The Perils Of Being An Early Innovator

by  Hollis Thomases  |  Self Leadership
The Perils of Being an Early Innovator

Recently, I’ve been reminded of a lesson that I already thought I had learned but which I find still bears repeating and it’s a tough pill to swallow.

Some time ago it was brought to my attention that I’m an innovator – the type of person whose ideas are generally pretty far ahead of the curve, before the market is ready for my innovation.

This observation was made to me in a benign and rather admiring, protective way, and the person was absolutely right.

My ideas tend to take too long of an initial education curve or people get excited by my ideas, but they’re not necessarily ready yet to buy. Or, not enough people are ready to buy at a rate that has enough of an economic impact for me. None of this makes a sustainable business proposition.

It was 2013, at the start of my latest career shift, when my colleague made his observation. We were reflecting back on my last business, a digital marketing firm I had founded back in 1998.  That firm provided services like email marketing, online public relations, and search engine optimization to drive traffic to websites, but we didn’t design or build any websites ourselves. In those days, few people even understood what a website was, so the notion of marketing one was very far over their heads.

But in 2013 as I spoke with my colleague about the new directions I was considering, he made a point of reminding me of my experiences of the past.

“You know, Hollis,” he commented, “you really thrive at the front edge of thinking.”

“I know!” I responded enthusiastically. “I really don’t like doing what’s already been done and I see gaps on what still needs to get done, so I guess that’s where my ideas come from.”

“Yes, but that’s always been an Achilles heel of sorts for you,” he said, “because you find yourself with a great idea that no one’s ready to hear, understand, or buy yet.”

“You’re right,” I deflatedly acknowledged, “so I’m going to make a point of shying away from ‘those kinds’ of ideas going forward.”

Early Adopter vs. Early Innovator

Well, apparently I can’t help myself, truly, because I have once again found myself drawn to and executing a business idea that requires a long education curve to sell into the market. People might describe me having an early adopter problem, but I disagree, unless they are trying to describe my audience and not me. Being an early innovator is not the same thing as being an early adopter.

In fact, though I would say that I’m earlier to adopt some things than the mainstream, I would say I’m just an average adopter – some things I try early, while some things I sit back and wait and watch for a while. Part of that comes from a practical time management perspective – generally I’m so focused that I don’t want to be distracted all the time by the latest, greatest bright shiny object – and some of it comes from the healthy dose of skepticism I have and hold dear. Generally speaking, though, I just don’t feel the need to hop on the trendy bus.

On the other hand, when it comes to creating ideas and big picture thinking, I am blue sky and 50,000 foot all the way. I don’t wait for other people to build or create something to adapt – I’m already there, which then puts me in the position of trying to get people to adapt, hopefully early, to what it is that I’m creating. In other words, I’m about as far from demand thinking as can be.

The Innovator’s Impediments

Is it reckless or sheer folly to spend time coming up with ideas for which there is yet little or no market demand? I don’t know. People will say, “Well, someone had to be first,” but these people seldom know what it takes to even bring a viable innovative idea to market, especially if it’s brought on too early. The list of reasons not to even try is long, including:

  • Bringing the idea to reality – the actual building or creation part
  • Lack of tools, machinery, or mechanisms to otherwise enable or facilitate this materialization
  • Lack of resources and talent to assist in the materialization
  • Educating the market
  • Lack of a common adopted vernacular to describe the product or service to the market
  • If the market doesn’t understand the product or service, so might not the funding sources for it
  • Scaling to meet growing market demand when it’s finally ready might not be possible without some of the above

Yet, every day people around the world come up with and pursue innovative ideas. Why is this? Are we all mad? Do we all seek glory? Why undertake such risks?

Perhaps it’s man’s sense of adventure and need to perpetually move forward into the unknown to see what’s on the other side that propels pioneers. Perhaps people like these feel compelled to innovate so we can all reinvent our realities?

I suppose, at peril to myself, this is also where I live. Despite this, I would still rather lead by example.

Are you an early adopter or innovator? How has that impacted your career?
Photo Credit: Pixabay

About The Author

Articles By hollis-thomases
Hollis Thomases is founder of ReinventionWorks, a centralized platform to empower people and businesses to take control of their next future through tools, education, support, and marketplace. Reinvention is a Choice™. Connect with Hollis on Twitter @hollisthomases or LinkedIn.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mary C. Schaefer  |  26 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hollis, thank you so much for writing this. I relate. It’s so good to hear from someone who articulates it like I experience it.

