A crystal ball doesn’t pay the bills

From a sensor technology standpoint, my Dad is about 15 years ahead of everyone else.  For example, in 2000, I moved to Maryland to help my Dad with his new IoT (Internet of Things) start-up.  That’s right.  My Dad had an IoT start-up in 2000.  He was combining sensors, algorithms and mobile communication so that buildings or bridges could tell a central monitoring facility they were structurally unsound after an earthquake.  Or that a commercial vehicle could tell a central maintenance function how they should be serviced the next time they returned to home base.  Today, that technological combination is a huge commercial winner.  You probably think my Dad is sipping umbrella drinks on his own personal island and that none of us have to work anymore, but that would be incorrect because, back in 2000, we didn’t know how to find product/market fit for his technology.

We thought we had found important problems that needed to be solved.  And we discussed their importance with great intensity in our little office space.

“I’d want to know if a skyscraper was structurally sound after an earthquake, wouldn’t you, Dad?  That’s got to be a huge problem!”

But we didn’t make a list of real estate management firms or vehicle fleet managers and start dialing to figure out whether anyone was currently experiencing and feeling pain from the problems we wanted to solve.  What might we have learned if we had made those calls?

  • What the maintenance process looked like for large buildings and vehicle fleets
  • Whether real estate managers or vehicle fleet managers saw any problem with the current process
  • Whether they outsourced maintenance to a different company
  • How and whether building managers tested for structural soundness after an earthquake
  • Whether or at what point earthquakes effect structural soundness of large buildings
  • The frequency and risk of vehicles breaking down in transit
  • Who the subject matter experts and decision-makers were for this kind of maintenance
  • Whether the problem was felt more deeply in one industry vs. another, so we could prioritize our business development efforts

If we had pushed to personally watch maintenance professionals service buildings and vehicles, we could have gathered valuable information about the optimal size and structure of a winning solution or any challenges involved in retrofitting installed equipment.

That data would have provided a clearer picture of our potential customers and their needs and allowed us to build and position a solution with a custom fit.  Or we might have learned that the decision-makers didn’t view that kind of maintenance as an important problem.

If we built it, they WOULDN’T come. 

That news would have been disappointing, but so valuable, allowing us to pivot and apply the technology to someone who really wanted it.

Since those days so long ago, I’ve had the opportunity to use Design Thinking and Lean Start-Up principals to vet and develop a variety of solutions for different industries and the importance of this lesson doesn’t vary.  It’s always worth the time to talk to your potential customer before designing your solution.  How could you apply this practice to your work?

I’ll re-visit this example in future blogs to explore how other innovation best-practices could have made my family extremely wealthy.


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