The purpose of this post is to take a screenshot of my emotions.
Some of you know what is the life of a start-up: you get an idea, bet on it then start to work to turn the idea into reality, fully knowing that >90% of such ideas never make it. Countless books have been written to explain the mechanism whereby you still run the risk in the face of overwhelming failure odds, so I won’t go into that.
As time progresses you pick up feedback: your idea may be wrong because you overlooked something, or your plan was over-optimistic (nearly always), or you misjudged the competition, or the time is wrong, or the technology is immature.
But you also pick positive feedback, which is why talking to potential clients as early as possible is so important: your ability to get the attention of the right level tells you if the itch you’re scratching is important enough, and every conversation will reveal if someone else is already working on the same itch, perhaps further down the solution alley than you are.
Then you hit a cusp: some discontinuity that changes radically the game, altering the landscape in some irreversible manner: to abuse a buzzword, the cusp generates an evolutionary discontinuity.
Fact is, cusps do not occur only in start-ups: during the 35 years of my business life I have experienced several, but even if my performance in exploiting them varied from great to awful, I can rest in the knowledge that such performance was never influenced by lack of focus: every time I spotted the approaching cusp I dedicated 120% of my abilities to make the most of it.
Here is a brief account of my four cusps so far.
When at Olivetti (and IBM before that) the PC was but the latest fad, interesting but ultimately inconsequential. The shock which woke me up was a Client (a big bank) asking me to sell them some PCs, provided – they said – they were “Lotus 1-2-3 compatible”. See? Not “IBM compatible”.
The cusp was the fact that software would dominate the world of PCs which would dominate Information Technology. So I started reading the friday papers, until I found a recruitment ad from Lotus Development, I applied and got interviewed by a recruiter who said they were instructed NOT to consider anyone from IBM or Olivetti; I responded “They did not say anything about avoiding someone who comes from BOTH” and got the job.
Mark that as an A.
After six years of successfully selling office apps at Lotus one day I came across the internal announcement of a new development project. At that time, Lotus had their fingers in many pies, and most new projects – however sexy – never amounted to much: Agenda, Improv, Manuscript, HAL just to name a few.
But Notes was different.
First of all, they couldn’t even explain what it did, but luckily my technical background was still fresh enough I could learn for myself to the point I was one of the first people in Europe (and certainly the only Country Manager) who knew how to write Notes apps; for many years, every Notes installation in Italy came with my trademark Jokes Database and for the following year I tried to get a job as International Marketing for Notes without success.
It is perhaps the only time my motivation was only 100% (not 120%); I was sort of expecting my employers to recognize on their own right I was “obviously” the right person for that job, and when they didn’t, I gave up and left.
I deserve a D for not trying hard enough.
My entrepreneurial move was not such a cusp, as it was more the result of the existing agency partners realizing they needed someone with more managerial and international skills to grow the agency and they had spotted me.
Myself, I just wanted to move on, they were fun people, I liked the business so I took the opportunity.
The cusp came a few years later when we were already doing very well and, during the preparation of one of the numerous new business pitches, an elderly gentleman said they were looking for an agency in Italy for what could be a very significant PR contract. I remember saying to my partners: “I better dress as a grown-up for once”.
When the pitch was over I thought that, indeed, IBM could become a very large client, but I was wrong: their contract over the years came to be the largest ever in Italy for any agency and the custody of that relationship (across many changes in management on the client side and structures of the international contract) became my life for the next six or seven years.
The next cusp was more insidious, as it would be silly to claim any foresight in understanding the importance of Digital: after all, by 2001 we also had Amazon and eBay as clients, so the shift to digital was the proverbial tide lifting all boats. But in that general swelling there was a smaller trend which not many recognized and that was the importance of Social which we started practicing very, very early on. In 2003, one full year before Facebook even existed, we convinced a huge client to shift its digital budget to a social project, winning as many awards as we cared to enroll in.
We continued to invest in that capability for years, but while we got some success, we failed to turn it into the runaway breakthrough or to convince the entity which in the meanwhile had bought our agency.
When I left in 2013. I decided to dump everything I knew in a book, just to draw a tidemark on the shore which, to my knowledge, it’s still the highest I saw in Digital both in Italy and abroad.
It’s still a dearly loved topic for public speaking, but no more than a C overall.
This friday I saw another such cusp approaching: the work I am doing with One Wedge has the potential to become an infrastructural play of enormous proportions because many factors (including sheer luck) are serendipitously converging in this time and space. Potential of course means nothing without execution, but the surprising and vivid interest demonstrated by two enormous infrastructural players told me the execution needle just moved from 0% to maybe 5%.
Of course, my ego is flattered by the praise poured on what I said on the preliminary conversations which led to the setting up of the meetings where they invited me to hear what I have to say.
So now I am looking forward to two meetings with immense potential: until last thursday I thought that just getting the meetings would be an enormous achievement, but now that they are in my diary I see how wrong I was. Obtaining the right of presenting our idea means nothing if we cannot convince them to go with it, so my anxiety has not abated at all; in fact this post is a good way to record it, as the brain tends to obliterate unpleasant memories after the fact.
Obviously I do not expect the meetings will deliver any unmistakable result or cross any no-return line: the world did not change abruptly after any of the other cusps, so I don’t know how long it will be before I can give myself a score on this.
Be patient and come along for the ride.