Monday, April 23, 2012

The Importance of Imagination in Entrepreneurship

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." Albert Einstein

Everyone wants to be the next big thing. There is nothing wrong with this except too often the focus is on imitating the last big thing, while failing to realize what made it big in the first place--it's uniqueness born out of the imagination of its creators. Following is a stark example of what happens when a company imitates vs one who risks it all by using the imagination to radically change an industry.

HP's Missed Opportunity

HP introduced a device in 2004 that made techies and engineers salivate. That device was a PDA called the iPaq Hx4700. 

HP iPaq Hx4700

This thing was beautiful with a color rich, 4 inch VGA screen.  And boy was it fast. Jumping between applications was a snap. It had mobile versions of common desktop apps, allowing me to have my files and emails available in both places. Movies looked gorgeous and I carried scores of songs with me everywhere I went. The built-in wifi and full internet browsing experience was amazing and allowed me to keep my laptop in its bag, partially liberating me from the 17 inch back breaker. This was as close as you could get to having a full computer in your pocket. The only drawback is that I still needed to carry a cell phone. I remember thinking to myself, This would be a fantastic phone. At the time smartphones had tiny screens and QWERTY keyboards. The Treo and Blackberry were duking it out for supremacy. Palm (remember them) upped the ante by later introducing the Treo 700W, a Treo running the Windows Mobile OS.

Palm Treo 700W

Windows Mobile began showing up on smartphones everywhere and manufacturers were making a killing. It was decision time for HP.

After a wildly successful run, HP discontinued the Hx4700 line squashing rumors of a smartphone version. A collective gasp was let out around the world from fans of the device. What did HP do instead? They chose to imitate. Have a look.

HP HW6500

HP opted for a smartphone with a much smaller screen than the Hx4700 and a QWERTY keyboard, the approach of all manufacturers at the time. So I settled for the Treo and its QWERTY keyboard. Why buy from the cheap knock off right? I just could not stop thinking to myself, What a bunch of stuffed shirt idiots at HP.

Think Different

Fast forward a few years and along comes Apple with the iPhone and it's HUGE beautiful screen.

iPhone 1st Gen

I kid you not. My first thought when I saw it was, This is what the Hx4700 could have been. Did I rush out to get the iPhone. Nope. It still lacked too many of my "must haves," but the potential was clearly there and I knew they would catch up. Once they got there, I headed down and bought what I considered a full blown computer in my pocket with cell phone capability and then some. It has mobile versions of common desktop apps, allowing me to have my files and emails available in both places. Movies look  gorgeous and I carry scores of songs with me everywhere I go. The full internet browsing experience is amazing and allows me to... Wait a minute. Didn't I already say this? Yep and this is exactly my point.

While HP decided to jump on a bandwagon, Apple decided to re-imagine the bandwagon. Apple did not invent anything new. They simply came up with a different combination and bet the farm that consumers would go for it. The gamble proved correct.

Imagination is Risky

Of course the outcome is not always so triumphant. Remember the Newton? This was considered a colossal failure at the time. It turns out it was simply a great idea ahead of it's time. Herein lies the problem with using your imagination. You run the risk of coming up with something people just are not ready for. Humiliation and ridicule is quite common, which is why so many choose imitation over imagination. It feels safer. But no one ever changed the world by playing it safe.

For example, I am working on something right now that takes a radically different approach to delivering content to book lovers. Will it be a hit? Perhaps. Will it be a flop? Well, if I go purely by statistics and what is currently on the market, one must conclude the odds are not in my favor. Then again, had Apple gone by statistics and the market at the time, we would have no iPhone or iPad. Some will argue that Apple had a strong position with the iPod that made the iPhone possible. True, but what about the iPod? At the time, it was just another MP3 player.

Creative problem solving requires creative thinking which requires imagination--lots of it. Look at your business and dig deep into the inner regions of your imagination. What can you do that is radically different than everyone else? Not different for difference sake, but something that can have a real and positive impact for your customers or your industry. The best part is that you don't have to invent something new. Just make some important tweaks and put yourself out there. Maybe you will flop. So what? It may just be your own Newton experience--a major failure that paves the way to your big breakthrough.

Godspeed and I look forward to seeing you in The Players Lounge.

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