Business Unusual

Great ideas, wrong time

There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come, wrote Victor Hugo in one of the variations of his original quote.

Then there is the quote that says, build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

There is value in both but the truth is that it takes more than a great idea or a better mousetrap to change the world. Many of the products that have changed the world were not the first to use the idea that made them famous (As for mousetraps, the reported 4 400 patents that exist suggest that it may be difficult to build a better one that has already being designed).

So why would a great idea fail only to succeed in the future?

There are a few reasons, but the two most likely are that technology to effectively and affordably deliver the product or service was not originally available or that the intended market had not had time to appreciate how useful it could be.

Facebook was preceded by services like Friendster, MySpace and originally SixDegrees. Too bad nobody understood social networking in 1997.

You may well have bought something on Ebay, which is itself very established being founded in 1995, but it was ShopDirect that made the first true ecommerce sale on 11 August 1994, a CD of Sting’s Ten Summoner's Tales although you probably have never heard of them.

Google Glass was unveiled in 2013 as a new type of wearable computer, smaller than even a watch. The microcomputer would project information onto a screen on the glasses lens, use a camera for pictures and video and play audio. It was much less powerful than a phone and a lot more expensive. Early adopters got stuck with the name glassholes. It went quiet but returned in July this year as a productivity tool for business, especially manufacturing.

Microsoft’s Hololens is also gaining favour for certain applications as it gets people used to the idea of augmented reality. Games like Pokemon Go have also made augmented reality less of a niche idea and so more likely to be more widely accepted as the tech, price and applications begin to really solve some issues for its intended market.

The iPhone is justifiably considered the first smartphone although technically there are few others that can claim to have been similar and predated it. A prime contender is the HTC Wallaby. It could make calls, connect to the internet and had a touch screen and that was in 2002, five years before Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone, but it was very slow and if the battery died you would lose all your data and it was very expensive. By the time the iPhone was unveiled, the idea of not just using a phone to make calls was growing and the iPhone managed to just get the balance right about its abilities and cost to make it a hit.

This is a key illustrator of both points about a breakthrough idea. It may seem revolutionary, but only just and it while it can be premium priced, it must still be aimed at the mass market.

The examples above may seem very recent but the principle is remarkably consistent throughout history.

An extreme example is of a service that is still considered revolutionary now. Yet it was first unveiled to the public in 1937.

An automated supermarket.

Amazon and Alibaba are dominant in online retail and have recently began testing stores that have don’t need staff to ring up your purchases. You simply use your phone and your biometrics to have your associated account charged for anything you take off the shelf.

The idea of standardised prices was first introduced by John Wanamaker who is considered the pioneer of modern grocery retail which was covered in the story on dynamic pricing.

The next innovation that set the ball rolling for modern supermarkets was created by Clarence Saunders who created the first store that shoppers selected items for themselves and proceeded to a check-out. This was the Piggly Wiggly chain which can still be found in some US towns today although almost every supermarket uses this layout.

He lost the company in a risky gamble on Wall Street, but came back to found a store called Keedoozle. It was intended to be an autonomous shopping experience which used a special key which when inserted into the slots for the products you wanted would note the purchase on a tape which when presented at the checkout would return your packed goods and your bill.

Three stores were built but the very mechanical technology and the absolutely unheard of method of shopping confused most shoppers. It has remained a revolutionary idea.

Amazon Go launched in December 2016 as a fully self-service supermarket and Alibaba demonstrated their version Tao Cafe in July 2017.

They are unlikely to be overnight successes, but there is little doubt that all supermarkets will pursue this technology. It paints a gloomy picture for those working as cashiers (the second largest group of workers in the US after retail assistants and they are not looking safe either), but consumers may welcome the cost saving and potential time saving too.

In time a version of all the products above will either hit the big time or be superseded by someone who can execute it even better with a more competitive price or to a more receptive audience.

The world has no shortage of ideas but for those that can combine a great idea with the right price and features just when the market is ready for it, you can expect unusually good results.


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