I’m a huge fan of Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is a Remix series. If you haven’t watched the first three installments, you can (and should) do so here.
The series lays out the persuasive case that big, important breakthroughs in science and technology are emergent phenomenon. That is, they arise organically out of our collective, cumulative knowledge. An “invention” is simply a historically demarcated tipping point on a continuous path of progress.
Fittingly, Furguson isn’t the first to point this out.
Henry Ford said:
Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready and then it is inevitable. To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.
And long before Ford, the 18th century mathematician Farkas Bolyai vividly observed:
When the time is ripe for certain things, they appear at different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.
One of the remarkable implications of this theory of invention is that it de-emphasises the individual innovator. Not only are notable inventors standing on the shoulders of those who came before, but even their particular contributions are often made by others simultaneously: Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha grey patented the telephone on the same day; Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently advanced a theory of evolution; and Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and others have all been credited with inventing calculus.
As Malcolm Gladwell summarized in the New Yorker a few years ago:
Scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.
Do start-ups follow a similar pattern? Is it possible to have a truly novel business idea? Should we think less of famous entrepreneurs?
There is no doubt that if you are on to something, so are others. As a VC, I often hear nearly identical pitches, especially at the seed stage.
But there is one critical difference between market innovation and scientific discovery: in the marketplace, the insight is merely the starting point. That’s why it has become a common refrain to say that ideas are cheap and execution is everything. Look at Google’s execution versus all the other search engines at the time, Facebook versus the other social networks, Amazon versus the other online retailers. What is exceptional about someone like Mark Zuckerburg or Jeff Bezos is not so much their initial insights as their consistent ability to execute.
Most competitive stories playing out in the start-up press follow this pattern. First, there is the emergence of similar looking companies, followed by a winnowing of the market as certain players out-execute others, and concluding with a subset of winners.
The implication for entrepreneurs and investors is the same. It is necessary but not sufficient to have great market intuition and timing. In order to turn new possibilities into valuable assets, it comes back, as it always does, to delivering the best products and experiences to customers. Nothing new under the sun, indeed.
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