Xcelerator Day 2: Starting small and thinking big

By Ted Leventhal

After a midmorning break, as participants returned to their seats with second and third cups of coffee, instructor James Barlow again greeted them with a mysterious challenge.

All were told to stand and take one blank envelope from grinning NCIIA staff, then open it and quickly read the brief piece of text inside:

“Maximum performance is the result of laser like focus, adopting a fizzy of certainty and operating from perceptions that guide us towards the achievement of our desired outcomes.”

Barlow then told attendees to count the number of ‘f’s in the sentence, then quickly count them again. I counted five. I was certain, 100 percent certain. So were others. Some were willing to bet their laptops and phones on it.

The real number was, of course, not five. The discrepancy results from a cognitive gap, Barlow explained. Reading quickly, the mind registers the text’s phonetic ‘f’s, not silent ‘f’s. Again, the metaphor was clear: The missing ‘f’s represent decision points, potential partners, major barriers, risks, threats, resources—important details overlooked in haste.

Udaiyan Jatar segued to a lecture on “Transcendent Innovation” and the value of “starting small.” He put up on screen the familiar corporate logos of Nike, Apple Computer, Harley Davidson and Coca-Cola, “transcendent brands” that virtually sell themselves today but started humbly as small, craft-based ventures.

“All of these companies started with a small base, then perfected their systems. That’s when others came to them with investments,” Jatar said. “The process that works best is when everything is carefully crafted and the product’s impact has been thought through thoroughly.”

Successful innovations follow a curve, he said, with a small number of innovators and early adopters passionately accepting a product, followed by a lag before the masses race in at the middle and a small number of laggards come at the tail.

The early adopters are key, Jatar said. “Are they desperate for your solution? Willing to pay more for the product? Forgiving if the solution doesn’t work perfectly? If they don’t have a desire to achieve what you want to achieve, they’re not necessarily good partners,” he said. “Starting out, you need to find a few people for whom you have literally fallen out of the sky. They should be overwhelmingly excited,” Barlow said. These evangelists will be few, but they have to be there, and it might take time to find them. “You’ll have to kiss a lot of frogs until you find your prince,” Jatar added. If after a period of time you find none, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Bill Bowerman, University of Oregon track coach and co-founder of Nike Inc., is a legendary example of successful “small growth” innovation. After molding the rubber soles for his sneaker prototypes in a waffle iron, Bowerman took them to his runners for evaluation. The shoes disintegrated, but the athletes kept coming back for better prototypes. “Your early investors must like you and want to take you forward,” Jatar said.

He and Barlow then urged attendees to plan for a “small growth” strategy focused in the short term of getting beyond their initial grant funding. “Tell me who is going to fund you next and what do they need to see,” he said, urging attendees not to be “widget-focused,” but examine their entire model.

“The pilot objective is to prove that it works. If you go in with the attitude of ‘What do I want to learn from this pilot?’ you will be more successful. Other questions to answer are ‘What is best way to communicate my idea?’ ‘What is wrong way to communicate?’ Now you are ready to go forward.”