I know this attribute has impacted my career. Struggling with “I don’t know why they don’t get it.”

I’ve been working at spreading the message that treating people like human beings at work is not only the right thing to do, but is good business for more than 15 years. People think they get what I’m talking about, but not precisely. This year I’m happy to see there’s conference titled “WorkHuman” being held. At the same time, there’s a little voice in me whispering, “Why was I unable to ignite this flame?” I relate to everything on your list of “why even try,” and yet something internal compels me to continue.

Your post reminded me of a post by Seth Godin. He tells a story which concludes with, “Before a marketer or organization can sell something that works in the future, she must sell the market on the very notion that the future matters.” I will keep adjusting to sell that “the future matters.”

Hollis Thomases  |  26 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Mary, Thanks for commenting and validating that I’m not crazy (or perhaps I’m crazy, but not alone). Yes, I really do feel like we need to listen to those little voices. I’m a fan of Godin and understand/believe what he says. For those of us who care about the future — perhaps at some expense of our own — I feel it’s a driving force to BOTH convince the market and get there first. I think that’s what compels me. Would you agree?

Mary C. Schaefer  |  27 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hollis, thanks for your response. Yes, it’s good to know I am not alone no matter what the circumstances.

In response to your comment: “I feel it’s a driving force to BOTH convince the market and get there first. I think that’s what compels me. Would you agree?”

Hollis, I’m just plain compelled. it can be difficult to relate to, but I get a particular feeling when I hear about people being treated carelessly at work. Something hits the pit of my stomach like nothing else. What compels me is to educate and influence in order to create a truly human workplace where people not only contribute in a way that is meaningful to them, but brings prosperity to everyone they touch, including the organization, customers and the world community. Lofty I know, but I’m clear on it and not stopping soon.

Thank you again for a great post!

John Smith  |  26 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Hollis – excellent post on a fascinating issue.

I am not necessarily an early adopter or innovator, but I try to recognize smart ideas when other people come up with them. My frustration is similar to Mary’s, in that it seems that in the field of leadership and leadership development, we know what is more effective, but the change in thinking and approach tends to stretch out interminably.

This creates career issues for those of us who lack patience and desire to live and work in the world we can see clearly in our heads and experience in a few actual places.

Bottom Line question: Why don’t more people support innovation and positive change?

My thought: This is not just about accepting an idea, concept, process, or product.
It’s about change on a very broad basis and this is scary for many people, although they might to reluctant to admit that.

Change brings promises, but no guarantees, requiring a risky leap of faith.

Worst of all, successful change might mean that people have to actually step up and work better, in the absence of some or all of the barriers you described. Sometimes it seems easier to complain, as we all continue to plod in place or tread water.

Your list of barriers is great and I cannot think of much to add, other than my above comment.

Thanks for a thoughtful and useful post.


Mary C. Schaefer  |  26 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hi John. Can you claim the role of “visionary” if not “early innovator?” You speak like you are one or the other or both!

Calling out a colleague to claim his space,

Hollis Thomases  |  26 Jan 2016  |  Reply

“Change brings promises, but no guarantees, requiring a risky leap of faith.”

Ah John, therein lies the rub. I have another colleague who’s an acolyte of Clayton Christensen and his “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” It was not Christensen at all I was thinking of when I wrote my piece, as he focuses on business and the problem from a different perspective, but I revisited the executive summary of The Innovator’s Dilemma before I finalized my post. Change IS everything you describe it to be, and yet, companies and people resist it. And yet change is more inevitable than ever, and happens at a pace that most of us — even thought leaders — aren’t ready for.

This is why I’m focusing on reinvention. It’s not just a process but a necessary SURVIVAL SKILL these days. More on that concept to come… ;-)


Livia  |  16 Apr 2016  | 

That’s an astute answer to a tricky quiteson

John E. Smith  |  26 Jan 2016  |  Reply

OK, Mary … I do have a few ideas about How Things Should Work:). I just have trouble communicating my visions to those who have to actually do the heavy lifting … especially when the “heavy lifting” is really to make a decision to engage and contribute resources.

Feeling duly called out:)


Tom Collins  |  27 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hi Hollis,

Thanks for sharing such a deeply personal — yet shared by so many of us — challenge. I wonder if a different terminology might open new paths for you to think about these problems. I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and I think the concepts of creativity and innovation are closely related, but may lead us toward different approaches to our work.

