Building a great startup requires more than genius and a great invention

Many entrepreneurs assume that an invention carries intrinsic value, but that assumption is a fallacy.

Many entrepreneurs assume that an invention carries intrinsic value, but that assumption is a fallacy.

Here, the examples of the 19th and 20th century inventors Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are instructive. Even as aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors lionize Edison for his myriad inventions and business acumen, they conveniently fail to recognize Tesla, despite having far greater contributions to how we generate, move, and harness power. Edison is the exception, with the legendary penniless Tesla as the norm.

Universities are the epicenter of pure innovation research. But the reality is that academic research is supported by tax dollars. The zero-sum game of attracting government funding is mastered by selling two concepts: Technical merit, and and broader impact toward benefiting society as a whole. These concepts are usually at odds with building a company, which succeeds only by generating and maintaining competitive advantage through barriers to entry.

In rare cases, the transition from intellectual merit to barrier to entry is successful. In most cases, the technology, though cool, doesn’t give the a fledgling company the competitive advantage it needs to exist among incumbents, and inevitable copycats. Academics, having emphasized technical merit and broader impact to attract support for their research, often fail to solve for competitive advantage, thereby creating great technology in search for a business application.

Of course there are exceptions: Time and time again, whether it’s driven by hype or perceived existential threat, big incumbents will be quick to buy companies purely for technology.  Cruise/GM (autonomous cars), DeepMind/Google (AI), and Nervana/Intel (AI chips). But as we move from 0-1 to 1-N in a given field, success is determined by winning talent over winning technology. Technology becomes less interesting; the onus on the startup to build a real business.

If a startup chooses to take venture capital, it not only needs to build a real business, but one that will be valued in the billions. the question becomes how a startup can create durable, attractive business, with a transient, short-lived technological advantage.

Most investors understand this stark reality. Unfortunately, while dabbling in technologies which appeared like magic to them during the cleantech boom, many investors were lured back into the innovation fallacy, believing that pure technological advancement would equal value creation. Many of them re-learned this lesson the hard way. As frontier technologies are attracting broader attention, I believe many are falling back into the innovation trap.

So what should aspiring frontier inventors solve for as they seek to invest capital to translate pure discovery to building billion-dollar companies?  How can the technology be cast into an unfair advantage that will yield big margins and growth that underpin billion-dollar businesses?

Talent productivity: In this age of automation, human talent is scarce, and there is incredible value attributed to retaining and maximizing human creativity.  Leading companies seek to gain an advantage by attracting the very best talent. If your technology can help you make more scarce talent more productive, or help your customers become more productive, then you are creating an unfair advantage internally, while establishing yourself as the de facto product for your customers.

Great companies such as Tesla and Google have built tools for their own scarce talent, and build products their customers, in their own ways, can’t do without. Microsoft mastered this with its Office products in the 90s, through innovation and acquisition, Autodesk with its creativity tools, and Amazon with its AWS Suite. Supercharging talent yields one of the most valuable sources of competitive advantage: switchover cost.  When teams are empowered with tools they love, they will loathe the notion of migrating to shiny new objects, and stick to what helps them achieve their maximum potential.

Marketing and Distribution Efficiency: Companies are worth the markets they serve.  They are valued for their audience and reach.  Even if their products in of themselves don’t unlock the entire value of the market they serve, they will be valued for their potential to, at some point in the future, be able to sell to the customers that have been tee’d up with their brands. AOL leveraged cheap CD-ROMs and the postal system to get families online, and on email.

Dollar Shave Club leveraged social media and an otherwise abandoned demographic to lock down a sales channel that was ultimately valued at a billion dollars. The inventions in these examples were in how efficiently these companies built and accessed markets, which ultimately made them incredibly valuable.

Network effects: Its power has ultimately led to its abuse in startup fundraising pitches. LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram generate their network effects through Internet and Mobile. Most marketplace companies need to undergo the arduous, expensive process of attracting vendors and customers.  Uber identified macro trends (e.g., urban living) and leveraged technology (GPS in cheap smartphones) to yield massive growth in building up supply (drivers) and demand (riders).

Our portfolio company Zoox will benefit from every car benefitting from edge cases every vehicle encounters: akin to the driving population immediately learning from special situations any individual driver encounters. Startups should think about how their inventions can enable network effects where none existed, so that they are able to achieve massive scale and barriers by the time competitors inevitably get access to the same technology.

Offering an end-to-end solution: There isn’t intrinsic value in a piece of technology; it’s offering a complete solution that delivers on an unmet need deep-pocketed customers are begging for. Does your invention, when coupled to a few other products, yield a solution that’s worth far more than the sum of its parts? For example, are you selling a chip, along with design environments, sample neural network frameworks, and datasets, that will empower your customers to deliver magical products? Or, in contrast, does it make more sense to offer standard chips, licensing software, or tag data?

If the answer is to offer components of the solution, then prepare to enter a commodity, margin-eroding, race-to-the-bottom business. The former, “vertical” approach is characteristic of more nascent technologies, such as operating robots-taxis, quantum computing, and launching small payloads into space. As the technology matures and becomes more modular, vendors can sell standard components into standard supply chains, but face the pressure of commoditization.

