Xcelerator Day 3: Mind the Gap

By: Ted Leventhal, NCIIA


As the video opens, we see a mouse emerge from a hole, trot across the floor and come upon a traditional spring-loaded mousetrap with an outsized piece of cheese for bait. The mouse nibbles away contentedly, oblivious to any danger. Karen Carpenter sings: “Such a feelin's comin' over me/ There is wonder in most everything I see/ Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes/And I won't be surprised if it's a dream….”

SNAP!  Fade to black, then fade in to the mouse splayed out motionless in the sprung trap. Jim Morrison intones, “This is the end/My only friend, the end.”  Is it dead?  The mouse twitches, then starts to lift the trap spring once, then again slowly, then again and again faster and faster, syncopated to the beat of  “Eye of the Tiger.” Text fills the screen touting “seriously strong” cheddar cheese.

The fake commercial is good for a laugh early in the morning of Xcelerator day 3.  Barlow puts the image of the “Adoption/Innovation” curve seen yesterday back on the screen and warns the audience to avoid a far less obvious trap:  the “gap” in the business lifecycle between the initial enthusiasm of the early adopters and the onset of widespread use.  He polls the participants for examples of superior products that fell into the gap never to return and ultimately to be succeeded by an inferior rival: Betamax losing out to VHS tape, the electric car, the Segway scooter, fitness watches.  It’s a long list.

“The idea is that if you do get as far as the chasm, everything that makes it big has to go through the chasm and come out the other end,” Barlow said.  He urged the teams to go back and take a pessimistic view of their new ventures, a “pre-mortem.”

“Go back and think ‘How will I get past the chasm? What are the things that will stop me from getting into the largest part of the market? What are all the things that could go wrong?’ If you are aware of those, think of a strategy to reduce the impact of these things,” he said.

He urged them to revise their business plan by consistently emphasizing the value of their innovation and for whom it will make a quantifiable improvement.  Meanwhile, limiting the effort required for production, the time between product iterations, and the resources required to produce it can reduce risk.  Combine this with increasing the rate at which you are learning from your mistakes and you can develop a scalable, repeatable approach.

Laura Sampath, NCIIA’s Senior Program Officer for Global Programs, urged participants to take an expansive view of “partnership” in their business planning.  “Think about it in an open way.  It does not have to be a financial investment.”  Barlow said that at each stage of development, the plan should have an “ask”—a concrete next step to move the venture forward.  “Otherwise, it’s like asking someone out on a date, hearing ‘yes,’ then walking away,” he said.  “You have to make plans to get together.  There has to be a next step.”