If You Build It … Don’t Count on Anyone Coming

Entrepreneurs need to learn to hedge their bets.

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Ghost Players emerge from the cornfield at the "Field of Dreams" movie site in Dyersville, Iowa, in this undated file photo. Eight years after the movie the Ghost Players are making appearances around the country where they provide baseball instruction and baseball stunts.
If you build it ... they might not come?

Beware the "'Field of Dreams' Fallacy": If you build it, they probably won't know it's there, and even if they do, they won't necessarily care.

In the movie "Field of Dreams," the character Ray Kinsella hears a voice out of the cornfield that whispers, "If you build it, he will come." Kinsella builds a baseball field and players and fans eventually show up. This captures the impulse that stirs dreamers to become entrepreneurs – and also often destroys them. This is the impulse that leads us to build something before people believe in it, then demonstrate that it works and meets a need.

How one equips oneself to take on such a challenge often makes all the difference. Malcolm Gladwell uses a study by the French scholars Villette and Vuillermot to support his thesis that successful entrepreneurs cover themselves when they make big bets. When it comes to fields, these successful entrepreneurs make sure to play on ground tilted in their favor, or at least not against them, and they bring a back-up plan. This is not the same as playing it safe by avoiding big opportunities. In fact, it is quite the opposite: According to Gladwell, successful entrepreneurs make big bets, but they set themselves up to have a strong shot at winning them.

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It would be a mistake to conclude from this that resourcefulness – the ability to make something out of what little lies at hand – is anything but essential for would-be innovators and entrepreneurs. In a previous post I cited Saras Sarasvathy's research demonstrating how pivotal such resourcefulness is. Still, as Gladwell suggests, in most cases resourcefulness is only part of what is necessary. With few exceptions, potential innovators must line up at least three other components, if refining their solutions and taking them to market is to be anything more than shooting the moon.

Both inside and outside of existing firms, innovators need the tools and talent requisite to prove their concepts. They need the know-how to validate the market, and they need access to people who can open doors to funding sources and to market channels. In short, they must be equipped to demonstrate persuasively the market potential of their solutions. It is for this reason that innovation and entrepreneurship thrive in economic ecosystems where there exists not only a culture of resourcefulness, but also access to the "5 Ts" of innovation: tools, talent, test markets, tables (where innovators can engage critical market gatekeepers) and training (in how to demonstrate the business case for their innovations persuasively).

Today there are positive trends when it comes to broadening access to these components. Tools for designing and making prototypes have dropped precipitously in price. Startup incubators featuring affordable space and business resources have multiplied. Crowd-funding platforms providing alternative sources of early-stage capital have cropped up. Meanwhile, the Lean Startup movement has taught entrepreneurs to develop their "minimum viable product" and internalize feedback from the market, before proceeding in ways that require significant capital or that lock in strategic direction.

As salutary as these trends are, however, they are not enough. If we are to expand the pool of people with a reasonable chance of bringing innovations to market, we must equip them with the skills required to line up the necessary resources and relationships. This requires that we make a sea change in how we educate young people, as I describe below.

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In my high school (which started in the seventh grade), there was a boy who went around talking about high-speed "maglev" trains – trains that magnetically levitate above the rails to avoid friction. At the close of the 20th century, so many billions of barrels of fossil fuel ago, this eighth grader became possessed of the idea that investing in such trains would help reduce fossil fuel dependency. He made himself wildly popular with his schoolmates by talking of little else for weeks, between visits to the main branch of the New York Public Library to read about the various technologies being adopted in Europe and Asia. As part of his science fair entry that year, he introduced a model maglev train he had obviously built using dime store magnets and household tools. The train failed to levitate – to the surprise of no one except, perhaps, its designer – but the abstract he wrote, describing the technical requirements and energy efficiencies of magnetic levitation, was well received, and if I recall correctly, he earned third place.

The girl who won the science fair that year did so with a project that featured extensive testing on laboratory rats. When one asked where she got the rats and related equipment, kids in the class said it came from her mom's lab. Her work was phenomenal, demonstrating a command of research methodology astounding in someone so young; she also had access to the tools she needed to demonstrate what she was trying to do. In the intervening years, access to the tools required to prove and promote solutions to problems in society, in industry and in everyday life, has opened up dramatically. While lab rats may have changed little (aside from those redoubtable rats of NIMH), tools for developing prototypes have been democratized in unprecedented ways. Rail projects do not tend to be particularly well suited to small, build-it-in-the-garage innovation (remind me to go back and tell that eighth grader as much). Even as infrastructure projects remain capital-intensive and dependent on political will, however, students in many parts of the world have gained access to the equipment necessary to build and test working models of their ideas. 3D design software and 3D printing equipment are becoming more widely available at colleges and universities, including public ones, and even forward-thinking high schools are exploring access to these resources. Prototyping advantages are only the beginning. In our more vibrant innovation hubs, powerful assets have become available for researching, testing, planning, funding, producing, promoting and distributing innovative solutions.

