The start-up challenge – realizing your vision depends on the right context

Revisiting Kourosh

It has been a while since I visited “Workflow: beyond productivity” by Kourosh Dini. I am still working on a number of articles that bring the ideas in his book to a corporate context. This post is not among those articles. I want to talk about start-ups and one of the challenges they face. But Kourosh triggered me in thinking about this, by the following quote in his book:

“Creative intentions, by definition, have unclear visions. We do not know what is being made except in the process of it being made and often not fully until sometime after its completion.”

First, what a wonderful description of the outcome of creative thinking. It especially highlights how ‘fragile’ creative thinking can be in terms of its results. But that is not what I want to talk about.

My first reaction to this statement was that this was one of the most apt descriptions of the challenges a lot of innovative tech start-ups face nowadays. An interesting idea is turned into a “solution”. That solution goes through several iterations. If the iteration turns out a marketable solution before the money runs out, the start-up is likely to succeed. Success for a start-up can be being bought or going it alone on profitable path. If not, the start-up runs out of money and dies.

Natural selection?

It appears a bit like natural selection among tech start-ups, but I was wondering about the dynamics behind it. The reason? I “consulted” for two start-ups in the past years. One of them failed. The other one appears to be on the road to making it, potentially making it big.

The first start-up, Navitell, was the brainchild of two friends of mine, Isabelle Maenhout and Luc Buntinx. Their creative intention which was turned into a solution was linking geo-location information to content. Content would be triggered depending on where the person holding the device was or was heading to. The solution worked both with GPS and through WIFI.

Now, the Navitell solution was great, but there was no real market for the solution. Why? They pitched their solution in 2007, before the true smartphone (r)evolution. You may not remember this, but in 2007 not too many people had a smartphone. Nokia still reigned supreme, and Apple was only just starting to make inroads in the smartphone market. Navitell was very early with their solution, as it turns out too early. They had a wonderful creative intention but the lack of a growing or even a mature market of phones to use their solution on turned out to be an insurmountable problem. Their creative intention was too fragile.

In addition, their sources of funding were not really up to speed with the reality of tech innovation. Luc and Isabelle spent a lot of time dealing with administration and trying to pitch the solution to potential clients, rather than with solution iteration.

They had to fold before the smartphone revolution really had started. I still think this is a significant loss for innovation in Belgium.

Zentrick – touching tables to interactive video platform

The other example I want to share is Zentrick. In 2008 I was one of the coaches for a competition in which young creative entrepreneurs could pitch their solutions and get funding. Zentrick had been assigned to me, and over a number of phonecalls and meetings I assisted them a bit. The exchanges with these very young guys – just out of university – were highly interactive and focused every single time. They were a lot of fun.

Their initial solution was touch screen technology for large screens and tables. However, once they realized the future was not in that market, they started to iterate their solutions. They had a good work division, with Pieter Mees and Pieter Delbeke working on the solution, refining and iterating and Frederik Neus working on marketing the solution and making sure all parties had the information necessary.

Supported by funding from a number of sources, they hit on a very marketable solution during their iterations. They are currently one of the most promising interactive video platforms out there. I see them being bought out soon.

What is the lesson here?

One failure, one likely success. Looking back, I see two highly competent teams working on either solution. The Navitell team actually had more experience than the Zentrick team when they started. I see no real differing factors that would have allowed for predictability of success, other than the following two:

  1. Iteration speed: Zentrick iterated more and faster than Navitell. Navitell was required to deal with a lot of administration. They were less able to focus on the iteration of the solution. This is actually a problem that is entirely attributable to the funding type they had received, but that’s another story;
  2. Technological convergence: in their iterations, Zentrick went from technology that existed but with very limited household penetration to technology which is about to be present in most of the households: some form of TV or platform offering some kind of interactivity, such as set-top boxes. Their solution converged with the existing technology. They look at what that technology is about to be able to do. Navitell could not but wait until the technology caught up with their solution. That took too much time.

In my mind, the major difference I can readily identify is that Zentrick is skating to where the puck will be very soon. Navitell was in the rink, on the ice, a couple of weeks before the season started. They ended up alone, in the cold, for too long.

I ultimately link this to context … success, especially in the tech start-up world, can only happen in a situation where content aligns with context. In absence of a suitable context, content stands alone, without traction, and ultimately whithers and dies.