In the late 1990s, my colleague and I were invited to write a book which eventually became “The Entrepreneurial Mindset.” I had reason to go back and revisit some of what we wrote about then, and stumbled across this example of a product that wasn’t technically feasible at the time, but which is eerily like…well, see for yourself.
The Entrepreneurial Mindset – How Not to Sell a Book in the Wake of the dot.com Crash
In what seems like ancient history now, in the booming 1990s, my colleague and frequent co-author Ian MacMillan and I were invited by our editor at the Harvard Business School Press to put some of our ideas into book form. The theme we hit on was to take lessons from habitual entrepreneurs and apply them to corporations. Just as habitual entrepreneurs were able to start multiple businesses successfully, we reasoned that companies were going to have to learn to do that as well because the duration of any given competitive advantage was getting shorter. Companies, therefore, were going to have to be able to generate strings of advantages, replacing the old ones as they faded.
We wanted to call the book “Discovery Driven Strategy.” Our editor, however, perhaps as inebriated with dot.com fizz as the rest of the economy, overruled us. So Entrepreneurial Mindset it was. The book was doubly damned. Not only had entrepreneurship at that precise moment just given itself a major black eye, but the intended audience for the book – corporate executives – never looked at it, since the bookstores all stocked it in the small business section!
Ah well, one lives and learns, it seems. We eventually got over the dot com bust, real businesses like Amazon and eBay showed us that it wasn’t all just hype, and I moved on to the next book. But recently, Aiden McCullen, host of the podcast “The Innovation Show,” expressed an interest in revisiting the book, which led me to go back and have another look at it. Much to my pleasant surprise, there is a lot in there that is quite relevant and useful, even today.
Radical innovation for non-customers
The book essentially walks a corporate entrepreneur through just about the whole journey, from identifying potentially valuable terrain to analyzing competitive responses and more. What I hadn’t thought about in years was a hypothetical example of pursuing a revolutionary configuration of a product or service by targeting non-customers. I used the example of laptop computers to illustrate – now remember, this was circa 1998 or 1999, and laptops were far from the mass market machines they subsequently became.
As we said in the book, “There are millions of people who own laptop computers, but there are tens of millions who do not. The issue is which groups of people who could afford a laptop do not own one, and why?”
We then went on to identify groups of people in what we called “behavioral” segments of laptop non-users who might be amenable to buying one if we could get rid of the negatives. The first group we identified were very senior executives. They might use a cell phone or even a personal digital assistant (remember those?) but not laptops. At the time, laptops were too heavy, and very senior people, had assistants to help them with office tasks. They were resistant to typing. What they did want was a way to get up-to-date information instantly and to get schedule changes without having to check with the office.
The second set of people were professional laptop novices, in that they used a desktop computer but didn’t feel the need to invest in a laptop. They also played around with mobile phones and PDAs. Complexity, cost, and keyboard-only access were huge negatives for this group. Big potential positives for this group would be the ability to access e-mail and Internet-based information sources and to use the devices for multiple purposes (storing images, getting addresses, reading electronic documents, making payments, and so on).
We called a third segment “cybervisuals”. These were people whose formerly paper-based work environment either had gone or was likely to go completely digital. This group included architects, engineers, graphic designers, systems integrators, and so on. Their communication patterns were moving from being predominantly local to an Internet-based shared environment. The laptops of the day had screens whose displays were not up to the resolution that their tasks required. A portable device that would facilitate their collaborative work and enhance productivity while traveling would be welcome.
The Ultimate Mobile Intelligence Machine
We imagined a ‘super product’ – one that would appeal to customers who would like the functionality of the laptop but in a less expensive, more user-friendly, and more portable package. We called this hypothetical innovation a mobile intelligence device. The idea was to release creativity around a concept that could appeal to all 3 of our non-laptop-using segments without regard for what was then technically feasible.
And here is the description, taken from page 101 of the book:
The mobile intelligence device (MIS) is a shirt-pocket sized digital assistant with accessories that allow it to function as a laptop computer, tape recorder, personal digital assistant, and mobile phone. It weighs a maximum of 12 ounces with batteries and all accessories. It runs for seven days or more on two rechargeable AA batteries. The device has two displays: one on the pocket device and one that hooks into a visor that can be worn like a cap and shows a full thirteen inches of display space. An optional display device looks like a pair of glasses. The device can also power a conventional computer display. It can receive input utilizing voice recognition, an incredibly light standard-sized keyboard that folds up for handwriting on the flip side of the foldout surface. Earphones provide auditory output. It connects to the Internet and other networks, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), through the built-in mobile phone or through other connections that can be tapped into without a hard-wired cable connection (via infrared or other device). It can support existing applications such as word processing and provide access to new ones (such as translation). And it will be available at half the price of existing laptops.
After imagining such a product, the book then goes into detail about how our entrepreneurial firm might break through the barriers that have so far prevented such a product from being offered, in the hope of expanding the range of ideas that a potential firm might put in what we called their opportunity “inventory.”
I have to say, I had forgotten this imaginary device which, of course, 23 years later is simply taken for granted by the 85% of the earth’s 8 billion people who carry them.
SparcHub software is a logical next step
In the Entrepreneurial Mindset, we describe any number of tools a corporate entrepreneur might use to find opportunities, design offerings, and get into the market. Too many tools, perhaps! Back in the day, the state of the art was spreadsheets and checklists. It’s still, unfortunately, spreadsheets and checklists! Many of my clients have expressed frustration that there don’t seem to be tools that specifically focus on this process – after you’ve had the idea, but before you are in the market with an innovation. We’re now on our third iteration to build such a tool. We call it the SparcHub system. Click on the link to access a demonstration.
SparcHub allows you to implement many of the tools referenced in Entrepreneurial Mindset and my later books. You can create your strategic frame, capture ideas in an inventory, manage your opportunity portfolio, plan to test assumptions through key checkpoints, and much more. I’ll be doing a live virtual demonstration on TODAY at noon Eastern, which you can register for here. We’re also doing some beta testing with large corporate clients – get in touch if you would like to give it a spin.