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Friday, November 12, 2010

Fail Early, Fail Often? Not.


Business is full of pithy aphorisms.  One that you hear frequently is meant to be a mantra for innovation: Fail early, fail often.  The idea behind this little nugget is to experiment with many variations on an idea without investing much in any of them.  Get out there and get market feedback as quickly and as cheaply as you can.  Sounds like good advice, doesn't it?

I spent my career working with inventors and not many of them attempted to fail -- early or otherwise.  And they certainly didn't want to fail often.  That was a one-way ticket to unemployment or at least being moved into a position where they couldn't spend the company's money quite so easily.  Inventors work more from the old saw: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  The first time out, their invention is a flop.  The second time it might be an even bigger fiasco.  But the dedicated inventor "knows" that their idea is just what is needed to make the world a better place (and make them a boatload of money).  They might finally even get an idea out that does the technical job but the money is another story.

The histories of technology and innovation are filled with stories of inventors who pioneered a new area only to go bankrupt.  Often, a savvy business person was watching in the wings waiting for market conditions to improve or shift.  Then with the biggest risks of invention out of the way, they would turn it into a money-making venture by better marketing or more efficient manufacturing.  And what of the inventor?  Often, these intrepid souls would be on to their next great idea.

Are inventors naive?  Are they over-confident about their ideas or abilities?  Why do they continue in the face of such daunting odds?  It seems to me that inventors have two drives: to shepherd their wonderful idea into the world and to get rich doing it.  At their core, they are made up of creativity and optimism.  They have a great inner eye that lets them see a new and untested idea before others can see it.  Their energy comes from their need to create.  They are more akin to artists than engineers.

But the same characteristics that makes a great inventor makes for a really lousy business person.  The business mind is focused on efficiency, scale, and profit.  Business has its own form of creativity but it shares little with that of the inventor.  Once an invention has proven itself, the business person wants nothing to do with further change.  Change is wasteful.  Change is inefficient. Now the drive is to get it out at the lowest possible cost.

It more often happens that an inventor thinks that he or she can also be a great business person than vice versa.  Business can't be that hard, can it?  The invention is the hard part, right? Most business people that I know don't often mistake themselves to be inventors.  The clear, cold thinking that makes them good at business puts a quick stop to any naive beliefs that they can also excel as inventors.

Inventors need business people to commercialize their ideas.  But without inventors the New New would never happen.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  The business people get most of the money, of course.  But the inventors get something equally valuable to them - the freedom to continue to invent.  And the cycle continues.

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