Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Failure

Start-up culture has captured the word “innovation.” It sits on the mantle with words like “disruption” and “fail forward.” But innovation happens in a lot of other places, and seeing start up culture as the be-all and end all of innovation is stifling.startup weekend

The start up entrepreneur model is that a person, or small group, puts everything they have into a single idea and then try to prove it to investors and market forces before they run out of resources. Experts have curves showing how fast you need to develop to stay within the envelope of success. It is true that pressure can drive innovation, and that market forces can shape ideas into something useful.

Some of the greatest innovations of the last hundred years did not come from entrepreneurs or small companies facing risk. They came from researchers who were given time, resources, community, and space to develop.

Bell Labs is one of the most important innovation centers in history. Electronics is based on semi-conductors, starting with the transistor. Without Bell Labs we would not only not have the transistor, we would also not have the underlying theory that enables our whole digital world-information theory. The radio, laser, and several major programming languages also emerged from Bell Laboratories. Nobody working at Bell Labs had to go on Sharktank to justify their efforts.

Another important, but less well-known center of innovation is the Palo Alto Research Corporation, once part of Xerox. When you sit down in front of your personal computer and use your mouse you are using two of the innovations that came out of PARC. The graphical user interface is what lets you use all the power of the computer without having to know code. This is also something that PARC pioneered.

Today the word “visionary” is also associated with entrepreneurs. But if you had to pick one visionary document that laid the groundwork, predicted the future of technology, and inspired many of the technological leaders of our time, it would have to be As We May Think, written in July of 1945 by Vannevar Bush. At the time he was heading a large government agency that coordinated the work of several thousand top scientists in the United States.

He was writing at a time when war-time scientists were returning to civilian life. But the U.S. military has remained preeminent due to the pace of innovation in technology. One of the centers of military innovation is China Lake, California, described as:

“a pattern of cooperation and interaction between civilian scientists and engineers, experienced military personnel and defense contractors that has made China Lake one of the preeminent research, development, test and evaluation institutions in the world”

The China Lake principle was also established by Vannevar Bush.

The very success stories that we often associate with start up culture are often far different from this current model. Two of the biggest stories of internet success the founding of Google and Facebook. Neither was created by a couple kids working in a garage, though. Both products came from top universities, and were built using university resources at first. Google was developed at one of the most advanced research centers in the world—Stanford University. The co-founders were graduate students with access to servers, tools, professors, and time to implement their vision without interference. The role of Stanford was critical enough that the University still owns a chunk of the company today.

One value that is commonly associated with entrepreneurship is that it opens doors to people who are otherwise outside of the existing hierarchy. But this side-door to success is not open to everyone. We think of start-ups like pioneers going out into the wasteland to lay the groundwork for civilization. In reality, a lot of pioneers didn’t make it across the Oregon Trail.

Start-up culture embraces this aspect by telling the pioneers to “fail-forward.” Failing is a step towards success. The ideal entrepreneur starts and folds several enterprises before landing the big one. The truth is only a small group of people have resources to repeatedly fail in this fashion. Most people really don’t have enough saved up to do it once, but “friends and family” are an explicit part of the investment model. The ability to fail-forward is often due to wealthy and generous friends and family.

The “fail-forward” model is also not evenly applied by the community of investors and journalists. While the ideal entrepreneur—young, male, smart and probably white can fail over and over, many of the centers of innovation don’t see women or older people the same way. One or two failures may mark someone as not having what it takes if they aren’t part of that young male demographic.

Even governments have gotten into the entrepreneur game, creating systems that allow start-ups to participate in attempting to solve major social problems. While this may produce some solutions, there are many other types of innovation that may have a much better chance to contribute.