreams (eg angellist.comhttps://angel.co/), and the past few years have seen some VCs such as Index now coming to early-stage seed investing in a new way.
Besides, if there's one other thing any entrepreneur should recognize, it's that you're not going to begin with everything you need, be that funding, skills or network. Entrepreneurship is a horses-for-courses game where once the opportunity has been spotted, the main thing is to play the cards one has been previously dealt to the best of ones ability, and generate the rest. There will always be obstacles, and even failures, en route - but accepting that, the worst you can do is reflect, learn and move forward.
I've used up my Will-related sycophancy quota in the words above so won't now also plug iam+ products themselves, I'll leave that to far more skilled marketeers than I -- except to say a thanks to Will and his new team for making my annual Christmas shopping rush now much easier since all friends and family are iPhone addicts, and (of course) have a need to make them shinier, sexier, and more able to send impromptu supermodel images around the world. Oh, if only that that were a daily problem!
Follow Dr. Charles Roberts on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@greeenstar