Have you ever wondered what happened to those companies that were once huge – in some cases even the Number 1 in their sector of industry – and are now apparently gone? Some examples: The Nokia 1100 sold 250 million units, making it the best-selling cell phone in the world – despite this, the company’s cell phone business has all but disappeared now; Commodore Computers was one of the pioneers of computing and dominated many markets in the 1980s – at one point, the C64 was selling two million units a year, the equivalent of 50% market share. Nonetheless, the company went bust in 1994. Things went horribly wrong at both companies. Why?
It’s simple: because they missed a key moment, the time to change course. They rested on their laurels. Or perhaps they were just too busy dealing with all their day-to-day business to think beyond the horizon.
The successful competitors of those former market leaders did one small thing completely differently. They started thinking early about the things people might wish for in the future. They picked up on key trends and changed their products and product ranges. Apple once just made computers. It was once a competitor of Nokia. But it did a visionary thing and developed smartphones with touchscreens for the masses, instantly opening up a completely new field of business: the smartphone market.
West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said: “Whoever has visions should go to the doctor,” and even if his utterance was regarded as just a grumpy answer to a silly question there are still established firms today that view young people and their futuristic concepts with skepticism. It’s like in 1876, when the chief engineer of the General Post Office made his disdain for telephones in the UK totally clear, announcing: “Here we have a super-abundance of messengers.” Or Darryl Zanuck, the 20th Century Fox producer. In 1946 he predicted that, “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Today we can only smile wearily at the people who had no faith in those visions. They were proven wrong by the passage of time.
But what would it take today to not be derided in the future? An amazing idea nobody has ever thought of? Not necessarily. IBM was selling its Simon Personal Communicator with a touchscreen as early as 1994. It wasn’t until the iPhone was launched in 2007 that the idea really took off.
Does it take lots of money to research fascinating new technologies? Not necessarily. Successful innovators often just find a creative way to imitate ideas lifted from other industries. Two examples are the flea market, which was shifted into the World Wide Web by eBay, and the Tupperware method, which shows that it only takes a new business model like a selling party to be successful.
Sometimes it takes something much more meaningful than an idea that nobody has thought of yet, or lots of money to research some amazing technology: The person who is the do-er needs something to offer like empathy, creativity, or optimism. They need the will to develop the idea, to prove they have real determination, to find solutions, to make things happen.
So you think that’s all successful companies need? And boy wouldn’t it be great if there were more people like that? Well, there are lots of people like that. But just waiting for the wheel of fortune to point them in your direction is wasting time and isn’t enough. So what can be done to uncover more such people with entrepreneurial flair? As is often the case, the answer is to foster them. Foster them early. Because entrepreneurial spirit can be trained. One example of how such skills can be fostered comes from the Young Founders (Jugend Gründet) competition organized by Steinbeis. Every year, around 4,000 students and apprentices take part in the contest, proving just how much potential they have to come up with innovative ideas. They think up exciting business ideas and prove they have what it takes in business simulations. The best teams present themselves and their business ideas to a jury. These young people do magnificent work, and taking part in the contest is really worth it. Competition alumni can’t wait to show what they can do in real, everyday business. The only question is how to bring companies and young innovators together.