For those who wish to derive such solutions and bring them to market, this is momentous. It is not too much of a stretch to say that a young innovator today has powerful resources at his disposal for developing and building interest in an innovation, resources such as only a major corporation could access just a few decades ago. What possibilities are released when kids like the ones with whom I went to school – kids with imagination who fail to see why they should not try to build a maglev train with materials from the local hardware store – have such resources available to them?

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Here it is important to emphasize that designing, constructing and showcasing a prototype or demo of an innovation, whether it be digital app, new product or service, is typically only the beginning of the process involved in making the innovation commercially viable and bringing it to market. What is missing is what Varick Street Incubator creator Bruce Niswander, in a comment on my post last week, calls the "bottom up details of the commercialization process." This is the critical correction that must be made to the "Field of Dreams" idea, inspiring though that idea might be. To "build it" is necessary, but the notion that this is generally sufficient should be treated with great care. As Mark Zimmerman, CEO of Dexter Solutions and adviser to Acceleration Group, observes: "Some entrepreneurs succeed without access to a fertile innovation ecosystem, simply through the brilliance of their innovation or by clawing their way to success. However, many more thrive when they have access to a range of powerful resources in their ecosystem."

Expanding the pool of those attempting to introduce innovation does far more for our overall capacity to generate far-sighted solutions, than does augmenting the resources available to a few designated experts or privileged sons. This reflects the dynamics of distributed problem-solving James Surowiecki lays out in "The Wisdom of Crowds:" When our economy generates more widespread experimentation under the right conditions, we get superior aggregate results, even when the average experiment is flawed.

Too often, however, for those who could produce game-changing solutions if they attempted them, the risk calculation does not add up. For this reason, a significant proportion of able problem solvers never enters the game. When it comes to the adaptability and competitiveness of our economy, permitting this state of affairs to continue is suicidal.

We need to make it reasonable for more of our would-be innovators to take the measured risks that entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship require. To achieve this, we must transform the process for developing, testing and promoting solutions from wild gambling to calculated risk-taking. To help make this possible, I developed the CAPTURE framework, which is being used by innovators and entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Asia, to pinpoint and successfully engage critical inputs in their ecosystems.

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This framework builds on the "5 Ts" outlined above, and applies a systematic process for engaging the ecosystem to convert innovation into value. I developed this process in response to the blind spots my partners and I encounter time and again in our work with entrepreneurs, investors and organizations striving to stimulate innovation. Entrepreneurs all too frequently stand in thrall of the "‘Field of Dreams' Fallacy," believing that once they have an idea, the rest will flow naturally. Early-stage investors and sponsors of corporate innovation, for their part, often struggle to assess the entrepreneur's capacity to exploit faster-changing markets while mitigating risks. Critical as it is to broaden the pool of innovators and investors, new entrants must be equipped to evaluate early-stage opportunities and increase their prospects for generating wins. With each CAPTURE component in place, they vastly improve their shot.

We must equip entrepreneurs to secure access to gatekeepers and key resources. We must train them to keep tabs on their risks and to hedge their bets in the face of uncertainty, in the manner encompassed in RAPIDE Planning. These are dynamic, iterative processes. They depend upon the ongoing practice of monitoring progress and lining up access to resources before they are needed. Unfortunately, these are activities for which the broad base of today's work force is woefully unprepared. If we fail to change this, innovation will remain a game for the few of us privileged enough to learn from our mistakes despite an unforgiving market, and the still fewer who manage to succeed without faltering along the way. As I have argued, this carries devastating costs to the competitiveness and adaptability of the economy overall.

I start my course in Converting Innovation into Value by framing the challenge for my students. Unless you have invented the flux capacitor, you are going to need more than just a good idea. If you are serious about developing solutions that can succeed in the market – and you should be, because increasingly, you are going to need to demonstrate the ability to bring solutions to bear even when "working for the man" – you must learn to tee up advantages and manage risks. That is what proving your concept and taking it to market will require.

If you're still driving without a flux capacitor, incidentally, get to the Apple Store or your local electronics dealer and ask if they carry the newer models. They usually keep them in the back.

Alejandro Crawford is a senior consultant at Acceleration Group. He also teaches courses in entrepreneurship and growth strategy. He graduated from the Tuck School of Business in 2003.

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