Sunday, September 25, 2005

Why Everyone Won’t Succeed

Most people in the daily drive to get the job done focus on what it take to succeed. So I was caught off guard when I was recently asked “Why will some efforts at mobile search fail?” Of course, most such efforts will fail. And they will fail despite being funded by VCs that hate to fail and that put a lot of effort into picking a high quality team that hates to fail. That team, in turn, will work very hard to succeed.

There are general answers: there isn’t room in the market for all the ventures that enter it to succeed; some will be undercapitalized, some will fail due to project risk. But those are unsatisfyingly unspecific answers. To provide a really good answer to why most attempts at mobile search will fail, the answer must, at least, carve out a slice of the problem space, and it must say how this kind of answer applies to mobile search, and how it does not apply to startups in general, or search in general. I find that there is a fairly clear and informative answer to why some people – and I aim to make sure this means “other people” will fail: Mobile search is a classic case of interdisciplinary development.

Unified messaging, the focus of a company I started many years ago, was also a case where mastery of two very different disciplines was required. Then, as now, however, the difficulty of integrating across two disciplines where you will seldom find experts in both is hard to measure, and is often not taken into account in measuring the ability of a venture to capture and defend a position in the market. That is, this is both a hidden danger and an underappreciated quality.

It is, of course, easy to enumerate the features of voice mail, and of email, but, as evidenced by the implementations, most attempts failed to integrate the two correctly. Successful implementation of the idea of unified messaging required insight into the direction – not just the current position – of voice processing and messaging systems, mainly in the area of emerging APIs and standard interfaces, and it required integrating this knowledge right through to the business model and business development strategies. Even Active Voice, which is widely regarded as the exemplary case in unified messaging for having the best integration to messaging standards, did not until fairly recently, when media gateway nodes displaced voice processing cards as the interface point, fully abstract hardware from the unified messaging system.

In hindsight is it fairly clear: unless you see where messaging and voice processing are going, you can’t position yourself correctly among your technology providers and channels. There is no obvious choke-point here – no way to deny a competitor who has figured this out access to the same partners and channels, so this isn’t widely seen as a differentiator. But the fact that so few entrants to the unified messaging field got this right means that interdisciplinary integration probably is a significant advantage that some ventures will wield with strong effect against their competitors. Not all ventures share this attribute, so there is probably something to be learned about building a venture where interdisciplinary integration is a requirement for success.

Mobile search is, if anything, a more difficult problem than unified messaging. At least three major distinctive areas of competency have to be integrated into a successful system: Mobile applications development; search; and IN (intelligent network) application development. These areas cannot integrate simply by gathering competent people in each. In fact, you will be hard-pressed to find compatible minds that have deep experience in each area, and that know how to reshape their own areas of expertise to fit with the others and extract the highest potential from the combination.

By “compatible minds” I mean people that can flex to fit the requirements of interdisciplinary innovation. Failure to flex means failure of the whole enterprise: mobile game coders will often fail to find the discipline to create an ambitious mobile application that works reliably. Symbian coders will fail to see that J2ME is an adequate platform, and that broad platform reach can be available through J2ME. Those steeped in search might fail to adapt to the limitations and opportunities of small-format presentation. And IN-experienced engineers can be too much in the telco mindset to integrate with anyone else with a more entrepreneurial world view. If the executive leadership of such an enterprise cannot encompass all that enough to evaluate if it is coming together or not, chances for success are diminished. If the participants reach only a minimal level of compatibility and fail to reach for ambitious goals in every distinct area of competency, the result will be easily matched and exceeded by competitors.

It can all be boiled down to four points:

  • Only a small subset of ventures require innovation and audacity across multiple disciplines, so it isn’t a familiar problem.
  • Apart from recognizing that some of these ventures are execution plays, VCs find the value of interdisciplinary innovation hard to measure.
  • The participants in these ventures have to be inquisitive about each other’s domains of knowledge, and be able to seek innovation near those boundaries. The more dimensions to the problem, the less likely it is this will happen.
  • The leadership, at the stages of founding, funding, and operating the enterprise have to be cognizant of their situation and act to make an interdisciplinary venture work.

But even simplified to this degree, interdisciplinary ventures are more complicated, and therefore more risky, than simpler plays. They are all the rarer in that, even when they are recognized it may only be to avoid them.