About the Author
Amy Wilkinson is a strategic adviser, entrepreneur, and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She frequently addresses corporate, association, and university audiences on entrepreneurial leadership. She also advises startups and large corporations on innovation and business strategy. Her career spans leadership roles with McKinsey & Company and JP Morgan and as founder of a small foreign-based export company. Wilkinson has served as a White House Fellow in the Office of the United States Trade Representative and as a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Learn more about her work at AmyWilkinson.com.
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Creator’s Code Chapter 1
FIND THE GAP
Discovery consists in seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.
From an early age, Elon Musk peppered his parents with questions. He prodded and probed. “Guess I’m just wired that way,” he told me. Born in Pretoria, South Africa, Musk devoured comic books and science-fiction novels as a youth. He read the encyclopedia cover to cover. He loved computers. At the age of ten, he taught himself how to write computer code; by the time he was twelve, he and his brother, Kimbal, had developed and sold a video game, set in outer space, called Blaster. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedic science-fiction novel, taught him to question accepted wisdom; as is memorably written in the book, the key is to know which questions to ask.
Musk’s curiosity fueled his desire to move to the United States. “America is a nation of explorers,” he said. First, he moved to Canada to stay with relatives. To pay for college, he worked odd jobs: shoveling grain, emptying boilers in a lumber mill, mopping up chemicals while wearing a hazmat suit. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he asked professors, classmates, friends, and even dates this question: “What are the three things that will have the greatest impact on the future of humanity?”
By 1995, Musk realized that “the Internet was like humanity acquiring a nervous system,” he said. “Previously, we’d been like cells connecting by osmosis. We were just a blob. But if you have a nervous system, information can travel instantly from the tip of your finger to your mind, and then down to your feet. The Internet turns humanity into something akin to a superorganism.”
Musk enrolled in a PhD program in applied physics at Stanford University, but he dropped out after just two days. He was far more interested in pursuing the gap he perceived between the potential of the Internet and the way it was being used at the time. He sent his résumé to America Online (AOL)—a hot company in the mid-1990s—made follow-up calls, and even drove to the company’s office, hanging around the lobby hoping someone would talk with him. No one did.
With $2,000 in savings, he and Kimbal started Zip2, one of the first businesses to put media content online. They rented an office and, to save money, furnished it with futons they used as couches during the day and beds at night. They showered at a local gym. “Do you think you’ll ever replace this?” one potential investor scoffed, throwing a copy of the Yellow Pages at the brothers. Musk nodded and left. Within months, Zip2 would put maps and content online for media organizations such as the New York Times Company and the Hearst Corporation. Four years later, in 1999, Compaq’s AltaVista division bought Zip2 for more than $300 million.
With newfound money in his account, Musk turned to the problem of checks, which he saw as a painfully antiquated means of payment. Transactions could take weeks to complete as people mailed checks and waited for them to clear. Musk launched an online payments company called X.com to fill the gap. Before long, it merged with a startup named Confinity to become PayPal. In 2002, eBay purchased PayPal for $1.5 billion. Musk was just getting started.
He would go on to found SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and SolarCity. What can we learn from such an extraordinary creator? What allows someone like Musk to seize opportunities time and again?
Connections, expertise, talent, and resources have something to do with a breakthrough discovery, to be sure, yet scores of people who possess all these ingredients fail to capture opportunities. And individuals who possess few of them succeed. What if the answer involves unique ways of thinking and perceiving? What if Musk—and others like him—have a sensibility and a curiosity that allow them to identify needs that are going unmet?
This chapter is about what makes creators different, what makes them able to find and fill gaps in a variety of ways. Some of these creators—those I call Sunbirds—transport solutions that work in one area and apply them to another, often with a twist. Architects recognize openings and furnish what is missing. They spot problems and design new products and services to satisfy unfilled needs. Melding existing concepts to combine disparate approaches, Integrators build blended outcomes.
Although our experience may lead us to see the world from just one of these perspectives, we can learn to spot opportunities in a variety of ways. Creators move freely between patterns of discovery.