I’ve also been spending time with a lot of different sources (books, TED, blogs, webinars, conversations with friends) taking various angles at teamwork, collaboration, flat organizations, etc. I’m growing ever more convinced that partners or teammates or some person or group of confidantes are a key to happy achievement, in work and in life.

Does any of that resonate?

Hollis Thomases  |  28 Jan 2016  |  Reply


I’m an Elizabeth Gilbert fan, too, and though I haven’t yet read her Big Magic book, it was she who inspired my LinkedIn post about “Better done than good.” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/startups-reinventionists-women-apply-better-done-than-hollis-thomases).

These days, I have far less time for the kind of information absorption you’re doing, but it’s one of my goals for February. February will be a month for me to step back, assess/re-assess, and revise strategies and plans.

The notion of achievement through partnering resonates deeply with me. I learned that lesson early when I founded my last business — Mark Ferrero above was an early partner of mine, for instance, and I also have belonged to many peer-to-peer counseling groups. I find that no matter how much experience I may acquire over the years, it’s so much easier and faster for me to figure out how to do something I’m NOT experienced in (or good at) by finding the right kinds of partners.

Here’s a question to throw back to you: How do you assess that someone/another entity is actually “right” when you don’t know them very well? What’s the right “partner dating process”?

Tom Collins  |  29 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Wow, Hollis, that’s a great question! But I think the scary truth is found in your insightful use of the term “dating.” I’m not aware of any reliable system for picking or predicting successful outcomes in dating. ;-P

Look at the generally dismal record of companies using interviewing and other methods for hiring employees.

On the other hand, one of the books I’ve recently read is Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently, and I think it provides a solid approach for working with the team you’ve got. I also think some of the ideas Dr. Bridbord shared with you in her Mega Reinvention session for couples to build a supportive, trusting relationship can be applied by business partners, to improve their chances of long-term success.

Of course, I come at the business partner thing from the luxury of working with Yvonne, starting and growing a series of businesses together, with and without additional partners. As you know, I like to call us PIATs, “partners-is-all-things.” I do think it’s going to become our sub-specialty in the whole reinvention area: how spouses and life-partners can find, plan, launch, and grow their ideal life work together — happily! ;-D

Sorry for not having a magic formula!

Hollis Thomases  |  06 Mar 2016  |  Reply

For those curious about Dr. Birdbord’s work that Tom references below, here’s a helpful link: https://www.gottman.com/blog/introduction-sound-relationship-workplace.

Mark Ferrero  |  27 Jan 2016  |  Reply


You and I are kindred spirits on this issue as you know. When I started my first company back in 1998 called P-Wave Inc. I had a grand vision that the Internet and Television would intersect and that this was the great “new frontier” that I would be helping to lead and introduce all the world to the potential for doing online events and training and sharing of information that would transform society.

Unfortunately the codecs and bandwidth available on the Internet at the time (remember 56K modems?) only supported a postage stamp sized video with pixelated quality. Most people could not envision this intersection of devises happening. As a result I had to scale back my vision or adapt to survive

As the years went by and my vision and business morphed to fit the environment and needs of customers, I was still always trying to introduce something innovative and new that had the potential to change the world for the better. Creating something that is innovative and seeing early adopters try it and experience positive results is very gratifying. But it is hard work and fraught with risk for all the reasons you state above and requires a combination of persistence, good timing and some luck. Unfortunately I have yet to feel the satisfaction of “Crossing the Chasm” to that stage where the majority of people wanted the innovation. To me that feels kind of like the Holy Grail and is something I would like to experience in my lifetime. It may be a serial behavior as my history shows and the latest offering with the Labcore software shows. Must be in our blood as I know you have a similar history.

I look at my own behaviors in terms of adopting change and innovation and I consider myself someone who is fairly quick to try something new but like you I do not have the time to fish around for the next big thing because I am just trying to swim and push my own thing forward. But it only take a recommendation from someone who has tried something and liked it that will get me to take the bait and try a new product. It would be interesting to see a psychological profile of early adopters and innovators to see if they are the same or different in their makeup.

Hollis Thomases  |  28 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Mark, Thanks for candidly sharing your feelings and experiences as well. You raise an interesting question about psychological profiling we early innovators. I’m curious now as well!

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