Selling the future

Mike Maples once said that you shouldn’t think about a startup… as a startup, it’s more insight, an idea about the specific behavior of the people in the future. While a team secretly pivots a product, they have all the advantages of living in the future they create. And most of the successful projects don’t predict some fairy-like gadgets with unreal science behind them (but some of them do), behind every interesting tech company, there’s a powerful insight about human psychology.

The future is not like the weather. It doesn’t just happen. People make the future. It’s not a destiny or hope; it’s a decision. Steve Jobs didn’t “discover” a market need for smartphones or tablets, he designed the category and taught us how to think about it. Elon Musk did the same with electric cars and commercial space travel.

One method to come up with a big, bold, radical idea is to implant yourself in the future and think about how people’s lives and needs might be different. Anticipating the needs of tomorrow is one of the best ways to come up with startup ideas today.

At the 1986 famous seminar Dr. Richard W. Hamming, a retired Bell Labs scientist, gave an intriguing and stimulating talk about the work scientists should do to sell their breakthrough to society. This talk centered on Hamming’s observations and research on the question “Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?”. From his more than forty years of experience, thirty of which were at Bell Laboratories, he has made several direct observations, asked very pointed questions of scientists about what, how, and why they did things, studied the lives of great scientists, and great contributions, and has done introspection and studied theories of creativity.

In his talk, Humming summarised the whole idea by saying:
“I have now come down to a very distasteful topic; it is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell it. “Selling” to a scientist is an awkward thing to do. It’s very ugly; you shouldn’t have to do it. The world is supposed to be waiting, and when you do something great, they should rush out and welcome it. But the fact is everyone is busy with their own work. You must present it so well that they will set aside what they are doing, look at what you’ve done, read it, and come back and say, “Yes, that was good.” I suggest that when you open a journal, as you turn the pages, you ask why you read some articles and not others. You had better write your report so when it is published in the Physical Review, or wherever else you want it, as the readers are turning the pages they won’t just turn your pages but they will stop and read yours. If they don’t stop and read it, you won’t get credit.

There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks. We had a lot of so-called `back room scientists.’ At a conference, they would keep quiet. Three weeks later after a decision was made they filed a report saying why you should do so and so. Well, it was too late. They would not stand upright in the middle of a hot conference, in the middle of the activity, and say, “We should do this for these reasons.” You need to master that form of communication as well as prepare speeches.

When I first started, I got practically physically ill while giving a speech, and I was very, very nervous. I realized I either had to learn to give speeches smoothly or I would essentially partially cripple my whole career. The first time IBM asked me to give a speech in New York one evening, I decided I was going to give a really good speech, a speech that was wanted, not a technical one but a broad one, and at the end, if they liked it, I’d quietly say, “Any time you want one I’ll come in and give you one.” As a result, I got a great deal of practice giving speeches to a limited audience and I got over being afraid. Furthermore, I could also then study what methods were effective and what was ineffective.

While going to meetings I had already been studying why some papers are remembered and most are not. The technical person wants to give a highly limited technical talk. Most of the time the audience wants a broad general talk and wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give. As a result, many talks are ineffective. The speaker names a topic and suddenly plunges into the details he’s solved. Few people in the audience may follow. You should paint a general picture to say why it’s important, and then slowly give a sketch of what was done. Then a larger number of people will say, “Yes, Joe has done that,” or “Mary has done that; I really see where it is; yes, Mary really gave a good talk; I understand what Mary has done.” The tendency is to give a highly restricted, safe talk; this is usually ineffective. Furthermore, many talks are filled with far too much information. So I say this idea of selling is obvious.”

Obviously, the selling of the research applies to the startup vision and product more than teams actually use it. For that paranoid who are stuck in a notion that someone could steal their idea while they are training to pitch or while they are selling, and that someone is a dorm room neighbor, my advice is just this, keep sleeping calm, and he probably couldn’t grasp the whole plan you already iterated many times. If this is another big company with abundant resources, you could already be doomed, therefore, just keep digging and get as many useful experiences as you can. Maybe you are just fixed in a state of analysis-paralysis and the focus should be on the customers that adore your company’s product over any substitute.

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