Who do you think is the most influential businessperson of our lifetime? What ideals have you tried to assimilate in your work?
Steve Jobs. I admire him for taking an idea, owning it and reshaping Apple by pioneering a graphical look and feel on the commercial level – something people were doing in Xerox PARC around the same timeframe.
What makes me admire him is that when he came back to Apple the second time, he realized that computing was changing and it was his vision that pushed it to smart phones. That was a pretty gutsy move because he ended up cannibalizing his own business to some extent.
In around 2010, they were selling iPods like crazy. When he came out with the iPhone, he literally killed a multibillion dollar business. Xerox had a chance to do something similar, but they would have had to kill off some of their other businesses. Someone like Jobs had the foresight to do it, whereas others didn’t have that vision. Netflix did a similar thing when they got out of video shipping and into streaming. BlackBerry was almost there. They never took the device seriously as a computing device. They always thought of it as a phone and the other features were add-ons.
The ability to kill off a part of your business when you see a bigger opportunity is what distinguishes a truly remarkable businessperson from others.
Can you give me an example of a time when you saved a sinking ship by being innovative?
I don’t know about saving a sinking ship, but I’ve built a ship more than once using the principles of innovation. My first company did online pricing and configuration, I started it in the 1990s and we took it public in March 2000 with a $5 billion market cap. We were not the first player.
When I started it, there were half a dozen startups. We were competing with the likes of Oracle, SAP, Siebel. The only reason we succeeded was because I knew that there were nine ways of doing it wrong and one way of doing it right.
Even though we were one of the last companies to get started, the quality of our solution took us to the top ranks. We had such strong technology that Cisco, Dell, Juniper, Hitachi, Samsung – all these big Fortune 50 companies – had licensed our software. IBM, Aetna, and General Electric followed later.
In the same vein, at my company Predictika, we are pushing the envelope on how to make virtual assistants more conversational. Most of the existing approaches are very rigid, top-down bots that are not really conversational – more like IVR (interactive voice response) systems in a bot-like garb. I realized that for these programs to be truly conversational, they have to be much more like human conversations – free flowing, jumping from one topic to another, maintaining context, being able to switch across topics, and allowing both man and machine to steer the conversation.
Why do you think innovations succeed or fail?
There’s a time for innovation and there’s a time to not innovate. If you look at business problems, not every problem needs technology innovation. Some problems need business process innovation, some need market innovation. In some cases, the land grab is more important than the quality of the solution. But in some cases, getting first to the market really doesn’t mean much – getting the highest quality solution does. Look at Friendster. They were one of the early social networks, and they were highly funded. They never provided a reliable service. When you log into Facebook, it will not crash or slow down. When you click on a link, it will come up right away. There was nothing that new about Facebook. They’re always copying features other platforms are creating. But whatever they’re doing, they do it reliably.
Do you know someone making an impact on the world through innovation and entrepreneurship? Let us know, and we may feature them in a future article.