This is my response and follow-up to Ysette Guevara’s nice introductory piece on the idea of the “slow brood”. If you like these ideas, consider posting comments and your ideas using the Twitter hash tag #slowbrood.
Our world has become increasingly frenetic where attention span is measured in seconds. Business models have followed suit. Rather than fighting the trend, business leaders and investors have discovered that the short attention span culture is positive for business since it is consistent with maximizing profits. In this model ideas play second fiddle to market and team because great teams in large markets can continue to pivot until they find a profitable idea. This can happen in ever-shortening cycles as the size of pivots converges with attention span.
I call this the Prospector business model since entrepreneurs are essentially panning for gold in the form of ideas. And just like prospecting, where an area becomes crowded if one person hits a vein, so too with startups a market gets crowded with upstarts looking for a nearby valley to pivot into hoping to hit the mother lode. This model is all about execution because if others pivot before you, you may lose out on staking your claim. It also promotes failure since nobody is wedded to a specific idea. Headstrong leaders with an obsessive vision of the future are no longer a business risk since there is no core idea driving the business. In some ways it’s pure business for business’ sake. Failing quickly is also a sign of success. With enough hard work and determination, eventually the random walk of Lady Luck will walk in your favor. Since it isn’t about any particular conviction, the faster you can pivot, fail, and pivot once more, the faster you can hit at least a vein of startup success.
If all you care about is money then this is a great approach. In this market you have a cadre of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed labor with short attention spans that expect to hit gold immediately. If you aren’t a billionaire by thirty then you must not be on the fast track. Clearly it’s best to get started as quickly as possible. Witness the people leaving college for startups not to mention the people encouraging students to leave. In an attention-deficit world, who has the time to toil away at unpractical study for four years? Besides all that matters any more is getting accepted into an elite institution, not the experience at the institution. The premise appears to be that going to college is now an opportunity cost instead of an opportunity!
What happens as this palpable brain drain runs its course? The question is really about learning and the genesis of big ideas. In my world (which admittedly is not the same as others), a university education provides a student with an intellectual framework for experiencing the world around them. Among other things, this means learning to ask questions, identifying assumptions and bias, challenging your beliefs, synthesizing and reconciling external information whether anecdotal, scientific, or another’s perspective. In short, it’s about thinking and making sense of the world. The university experience offers students a broad and rich set of experiences that for many will vanish once they enter the workforce. This is the ideal environment to set aside the immediate and think about bigger problems and dreams. It is a place where you can let ideas run wild without worrying whether they are in vogue or offer business value or if the timing is just so. Ideas like quantum computing or brain-computer interfaces take years if not decades to develop into something practical. Even the now mundane computer took decades of research to develop into something practical. With the profit pressures of the business world, many of these ideas wouldn’t make it off the chopping block. Furthermore the obsessive nature of many inventors, like James Dyson and his famed 5127 designs for the perfect vacuum, are not suitable in the Prospector model.
Providing an environment to incubate these sorts of ideas is critical. If the universities no longer provide this environment for developing these ideas, then we are left with government and private industry as the only alternatives. Even worse is that the talent pool capable of thinking big will have shrunk to a barely discernible size. We are creating a society of “skilled labor” that only knows how to make incremental improvements. The irony is that in the 80s Japanese business was criticized for only being capable of incremental improvement, or technology renovation, whereas the United States was about true innovation driven by creativity. In the Prospector model, we have tragically donned the suit of renovation.
It’s time to embrace the slow brood and have the courage to focus on big ideas. Only then can we return to our roots as innovative and creative thinkers.