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I suggested here last month that the killer app everyone is building, if only in their head, is the modern version of the novel or screenplay we all imagine would be huge, if only we had the time to write it.
But I wonder if a novel or screenplay might actually be a better easy-money plan than an app or a tech innovation.
At any one time, there are hundreds of thousands of writers begging to be taken seriously. But there seem to be almost as many tech start-ups.
I was in Turin recently, seeing an interesting new audio company. I had never been to the city, imagining it to be an Italian Detroit. It’s actually superb, and also has a tech heritage. The world’s first personal computer, Olivetti’s Programma 101, which was used to help plan the Apollo 11 moon landing, came from Turin. Who knew?
The company I was visiting was in a start-up “incubator” at Turin Polytechnic. And it was while scanning the nameplates of the 52 tenants, all vetted by academics, that I wondered how likely it was for even one, however good, to succeed.
They ranged from Naboomboo, an online language lab, to HitYourTix, a ticket finder app, to WaterView, an app for farmers to gauge the intensity of rain from their phone.
This, remember, was one selection of start-ups in one small city in a country not quite in the technology premiership.
I love real innovations, and mere inventions, too, which are a slightly lesser thing, but still raise my pulse when they are more than just a solution looking for a problem. The trouble with innovation is, however, that it’s demanding of the consumer.
To return to my semi-serious comparison with fiction, humans have a greedy, unchanging appetite for stories — and it’s never been simpler, since e-publishing, to get yours published in some form. You can even make the film of your screenplay and stick it on YouTube. Good luck with that — but it’s an option.
People can enjoy fiction, though, without putting themselves out. To accommodate a new app or device you have to invest time. If I decided to use a single product from that Turin incubator, even if it improved my life, it would take effort. So with the best will, I probably won’t bother.
Today must be the most innovative and inventive era since the late 19th century.
Crowdfunding in particular has made development easier than ever. The beauty of it is that, unlike proper venture capitalists putting in real money, none of the funders loses much if a project fails.
But is success in tech even remotely predictable? Or does technology’s equivalent of the publisher’s slush pile include thousands of viable ideas, rather than mere whimsies?
I asked Professor Mike Wright, head of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Imperial College Business School in London, if he discerned any reliable predictor of innovation success.
He believes getting a technology idea off the ground is easier than keeping it off the ground, so to speak.
“People get obsessed with financing. We’re awash with crowdfunding. But having the entrepreneurial skills to match that with potential markets is often missing. People being funded sometimes regard the advice of entrepreneurs as ‘interference by the money men’,” he says.
Prof Wright finds the new breed of start-up hopefuls oddly stubborn, resistant to the need to adapt products. “Adapting to suit the market is absolutely key,” he says. “Few get this.”
He is also sceptical of the ultimate buzz concept: disruption. Not everything, he points out, that’s going to be successful needs to be disruptive.
“A lot of family businesses, process or efficiency innovations are equally valid. A modest innovation that works nationally rather than globally can be very successful.”
So what’s the view on innovation from the business angel’s cloud?
I turned to my friend Dominic, a newbie investor, recently pitched to for the first time — and getting hot under the velvet collar about what he heard.
The aspirants were mostly recent business school graduates, he found. “Think they know it all. No experience, no leadership skills, character or hard-won knowledge. And they don’t like tough questions. When I asked one about his online tailoring business, he described Savile Row tailors as ‘labourers’. Ignorant and insulting.
“A board of six Insead grads and not one with menswear experience. And they wanted £500,000. Thank you. Next.”