Geniuses Don’t Launch Lean Startups

by Lucas Vargas

Entrepreneurship in the 20th century was about getting a lump sum of capital from professional investors, growing the company to reach as many locations as possible, and imposing the power of scale. Big companies – like AT&T and Home Depot – followed that model. They applied techniques envisioned by Ford enthusiasts, relying on improving efficiency. Such enthusiasts assumed the plant was stable and tried to arrange inputs and processes so that the outcome picked up.

Today we have a different landscape. Barriers to entry – especially in tech industries – have decreased in consequence of the very limited capital required to start a company and create value. Therefore competition has increased and companies in the 21st century see their ability to differentiate themselves threatened. Many enterprises don't have a clear competitive advantage and, to be really successful, companies need to differentiate their products and services significantly, to envision what is unknown and not obvious to the competition and customers. These companies have to offer innovative products and services.

The old Ford model is nearly dead these days because its basic assumptions no longer hold: who said the plant has to be stable and that all we have to do is to make it more efficient? Today, the most successful and respected enterprises are the innovative companies, who are constantly changing the plant, instead of making it more efficient; or launching new products, instead of reducing the price of old products. We are no longer in the age of Fordist efficiency.  We are in the age of post-Fordist innovation.

As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Is there a secret formula for creating disruptive products and services? Certainly not; it is very difficult to envision an idea that will become a transformative innovation. Nevertheless, in some places, somehow, some uncommonly exceptional entrepreneurs happen to develop extremely innovative products and services. They are able to see what the others are not. They are visionaries. They are the Geniuses.

‘Talents’ are the ones able to improve efficiency and bring marginal gains to a product or service, or even to make small innovations in existing products or production processes – they are the short-sighted people Trina Spear talked about on “
The Anti Pivot”. ‘Geniuses’, on the other hand, invent completely new products, transform the production plant, achieving major improvements, drastically boosting the companies’ results.

Schopenhauer again: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Geniuses, with extremely innovative ideas, have to go through a long way before probation; only after the distress, their ideas are perceived as palpable. They transform consumer’s interests.  They invent needs and desires that people normally cannot feel or know in the present.  A customer’s centric development process, therefore, might be a good strategy to test a Talents’ ideas, and to bring minor improvements people’s lives. But asking for customers’ opinions on ideas will only contribute to prematurely eliminating Geniuses’ innovations.

Exactly as when people face truth, people will ridicule an extremely creative idea.  Then they will oppose it violently.  And only in the end they will accept it as a self-evident and valuable product or service could bring to society.

If Geniuses are visionaries, bring true innovation, and are neglected by customers, it makes little sense to accept customers’ feedback or to pivot. Geniuses will enhance the plan to achieve great results, not offer what customers want.  They could actually do better ignoring customers’ opinions. The lean startup model does not appear to help the development of their product or service ideas.

It seems that Eric Ries disagrees. On his post “Four myths about the Lean Startup”, on April 18, 2010, he says “Lean, when used in the context of lean startup, refers to a process of building companies and products using lean manufacturing principles applied to innovation.” Is he wrong? I agree that Eric Ries model is appropriate to Talents: it might help get products right, slightly successful, slightly interesting, and slightly good. But his model would probably reject as mistaken and undesirable exactly those very unique ideas which normally bring about the most successful and transformative innovations in the market. Who wants to be a Genius anyway?


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