It has been said that innovation is at the heart of entrepreneurial careers. It is what drives economies and makes possible our quality of life. To start something new, to invent a new approach, to resolve a problem, all of these are moments that mark people for life, people who have had the courage to venture into the unknown and show a different way to do things. But, can anyone with enough imagination and perseverance be that person who can clear the way in uncharted territory? Do you have to go to engineering or business school to become an innovator? How do you come up with an idea? What kind of innovation do we need nowadays?
The other day my wife told me a story of how she came up with her first business venture. She was thirteen at the time. In one sunny afternoon she and some of her friends were watching a soccer game and she observed that the sweaty players were barely keeping up with the heat. She then had the idea to bring lemonade and other types of fruit drinks to the games on weekends. She started this activity with very good results. That is, until other girls decided to start selling their own lemonade. My wife then recruited some of her sisters to help her bring up containers with refreshing drinks to the soccer field for sale. She often had to make several trips home and back to resupply. She found a way to expand operations to keep afloat.
Weeks went by and she had another idea: Sell oranges and other snacks to keep and gain market share. She was diversifying. Later on she started growing flowers on little pots, patiently watering them for days until it was time to sell them at the local marketplace during eastern. She was entering a new market and again, diversifying operations. This answers one of the earlier questions. No, you do not need to be an engineer or an MBA to come up with something original and start a new venture.
Passion and The Power of the Network
It helps, however, to have a formal education in today's competitive environment. But most importantly, we need to find that thing that motivates us, that activity that excites us when we do it. In a recent class I heard entrepreneur Julie Gilbert talk about some key elements that helped her start PreciouStatus (http://www.precioustatus.com/) two years ago; one was PASSION. We need to have passion for what we are doing. Another one is PAIN. Julie told our class (ENTR 6021) that she found herself white-boarding during long nights after a painful experience of having her husband and child in different hospitals, and without any easy way to check how they were doing. Thanks to those elements, Julie had the idea to connect families with their loved ones in hospitals, in a way that was not disruptive for caregivers, hence the company was born.
Education helps bring those innovative ideas from white-board to stone. However, it is not only the wealth of knowledge a school may provide (students still need to absorb that knowledge, by the way) what makes a difference. Another key element is the Network. When we go to school, work or the running club, we are making connections and these could be invaluable when the time comes to launch our idea. Julie acknowledged it was her Network--made of investors, business leaders and so on--which she cultivated for years, that made possible for her to transform her idea from a project to a company with a promising future.
Running Out of Stones
In cover of the January 12 issue of The Economist, there was a Rodin's Thinker sitting on a toilet; it was portrayed as thinking: "Will we ever invent anything this useful again?"
That goes to illustrate that, with all the technological advances such as the Internet, data warehouses, genome decoding, etc., the ideas that impact us the most could be very simple, such as the humble toilet which transformed our way of living and made possible our civilization. We just need imagination, some pain and, of course, passion. And we need those ideas pretty soon.
Oil reserves, for instance, are expected to run out in a few decades. We should be able to come up with innovative ways to efficiently tap on other energy sources; and we better start now. In a recent NPR report, Energy Secretary Steven Chu was quoted: "We did not get out of the Stone Age because we ran out of stones, we got out because we came up with something better to use".