It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who famously asserted that the world would beat a path to the door of anyone whose products were better than everyone else’s. Much of what has happened in the 150 years since he made this claim suggests he was sadly mistaken. There are all sorts of reasons why being better isn’t always enough for a product to prevail. New discoveries might stay undeveloped. Patents might expire. The right idea might come along at the wrong time. Comparative brilliance might simply go unrecognised.
Take the classic rivalry between two video formats from yesteryear: Betamax and VHS. Whereas the former bombed spectacularly, the latter handsomely repaid its investors – despite the consensus that it was the weaker of the two in all kinds of respects. In the final reckoning, for whatever reason, the “better” product lost out to its more commercial counterpart.
This manner of perceived injustice represents the cruellest of blows for many innovators and entrepreneurs. Rationally trained scientists and engineers find it particularly unconscionable, as they tend to be firmly wedded to the concept of technical superiority.
Yet the harsh truth is that these affronted die-hards are wrong to assume that their creations, once unleashed on the buying public, will proceed downstream in a largely orderly manner. The reality, alas, is rarely so straightforward.
From research to real-world
Generally speaking, nobody can honestly know how enthusiastically would-be customers will receive a product until it actually reaches them. To put it another way: only repeat sales tell the whole story. This may sound hopelessly obvious, but it’s a fact that’s routinely overlooked.
“Ah,” you might say, “but that’s why we have market research, focus groups and what have you. They tell us what to expect.” This point has some merit, but at the same time it’s probably worth recalling how advertising tycoon David Ogilvy once summed up consumers: “They do not behave, as they say, they do not say what they think, and they do not think what they feel.”
It’s the chasm between research and the real world that explains why so many strategies don’t survive “first contact”. They might look good on a spreadsheet or sound splendid in a meeting room, but their shortcomings are ruthlessly laid bare once a product is genuinely “out there”.
And that’s when an innovator or an entrepreneur realises that being better is by no means a guarantee of success. That’s when panic sets in and failure looms. That’s when all that has gone before suddenly counts for nothing.
Countless sages – industry figures, academics, even military strategists – have sought to précis this phenomenon and analogous situations. On balance, I feel the finest encapsulation is one attributed to Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Been there, done that
Such an experience highlights the need for a more flexible approach. One such is the lean start-up, which essentially operates on the fundamental understanding that none of us – innovators, entrepreneurs, consumers – can know what the future might hold.
A lean start-up builds what has come to be known as a minimum viable product – an MVP – and then engages its would-be customers in the expectation that they’ll provide sufficient feedback to establish what’s right and what’s wrong about the proposition. Business and buyers thus try to co-create a winning formula.
Yet even this method is to some extent at the mercy of the fact that customers really prove their interest only when they get their cash out. Remember: only repeat sales tell the whole story. So is there another way in which innovators and entrepreneurs might – for want of a less pessimistic phrase – hedge their bets when attempting to gauge a product’s longer-term resilience?
A potential answer that has worked well in my own experience is to solicit input from someone who has been there and done that. In other words, innovators and entrepreneurs should look to serial innovators and entrepreneurs for guidance. These people have succeeded more than once, which usually indicates that they know what they’re doing. Their accomplishments are built on an ability to evaluate ideas, frame prospects, articulate propositions, minimise risks and maximise opportunities – precisely the attributes required to underpin a product launch.
Such skills are among the most underappreciated and misunderstood in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship. Quite why this is so remains a mystery, but in many ways, it makes them even more precious. My advice would be to seek them out, use them and learn them. They can help make the difference between triumph and tragedy – especially in a world where superiority alone is no guarantee of success and the caprices of the market can be so unpityingly devastating.
David Falzani MBE is an Honorary Professor at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and president of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship.