As we draw nearer to the Women of the Future Awards in association with Shell and eagerly await this year's line-up of groundbreaking women, I reflect on Unleash's 2nd year and what it really means to be an entrepreneur.
Approximately 6 in 10 new ventures fail before the first year, and only 1 in 10 become truly successful. If we look at product innovation, the number is even worse: 80% of launched new products fail. The biggest reasons for entrepreneurial failure aren't a poor business idea, but our inability to adapt and evolve, and have the drive to follow through. Some entrepreneurs are too 'in love' with their idea or technology, and contrary to popular belief, ideas are not opportunities.
I too used to think business ideas came to you and it was a matter of the right idea one day 'magically' popping into your head. What I have come to realise is that ideas are abundant, but it is our ability to take action and adapt to what the customer really wants and needs that creates opportunities. Developing products and services your customers will love is an exploratory and adaptive process. As an entrepreneur, your focus shouldn't be on your idea but rather how you can solve problems for people. The original idea is just a starting point.
When I started my first business, my partners and I hit the wall when the technology failed just as we were about to ship our first orders out. With at least another 6 months of development needed, we'd missed our window into the SME IP telephony market. So, what did we do? Well, we spotted a completely different need and took a 180 degree turn and ventured into the budget end of the real estate market.
So, should we just chase after random opportunities then? No, for a business to be sustainable and have competitive advantage - your products and services should be based on your own or your organisation's core strengths. Furthermore, if you're anything like me and need a constant stream of intellectual challenges (you'll have plenty of other challenges too, don't worry!), do it in a field that genuinely interests you. Something will have to sustain you through those inevitable cash starved, problem riddled days we all go through.
You also need focus. You cannot solve all the world problems in one go. A great innovation...
• Solves 1 problem...
"Effective innovations start small - they are not grandiose or solve all the world's problems in a single solution. It has to be simple, and it has to be focused. It should do only one thing - otherwise it confuses people." Peter Drucker
• ...for 1 type of customer... that's big enough
The better we understand our specific target customers, the more successful we will be.
The target market needs to be big and preferably growing.
• Is based on your competitive advantage
The more closely linked the innovation is to our unique expertise, culture, processes, knowhow etc. ... the better.
Unleash has gone through its own entrepreneurial evolution. At the start, we wanted to replicate our success with large-scale change and strategy projects across other industries and in larger organisations using our unique people-driven approach. The problem was that we underestimated how long it would take to sell something completely different, and in parallel we adopted a traditional large project business development strategy. In other words, we made the value proposition, although aimed at a very clear pain point felt by many clients, appear risky on two fronts.
Keeping an open mind through lots of failures, I like to think we have become smarter ... and in the process stumbled upon new opportunities. We now offer smaller, less "risky" services in addition to our large scale projects, and we have also responded to the growing trend of using internal project managers for consulting projects by offering a semi-flipped model where we coach them to do what Unleashers do. Now we are also developing an on demand, interactive learning platform for these busy managers. None of which were part of the original idea.
As I wrote in "1+1=3. Why Real Collaboration is a Rare Find", true innovators go out and look, ask and listen ... they do not sit in a dark room indulge their own intellect. Most entrepreneurs and companies spend too much time dreaming up ideas before taking action. But the entrepreneurial process of field research, early market testing and prototyping ... and continued refinement is the only way of really understanding what your customers want and need.
If you genuinely believe, as I do, that great innovation is co-creative, we need to create processes and approaches that not only allow, but encourage us to explore, think and create together ... in our own teams, and with customers and partners. And as Henry Ford's famous quote reminds us: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses", simply asking customers what they want and need is often not enough. Great innovation is usually born out of a combination of keen observation, an inquisitive open mind, and a vision of how to solve a problem... and lots and lots of hard work.
My wish for this year's list and the future? Women and men who are not just starting businesses and succeeding up the corporate ladder, but who are changing how we think, work and live for the better.
Therese S. Kinal is the CEO and co-founder of Unleash , a disruptive innovator in the management education and consulting industry. She is the co-author of Unleashing: The Future of Work and writes, runs workshops and works with clients on a range of management issues, including: The Future of Organisations, Leadership Development, Organisational Change, Adaptive Strategy Execution, Living Brand, Complex Problem Solving, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Read her blog or follow her on Twitter.
Therese S. Kinal was shortlisted for the 2012 Women of the Future Awards.
The awards ceremony will take place on Wednesday 13 November and is hosted by Real Business in association with Shell.