SM: What are the positives you can take from the first venture?
AA: I am gratified now to see that our idea was not stupid. When the company was sold I sent a note to all of my investors thanking them for their support. I told them that whether we were the ones doing it or not I firmly believed our method was how computing was going to happen in the future, and I see that happening now.
SM: Another point we should emphasize is that timing is a critical issue for startups.
AA: A vision is great to have but you get no brownie points for being too early to the market. For an entrepreneur it is tricky to balance timing. You can be too early and the market is not there, or too late when there are too many competitors. There is a strike window and it is not obvious to know where that strike window is at.
SM: You need a lot of luck to hit it just right within that window.
AA: It is like landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier; the landing strip is very tiny and moving all over the place. You can’t just come in as a novice flying and act like it is easy to land on a 100 foot landing strip in the middle of the ocean.
SM: Have you developed any mechanisms to identify that window of opportunity?
AA: Here is my very generic advice for entrepreneurship which you can apply to any domain. Generally an entrepreneur is looking for opportunities. The question to ask is why are incumbents not taking advantage of the opportunity? If there is food at the table, why are the bigger guys not going to eat it?
My philosophy is that problems create opportunities. Look for problems. There are plenty of problems that already have solutions, so the question is what kind of problems should you be looking for? Then answer is that you are looking for new problems. New problems exist where there is change or discontinuity.
Change creates new problems. New problems create opportunities but they only exist in a small window. You have to strike at that window. This is where luck is on the side of the entrepreneur. The incumbents are poorly positions to target something that is moving and in flux. Gaps open in the market and they are not nimble enough to jump into that gap because it is not large enough for them yet. Entrepreneurs must have a reason to believe that the gap will get bigger and decide to jump into that gap.
This is one of the problems when you are technical entrepreneur. People design something really cool and then think “I wonder if I can make a company around this?” That is absolutely the wrong way to think. Don’t approach it from a design aspect, rather from a problem aspect. Entrepreneurs, especially technical entrepreneurs, make this mistake over and over again.
SM: This is something I have experienced a lot in my consulting life. Somehow Silicon Valley is great at coming up with solutions that are looking for problems. They have no idea what the problem is!
AA: That is a great way to describe it. I also like to point out that the problem has to be the right size. It can’t be so large that the big players are already taking it on, but if it is too small it won’t be able to sustain a business.
SM: Market discontinuity is vital in this aspect because that is what drives the timing aspect and keeps new problems coming.
AA: That is when to strike. When it is coming around, jump in. Before you make the jump just make sure that the problem size is large enough to sustain a growth period.
SM: The solution also must be architected to take advantage of the existing parameters of the world.
AA: Absolutely! You are not living on Mars! It has to fit into something people are not used to doing. You have to become a part of an ecosystem, otherwise you are expecting the stars to align for you and that seldom happens.