The idea behind a business is often the single most important factor that contributes to a founder’s ability to launch, gain momentum, and grow a business without losing steam and fizzling out. So what’s a founder to do when they’re having trouble coming up with the perfect idea for a business? Consider the “adjacent possible.”
The Adjacent Possible
In Steven Johnsons’s best selling book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, he explains that most innovations are in fact NOT lightening in a bottle moments of inspiration. Rather, they are the natural consequence, or evolution, of other existing innovations combined with one another in new and interesting ways. He cites the existence of “multiples,” or simultaneous innovations in different parts of the world, throughout history as proof. Such examples include:
- Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both posited similar views on natural selection and evolution in the 1850s
- Charles Cros and Louis Ducos du Hauron both “invented” color photography in the 1860s
- Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla both “invented” radio in the 1890s
You’ve probably experienced this in your own life by coming up with what you thought was a great idea only to learn that it already exists. I know I have. I once “invented” a magnetic earbud cord holder that helped prevent your earbuds from falling out while jogging, but so did Klinggon several months before me…
This a good thing though. It means that ideas are plentiful and waiting to be discovered not conjured out of thin air. By starting with an idea in one space (preferably something you are interested in and know a lot about), you can merge it with something seemingly unrelated in another space (perhaps something trending or new) to come up with a brand new idea.
An Amazonian Example
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, illustrated the principle of the adjacent possible in a 2003 Ted Talk likening the then current state of the internet to the electric utility industry in the late 1800s. In a related article1, he shares an anecdote about traveling to an historical brewery in Belgium. In one part of the tour, the guide led the group to the brewery’s power generator. In the 1800s, there was little to no electrical grid infrastructure in Europe, so it was incumbent upon users of electricity to make their own.
Bezos compared the brewery’s need to generate its own electricity in the 1800s to the very modern need of tech startups having to manage their own data infrastructure. Brewers, and just about every other industry, benefitted immensely when they were able to stop worrying about electricity and focus exclusively on their core competency. As Bezos put it:
“Making Your Own Power Doesn’t Make Your Beer Taste Better.”
This insight led Bezos to start Amazon Web Services (AWS) which virtualized, in a seamlessly scalable manner, the data hardware infrastructure requisite to running a tech company. By taking one existing innovation, centralized utilities, and combining it with another, tech startups, Bezos leveraged the adjacent possible to innovate a service that powers much of the internet today.
In 2016, AWS represented 56% of Amazon’s total operating income2.
So how is considering the adjacent possible practical in the context of entrepreneurship? Sometimes the kernel of an idea simply needs to be married with another. In the business incubator that I run at Glenbrook South High School, I’ve considered the adjacent possible for many of the ideas that have led my entrepreneurship students towards business ideas that they were passionate about, able to take action on, and scale. Here are a few examples:
- The intersection of home fitness and the increasing popularity of lacrosse = a fitness device for lacrosse players – PowerShott
- The intersection of recommendation engines and shopping for clothes = an algorithm that finds the best fitting clothes for your body type – BestFit
- The intersection of niche skating companies like Penny Skateboards and snowboarding = a portable snowboard designed for sled hills – Boardable
Truly new ideas are exceedingly rare. Fortunately, entrepreneurship is not synonymous with invention. Instead, consider the natural evolution of innovation as the lense by which to seek opportunity, and take comfort in knowing that one innovation often leads to two or more.
About the blogger – Mike Macfadden teaches technology, business, and design at Glenbrook South High School, and has been an educator for over 10 years. His previous work experience includes teaching in an inner-city charter school in Chicago and instructional coaching with an emphasis in technology integration in Lake Villa, Illinois. Mike is a certified IncubatorEDU teacher is currently most excited about teaching entrepreneurship following “Lean Startup” methodology. He can be reached on Twitter at @MJMacfadden or at mmacfadden.com.
This blog post was relaunched on mbea-ma.org with permission from the blogger. You may find the original post HERE.