SUNBIRDS: FROM ONE DOMAIN TO ANOTHER
“I look at a problem and think, ‘Let’s not look at how this problem has been approached in this field, but let’s go to industries that are completely different and take technologies that, if applied to the problem at hand, would solve it,’ ” inventor Dean Kamen said. Kamen created the Segway PT transportation vehicle, the AutoSyringe drug infusion pump, and the iBOT all-terrain wheelchair, among other technologies. “I find someone who has solved the problem in another field and then just tweak it a little bit,” Kamen explained, adding wryly, “Every once in a while it works.”
Kamen is a real-life mad scientist. He lives in a large, hexagonal house in Bedford, New Hampshire, that features, among other quirks, a large steam engine once owned by Henry Ford. Kamen pilots his own helicopter to work every day. The helicopter inspired Kamen, Sunbird-style, to invent a heart stent. Baxter Healthcare, frustrated with stents that collapsed inside blood vessels, commissioned Kamen to create a sturdier model. Helicopter blades withstand incredible stress, so Kamen studied their function and construction and applied what he learned to build a better stent.
Kamen spots a solution that works in one area and repurposes it. Designing the Segway PT, he borrowed gyroscopic technology used in the aerospace industry to maintain stability. Kamen utilized two sets of wheels capable of rotating over each other to enable users of his iBOT wheelchair to “walk” up a flight of stairs or “stand” up to six feet tall. His Luke Arm prosthetic device—named after the Star Wars character Luke Skywalker—gives its wearer a nearly full range of motion. It is designed with fourteen sensors that detect temperature and pressure and enable users to open a lock with a key or grip a water bottle.
Perhaps his greatest invention is FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit that borrows from the playbook of sports to make math and science education cool. “I got this epiphany to create a sport of technology and science that had a higher skill set than ‘bounce, bounce, and throw,’ ” Kamen explained. Borrowing on the sports theme of instant winners and losers, he designed a six-week science and technology tournament in which teams of students face off in robotics competitions that require them to build a robot out of a box of standard components. “If you want to see a real varsity team, I’ll show you a real sport,” Kamen quipped. “The other neat thing is that whether you’re three hundred pounds, seven feet tall, or a woman, you can play on the same team.” In 2014, more than 400,000 students participated in FIRST competitions.
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What makes someone a Sunbird? The first and most obvious criterion is that Sunbirds take something that already exists and transport the model to create something new. They relocate and reshape existing concepts across geographies and industries, and bring old ideas up to date.
By definition, a sunbird is a small bird native to Africa, Asia, and parts of Australia. Like the North American hummingbird, sunbirds subsist primarily on nectar. They fly from bud to bud, transferring pollen between flowers.
There is a simple way to describe how Sunbird creators spot opportunities. They harvest working concepts, proving that repurposing an idea can be a powerful means of discovery. Sunbirds transport solutions from one place to meet the needs of another.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, didn’t invent the espresso bar—he borrowed it. But Schultz was alert enough to envision the coffee bar concept in another locale, and insightful enough to bring it to the United States.
On a business trip to Italy, Schultz was intrigued to find people gathering at local cafés, drinking espresso and enjoying the company of neighbors. “These places offered comfort, community, and a sense of extended family,” he said. It was an important part of the culture in cities such as Milan. At the time, if Americans had a cup of coffee while out and about, it was probably at a diner. Schultz spotted the “third place” coffeehouse tradition: the café as a public place to gather between work and home. That kind of place was missing in the United States. Schultz saw an opportunity to transplant a winning idea.
But he didn’t get it exactly right the first time. With Il Giornale, Schultz’s first attempt to open espresso bars in the United States, he replicated the Italian café experience exactly, right down to waiters in bow ties and opera playing in the background. He realized quickly, however, that his Seattle customers didn’t enjoy the experience. So he tweaked the concept: jazz and blues replaced the opera; seating was added so customers didn’t have to stand at a bar to drink their coffee. Driving the makeover was Schultz’s realization that Americans wanted a setting where they could feel comfortable working at their laptops while they sipped coffee.
Sunbirds identify a working concept and find a way to plug it in elsewhere. They examine how and why it worked initially, and what similarities or differences will make it work again. Sunbirds such as Schultz make the calculation repeatedly.
