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.