Let me tell you a story
Once upon a time, some 140 years ago, a young man named George Eastman, who worked as a regular bank clerk, was planning to take a long-overdue vacation. Wanting to capture what was going to be a once in a lifetime trip, he started collecting all the required photographic equipment for the trip. His paraphernalia comprised a camera as big as a table, a massive tripod, plenty of water, multiple vials of chemicals and a large tent for a dark space to process the photographs.
Eastman never went on that vacation. Instead, what he did was get obsessed with chemistry and the art of photography. Back then, photography was a wet, messy affair, so Eastman worked day and night to create a more practical approach to taking photos. In less than two years, Eastman managed to invent a dry-plate formula, giving birth to the Eastman Dry Plate company. One innovation after another followed, and he’d soon invented the roll film and a portable commercial camera. The company then rebranded themselves with the slogan ‘You press the button, we do the rest’, and named themselves Kodak. Their products were revolutionary, ahead of their time.
Fast forward 100 years. Once again, way ahead of its time, Kodak made another breakthrough invention: This time a charge-coupled device (CCD), or as we call it today, a digital camera. This was in the 1970s. This latest invention was the size of a toaster, weighed about 4 kg and had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels. But Kodak’s film cameras at the same time were taking comparatively much higher resolution photos. So Kodak decided to bury the invention—for two reasons. The first one is pretty obvious. It had to do with the 0.01 megapixels. That was useless. And the second reason: Kodak was making billions of dollars and was a monopoly commanding 90 per cent of the camera-film market. They thought this technology would cannibalise their film business. In 2012, the giant, once revolutionary, company filed for bankruptcy. Three months later, Instagram, a company in the same industry—but only a couple of years old and with just a dozen employees—was bought by Facebook for a billion dollars. The rest is history.
This brings me to the idea of exponential growth curve. The executives at Kodak looked at the growth of the 0.01 megapixel technology on a linear scale. What they overlooked was the exponential growth of technology. Most of us know about Moore’s Law. The law shows us that electronic-transistor capacity doubles every one to two years. This is the reason the smartphones in your pocket right now are a thousand times faster and a million times cheaper than a supercomputer from the 70s. Kodak underestimated the power of exponentials. And unfortunately, most of the companies today have no clue about exponentials either. They are still thinking linear.
“Success can only be achieved by creating value. True value. Honest value. No matter how big or small. Solve problems: The world’s most influential people have solved the biggest problems.”
Today, most companies, inspired by billion-dollar tech acquisitions, the Kodak and Nokia story, and the Uber and Air BnB story, have all started making websites and apps. From the roadside vendor adding a .com, to Walmart making billion-dollar tech acquisitions, most of the companies figure they’re on top of the revolution game, but are secretly anxious too, wondering if they’ll get ‘Kodaked.’ My point being, digital disruption is today the most important topic in the business community, no matter where you are in the world. And while on the one hand, digital disruption is a big threat to most successful companies, it is also a major opportunity for disruptive entrepreneurs like us all.
Unfortunately, disrupting these major companies or industries is not as easy as it sounds. Peter Diamandis, the CEO of Xprize and Singularity University, has laid out the 6Ds of the exponential framework. Essentially, he says that in order to reap the greatest benefits, you need to get into an industry during the deceptive period. As the name suggests, it’s the period during which exponential growth goes unnoticed. Remember Kodak’s 0.01 megapixel camera? Well, even with exponential growth, the next year it would be 0.02, then 0.04 and so on. To the casual observer, that growth seems too small to ever make an impact. But once the doublings break the whole numbers barrier, 1,2,4,8… they are only 30 folds away from a billion-fold improvement. Most entrepreneurs unfortunately only get on the bandwagon when the growth is visible to the common eye. That’s too late.
Another important development most of us seem to have overlooked is the growth of demonetisation. This means the removal of money from a process. In his book ‘Free’, Chris Anderson perfectly explains this process thus: “I’m typing on a $250 laptop. The operating system happens to be a free version of Linux. I’m using the free Firefox web browser.
I don’t use Microsoft Office, but the free Google Docs, which makes the drafts available to me whenever I want, and also backs them up for me. Everything else in this computer is free, from my emails to Twitter. Even the internet is free, thanks to the cafe I’m sitting in. And yet Google is one of the most profitable companies in the world, and the Linux ecosystem is a 30 billion dollar industry.” My point with this being, the greatest businesses today weren’t built on the basis of revenue maximisation. And the ones being built today on those same values will not stand a chance at being the greatest businesses of tomorrow.
Success can only be achieved by creating value. True value. Honest value. No matter how big or small. Solve problems: The world’s most influential people have solved the biggest problems. Everyone today understands that the biggest opportunities lie in the areas with the biggest problems. Look around. We are in the capital city of one of the world’s most polluted and poorest countries. That’s a huge chunk of opportunity cake sitting right in front of you. Don’t want to think local? Well, don’t think another me-too mobile app. Don’t be hesitant to think. The greatest leaders we look up to sure weren’t. Think life extension, think robotics, think ending world poverty, think a world without illiteracy, think 100 per cent employment, think biotech, think what 3D printing can do.
Now, I do understand these technologies are rare, and that creating them costs a lot. Especially in Nepal, where we have to import everything. But not for too long; these technologies today are in the deceptive phase. On the exponential curve, the decreasing prices and technical advancements will surely make these technologies available soon enough to the ones with the vision. Never forget that the greatest revolutionaries in this planet were the ones with creations way ahead of their time. Building just another website or app in no way means you’re ahead of time today. We all know what worked yesterday will not work today. But let’s also be realistic and accept that what works today might not work tomorrow. The greatest leaders have the rare ability to naively convince themselves about the promise of their far-fetched vision and drive their team and organisation along with them towards it. Elon Musk, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Diamandis. These are all entrepreneurs who have the vision for the future and will not be swayed from it. No matter the practicality.
Once in a while, take a step back. Zoom out, and with an honest heart ask yourself how many lives you’ve changed with your startup, let alone the world. You all have your answers. My humble request to you all is to please be honest with yourself. At least once in a while, take a step back and try to understand what Steve Jobs actually meant when he mentioned the ‘crazy ones’. Once in a while, ask your true self if you are in this game to make the world a better place or to get rich quick.
Most of the people whom we look up to today have achieved both. But I am a 100 per cent sure they were always true to themselves. Have fun. Think big. Be passionate. No matter how big or small your plans, things aren’t going to work out as planned anyways. And enjoy the journey. Because at the end of the day, it all goes back in the box. These are the values that we at Movers and Shakers live by.