Starbucks VIA instant coffee originated from another Sunbird leap. The process used to preserve the full-bodied taste of coffee beans in powder form was derived from a medical technology invented to preserve blood cells. Biologist Don Valencia presented Schultz with a cup of instant coffee made from freeze-dried concentrate that Valencia had processed in his lab. It turns out that Valencia had developed a technology to freeze-dry blood cells, and he found that the same method could be applied to coffee. Thrilled with the crossover discovery, Schultz hired Valencia to run Starbucks’ research and development team. In its first year, Starbucks VIA captured 30 percent of the premium single-serve coffee market in the United States.
The farther Sunbirds transport solutions, the greater the likelihood of breakthrough results. Gaps can be narrow, leading to incremental innovations, or they can be wide, leading to more novel creations.
THE POWER OF ANALOGY
To transport concepts that the rest of us don’t see, Sunbirds use the power of analogy.
Analogy operates on two levels: Surface analogies describe similarities such as shared product design and product features, and structural analogies reflect parallel underlying elements.
Howard Schultz drew a surface analogy when he observed coffee culture in Europe and brought the coffeehouse experience to the United States. When Schultz invested in technology that originally was developed to freeze-dry red blood cells and created VIA instant coffee, he followed a structural analogy.
The odds of success for a Sunbird improve if concepts and applications share structural similarities. Gutenberg is said to have invented the printing press by adapting the mechanics of the wine press. He witnessed the repeated pressing process farmers used to extract juice from grapes and realized that the same mechanism could be utilized to apply ink to paper.
Sunbirds examine underlying elements. George de Mestral got the idea for Velcro when he observed how burrs stuck to his dog’s fur with tiny hooks. University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman studied his wife’s waffle iron and adapted the pattern of little spikes produced by the appliance to create Nike’s original waffle-tread running shoe.
It is not always as easy as it might seem to identify and transport ideas. The Inca people of South America fashioned toy vehicles for their children that had wheels, yet they never developed full-scale wheeled carts or wagons. Instead, they used pack animals, and moved heavy items by dragging them on poles. The Incas predicted seasons by observing the planets and stars. Their surgeons were highly skilled. They designed complex roads and buildings with their skilled use of mathematics. Yet they were unable to make the connection between wheels on toy vehicles and their own need for transportation.
“If you take a minute to really think about things, to compare and contrast, you are two to three times as likely to apply known principles to discover and connect with future ideas,” said Dedre Gentner, director of the Cognitive Science Program at Northwestern University. Energetic engagement triggers the brain to recast what we see into new and useful ideas. Through experiments with management consultants, accountants, business school students, and undergraduates, Gentner found that making comparisons helps people utilize what they already know. “Push your analogies to the limit. That will lead to breakthroughs,” Gentner said. “Instead of saying, ‘Damn, that didn’t work,’ ask, ‘What parallel can I draw?’ ”
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“When I finished my doctorate in engineering, I did something very unusual for an engineer. I actually started in a surgery lab,” Bob Langer, founder of the Langer Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me. “I was trying to use engineering to solve medical problems.” Transporting chemical engineering principles to the human body, Langer helped isolate an angiogenesis inhibitor, capable of choking off the blood supply to cancerous cells, and then invented a new polymer that could be used to encapsulate the treatment, allowing it to be implanted directly in a tumor, where it would be slowly released. His breakthrough created an entirely new kind of drug delivery system that is now a key weapon in fighting cancer and other ills, from diabetes to schizophrenia.
At MIT, Langer runs the largest academic biomedical engineering lab in the world. It has spun out more than twenty-five biotech startups that have each generated more than $100 million in revenue. Langer gets his inspiration from all types of sources, including nature, literature, media, and science, among dozens of others. To create a recent invention, Langer drew an analogy from the computer industry. “The whole idea started by watching a television show on how they make microchips in the computer industry,” Langer said, as we sat on lab stools surrounded by centrifuges. “When I saw that, I put two and two together and thought, well, maybe this could be a whole new way of delivering drugs to patients.”
The polymer chip is patterned after an Intel microprocessor. “You can open up specific wells in the microchip to deliver drugs,” Langer explained. The human microchip works via a tiny device that can be implanted in a patient in the doctor’s office. The device is wirelessly programmable by means of a special radio frequency. A signal is sent from a cell phone or other external device that tells the chip what drug to deliver and when, while recording the action. “It can be triggered by remote control the same way you open your garage door,” Langer said, using another analogy to describe how it works. This “pharmacy on a chip” was used successfully to administer daily doses of an...
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