My family and I had lunch recently with disability champion Max Burt and his wife Justine. Max worked in advertising in the UK in the 1990s until a catastrophic accident changed Max’s life forever. (You can read the gist of his story at maxburt.com.)
Max was an advertising planner before the accident, a good one. Planners think for a living and thankfully his accident didn’t stop his ability to think. Over lunch we talked about his plans now he and Justine have settled here in Australia, and we concluded that three things are needed for real commercial success, success that cuts through the status quo, that changes markets, that changes society, that challenges perceptions.
They are technology, finance, and advocacy.
Technology can be some kind of technological breakthrough, and it can also be a kind of shorthand for good ideas, or new insight, or new thinking.
Finance is required to bring the good idea to market, then to start to generate a profit, and then to create a self-sustaining business capable of rewarding shareholders and funding R&D. The right amounts of seed finance, R&D support, people and other resources are needed, so “finance” can also code for “resources”
Finally, advocacy. Any good idea, once financed, needs to be communicated to the right audience with passion. Almost by definition, something that’s new is unfamiliar, which makes this harder than usual.
Max and I realized that while businesses often know a good idea when they see one, and that the need for funding is often implicitly understood, the need to find good communicators and advocates often gets missed. The thinking is that the idea sort of sells itself (“isn’t it obvious?”).
Our musings and conclusions were in the context of Max’s passionate advocacy for the iBot wheelchair (see Max’s web site), although calling it a wheelchair is akin to comparing a Vespa with a Rolls-Royce. The iBot uses Segway motion technology for its propulsion and balance. In particular, it allows Max (and the other 500 users worldwide) to rise from having four wheels on the ground, to just two. The first time you see this transition, you lunge forward to catch him, then you spend half an hour trying to work out which of the laws of physics have been broken.
And then you realize that you’re talking to Max at eye level. He’s no longer looking up to you, you’re no longer stooping.
You’re equals, in a way that goes way beyond the impressive technology.
The cut-through is, in fact, that the conversation has changed out of all recognition, because you’re having a conversation in the same way that you do with everyone else.
And it climbs stairs.
And stops dead on hills.
The field (literally as well as metaphorically) is level.
It’s wonderful technology, and Max (and the other users worldwide) are passionate advocates.
What’s now missing is the finance. The current owner of the manufacturing rights can’t make the business case work and has announced that it plans to abandon the product at the end of 2013.
And that was the moment when we realized that if any one of these three elements (technology, finance, advocacy) is missing, any project becomes increasingly difficult to make a success, or (and perhaps worse) projects become compromised.
A new way to allow people to “buy” these iBots is needed, so that the existing manufacturer, or a new one, can expand the R&D and make money. Max bought his iBot, but they are expensive.
And so new advocacy is needed too. A new way of solving the problem is needed.
So by “real success” I mean success that makes a difference, something that produces a profit, makes the world go “wow”, something we all talk about even if we’re not part of its so-called target audience.
Something that goes much further than incremental tweaks and microscopic changes.
Something that changes society, that comes from new thinking for all three elements.