(Readin' time: 5m 38s)
Onward with the third of three ideation pathways. (BTW, if you’re like “what the heck is this guy talking about”, I’m continuing a series that started here.)
With this pathway, you’re looking for a problem that is more horizontal in nature. By horizontal, I mean this problem can and does show up in a variety of businesses across multiple verticals.
To anchor this with a quick example: lead generation. An incredible variety of businesses across a broad range of verticals need to generate leads. This makes this a horizontal problem.
It’s also somewhat of an “evergreen” problem. It's not something most businesses figure out once and never have to revisit.
When clients of mine find good horizontal problems to focus on, those problems tend to break down into three tags:
- Problems driven by broad technology trends
- Problems linked to the maturity of a particular technology platform
- Evergreen business problems benefitting from technology expertise
Let’s go through these in order.
Broad tech trends
What’s kind of hilarious about new technology is that it creates problems while also solving problems. In fact, almost any change, even a wonderful one, creates new problems.
- Bigger house needs more furniture to fill it
- Job promotion brings a higher salary but requires longer hours and adds stress
- Desirable tech company sets up shop somewhere; adds new high-paying jobs but stresses existing infrastructure and increases real estate prices
While new categories of technology offer significant benefit (mobile computing, sensors on everything, battery storage for energy, micro-sized sensors, drones, and other stuff, zero marginal cost business models, etc), they imply significant change, and change creates problems.
So one way to generate ideas using this second ideation pathway is to look for the problems that new technology creates.
Sometimes new tech creates problems for those that adopt or integrate it, and sometimes the new tech creates problems for those that don’t adopt it. A publication that wants to adopt paywall and audience intelligence tech to monetize and better segment/distribute their content has an integration problem. How do they integrate this whole new way of doing business into their existing business?
A publication that resists this new technology, believing it’s not the right path forward for them for strategy reasons, or believing it’s too disruptive to their business, or believing it’s too soon to try something so new and untested and risky has a different problem. They have to live with the anxiety of placing a bet on inaction and either making the best of the results of that bet, or perhaps trying to innovate in a different way by placing a different bet.
Either way, the new technology forces change and creates problems that have to be dealt with both on the side of the adopters and on the side of the holdouts.
You could come up with a list of dozens of ideas for solving the problems created by new technology. And you could focus in a broadly horizontal way, or you could add an additional vertical constraint.
An example of the former: list a bunch of ideas you have for solving problems created by the fact that an increasing amount of the space on the first page of Google search results is being allocated to paid ad results, local search results, and video. This is a purely horizontal problem that effects a lot of different businesses across a broad range of verticals.
An example of the latter: list a bunch of ideas you have for solving the problems created by the fact that something like 54% of product searches start on amazon.com. This problem is most painfully felt in the retail vertical.
A second category of horizontal problems is related to platform maturity. I should say right away: these tend to not be evergreen problems. Rather, they are problems that reward early movers. They don’t tend to resolve into a winner-take-all situation, but they do tend to favor early movers and resolve into a situation where a field of competitors thins out pretty quickly, leaving only a few strong survivors. This is getting pretty abstract, so let me give some examples.
Think about React. The rapid increase in React’s popularity creates a moment in time. During this moment, several things are true:
- There’s a information deficit around how to use this new technology. This is driven by:
- Hype. I use this term in a neutral way, not a dismissive way. Hype is simply a lot of positive discussion. Hype drives:
- Fear of missing out (FOMO). Early adopters of technology view new tech as granting competitive advantage, and so they keep their eyes open for new tech, take its appearance very seriously, and talk a lot more about the promise of this new tech than about the risk of this new tech. This talk drives:
- More hype. See how we have a circular dynamic forming here? The by-products of this dynamic are FOMO and an information deficit.
“If React is the greatest thing since sliced bread, I need to get up to speed on it. How do I do that? Where do I go to rapidly learn about React?”
Well, in the early days there’s some documentation, but what’s missing—what forms the information deficit—is this whole extra layer of tutorials and crash courses and deep dive courses and “React for Angular devs” and “React Bites — daily 5 minute React tutorials” and corporate React training offerings and online React courses and code samples and complementary libraries and Github repos you can clone to try shit out and get a head start on some project you’re working on and best practices and blog posts on what not to do and blog posts that blow your mind and on and on and on. This, and more, is what eventually fills in the information deficit and contributes to a “whole product ecosystem” that allows the late adopters and holdouts to comfortably embrace the no-longer-new React platform.
I don’t think we’re quite there to full ecosystem maturity yet with React, but you can see that the information deficit is a characteristic of a moment in the maturity of a tech platform. It might be a 3 to 5-year-long moment, but it’s a moment because it’s not permanent.
This momentary information deficit creates opportunity for fast-movers. If you get in relatively early and get established and build a good business out of that platform and that moment, you might be in for a lucrative 5 or 10-year ride. But because your fortunes are linked to a platform, that ride might eventually lose momentum.
Evergreen business problems
Finally, there are a category of problems that are more related to business needs than technology, and they are evergreen. To be clear, technology is almost always part of the solution, but these problems don’t spring from the adoption of new technology or the rise of new platforms, they are always there in the business, and changes in the world of technology can create new solutions or new categories of solution.
Businesses that set appointments with customers have always had the need to remind customers of their appointments. But the rapid adoption of mobile phones and smartphones created a new solution to that problem: SMS reminders.
Businesses that sell products that are expected to last a while but can break have always needed to support customers, deal with potentially bad PR from faulty products, and figure out field repair or replacement and other related issues. But the rapid adoption of social media has created new threats and opportunities.
These are examples of how the business problem is evergreen. It’s kind of always been there, and it always will be there. But the changing technology landscape means a solution that worked in 1980 won’t work now. And in some cases, a solution that worked last year won’t work now.
Alrighty, let’s wrap this up.
The third ideation pathway is to think horizontally, either in terms of new technology, “rising star” platforms, or evergreen business problems.
If any of you are actually doing this ideation, let me know. I’d love to get a sense of what your list of ideas looks like.
I’ll pick this series up next week and focus on the validation part of things.