A simple example is Personal Computers, where Intel and Microsoft attracted outsized margins while other vendors of disk drives, motherboards, printers, and memory faced crushing downward pricing pressure.  As technology matures, the earlier vertical players must differentiate with their brands, reach to customers, and differentiated product, while leveraging what’s likely going to be an endless number of vendors providing technology into their supply chains.

A magical new technology does not go far beyond the resumes of the founding team.

What gets me excited is how the team will leverage the innovation, and attract more amazing people to establish a dominant position in a market that doesn’t yet exist. Is this team and technology the kernel of a virtuous cycle that will punch above its weight to attract more money, more talent, and be recognized for more than it’s product?

Facebook is going back to college

While today’s college graduates are “digital natives,” these natives have been conditioned on Netflix-like interfaces, and aren’t accustomed to laborious software configurations, or the steep learning curves required to master a software platform.

Kids these days take a greater interest in practical things than we give them credit for. For example, this summer my 12-year-old son Leo was at sleepaway camp in Canada. When we received his first letter home, among camp platitudes, the two notable items reported were that one of his counselors was discharged from the Israeli Army a week before camp, while another was recently “mugged by three guys (one had a gun!) and got stabbed in the arm.” Leo reported the cabin was mesmerized when, as a reward, the counselor showed campers his sweater with a knife hole in it.

America’s colleges and universities could learn a thing or two from Leo, because they continue to resist teaching students the practical things they’ll need to know as soon as they graduate; for instance, to get jobs that will allow them to make student loan payments. Digital skills head this list, specifically experience with the high-powered software they’ll be required to use every day in entry-level positions.

But talk to a college president or provost about the importance of Marketo, HubSpot, Pardot, Tableau, Adobe and Autodesk for their graduates, and they’re at a loss for how to integrate last-mile training into their degree programs in order prepare students to work on these essential software platforms.

Enter a new company, Pathstream, which just announced a partnership with tech leader Unity and previously partnered with Facebook. Pathstream supports the delivery of career-critical software skill training in VR/AR and digital marketing at colleges and universities.

According to Pathstream co-founder Eleanor Cooper, the company was created from piecing together two insights. First, graduates aren’t getting the digital skills they need to be hired. Employers are so frustrated that they no longer believe that new grads are qualified for digital jobs; according to a recent survey of more than 95,000 job postings by TalentWorks, 61 percent of positions that say they’re seeking entry-level employees now specify at least three years or more of relevant work experience. Second, tech companies are struggling to reach new generations of learners.

While today’s college graduates are “digital natives,” these natives have been conditioned on Netflix-like interfaces, and aren’t accustomed to laborious software configurations, or the steep learning curves required to master a software platform.

As a result, Cooper says Pathstream makes learning a new software platform live up to student expectations of receiving “joy before pain,” thereby gently nudging college students down the road to mastery. In addition, rather than traditional classroom-based learning, Pathstream’s platform simulates a work environment, where students complete tasks and projects on the platform, build a portfolio of work and earn a certification from both a higher education institution and the software company.

Facebook is using Pathstream to support training students on its digital marketing platform, including social media marketing using Facebook Ad Manager and Instagram . Parisa Zagat, Policy Programs Manager at Facebook, related the partnership with Pathstream to its pledge in June to train 1 million U.S. small business owners on the digital skills they need to compete in today’s workplace.

Unity is focusing its training on VR/AR courses for industry use cases (construction, manufacturing, automotive, enterprise training). Jessica Lindl, Global Head of Education at Unity, said “in order to gain employment in today’s digitally focused world, job-seekers are required to rapidly up-level their skills.”

Image: Getty Images/smartboy10/DigitalVision

“The problem is there’s a significant education gap between those who seek to learn these skills and the programs available to them. With Pathstream, we will be able to provide interactive programs for students of all backgrounds to learn real-world software platforms in their own way, making it easier and more efficient for them to find success in their current career path or a new one.”

While it completes training programs for Facebook and Unity, Pathstream is building out a network of colleges that will offer the curriculum to students. Recently, Facebook announced that Pathstream will be offering digital marketing certificates at Central New Mexico Community College and Des Moines Area Community College. According to Zagat, “By the end of the year, Facebook plans to form a total of 20 partnerships with community colleges across the country, working hand-in-hand with Pathstream and the colleges to build out custom curriculums and programs for these partnerships.”

Cooper says that “colleges and universities understand that their students are focused on employment, and specifically on getting a good first job. Today’s students no longer buy the line that college prepares you for your fifth job, not your first job. They know that if you don’t get a good first job, you’re probably not going to get a good fifth job.” And, as she points out, most good first jobs specifically require one or more technologies like Facebook or Unity — technologies that colleges and universities aren’t teaching.

If Pathstream is able to realize its vision of integrating industry-relevant software training into degree programs in a big way, colleges and universities have a shot at maintaining their stranglehold as the sole pathway to successful careers. If Pathstream’s impact is more limited, watch for millions of students to sidestep traditional colleges, and enroll in emerging faster and cheaper alternative pathways to good first jobs — alternative pathways that will almost certainly integrate the kind of last-mile training being pioneered by Pathstream.