OK, so Henry Ford never actually said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” But he might have thought it, and he definitely managed that way.
“Henry Ford’s genius lay not in inventing the assembly line, interchangeable parts, or the automobile (he didn’t invent any of them). Instead, his initial advantage came from his creation of a virtuous circle that underpinned his vision for the first durable mass-market automobile. He adapted the moving assembly line process for the manufacture of automobiles, which allowed him to manufacture, market and sell the Model T at a significantly lower price than his competition, enabling the creation of a new and rapidly growing market.
But in doing so, Henry Ford froze the design of the Model T. Freezing the design of the Model T catalyzed the speed of this virtuous circle, allowing him to better refine the moving assembly line process, which in turn allowed him to cut costs further, lower prices even further, and drive the growth of Ford Motor Company from 10,000 cars manufactured in 1908 to 472,350 cars in 1915 to 933,720 cars in 1920.”
Unfortunately for Ford, his company was out-disrupted by Alfred P. Sloan and General Motors, which introduced a dizzying array of innovations in the ensuing years, dooming Ford to decades of second place in the race for automotive market share.
I worked for a time in marketing at General Motors. We experienced the same frustration in focus groups. People are great at asking for incremental innovations and improvements, particularly if they are experiencing a problem and if they are asked, “what do you want?” But ask them what they want in personal transportation in ten years and you either get blank stares or Jetsons flying car suggestions.
It’s the same in medicine. Performing market research with actual healthcare professionals is necessary but not sufficient. They are immersed in the day-to-day drama of healing patients and dealing with monstrous bureaucracies. It doesn’t leave much time or energy for dreaming. You can find lots of small problems to solve by spending time with healthcare workers and asking lots of questions but you need a visionary founder or a visionary physician to imagine big innovations.
Medical device entrepreneurs have to walk a fine line. On one hand, they need to establish a solution for an unmet need and show that they can grow their market in a credible way. Unfortunately, that’s a bit too conservative an approach to satisfy most investors and stakeholders. On the other hand, they can “swing for the fences” and try to commercialize a disruptive idea. That strategy usually leads to feedback that they are taking too big a risk. Either way, funding is difficult and it may be tough to recruit employees and board members.
Sometimes it’s a matter of credibility. If this is your first startup or if you have a string of less-than-successful startups, maybe you can start by playing “small ball” – to use a baseball term. Get a few wins and show the world that you can plan and execute, then bring out your Big Idea. Of course, if you have a track record of success, you can probably successfully pitch investors and attract early employees without much difficulty.
For startup CEOs, it’s a good time to reflect on why you started the company. Was it to change the world or just to make a few bucks? Perhaps your strategy should reflect your passion.
Takeaways: Do perform market research, early and often as you work to establish your startup and idea. Don’t expect perfect market validation for your disruptive idea. Consider an incremental approach if you aren’t getting traction with customers, investors, or stakeholders. Establish relationships with the visionaries in your market segment.