category creation 101 - adjacent possible

It happens regularly, entrepreneurs begin to build a product that is far beyond what society is ready to adopt, and they fall flat. In this section, you’ll learn how to find the balance between technological advances and society’s adoption in what’s called the Adjacent Possible to grow your company.

To complete the exercise for this module at the Techstars Entrepreneur's Toolkit, click here.


Now if any of you haven't read this books, one of my favorite books ever about technology. "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson who's a guy based here in New York. And Steven, he started with this, and he's a friend of mine by the way too. And he started the work on this book just with the idea that if you go back in time, back 100 years, 150 years, before there was a lot of communication around the world. Great inventions tended to pop up in different parts of the world where nobody could've possibly known what everybody else was doing.

The car was being developed in the US and Europe at the same time. The flight was being developed in the US and Europe at the same time, by people who had no idea what the others were doing. Why is that possible? Why did those things pop up at the same time? And he started doing research, and he landed on this idea of the adjacent possible. Which looks like this.

So if you imagine, and this axis over here is what technology can do. And so you know, down here is stuff that's proven. The television, and radio, or those I mean obviously those things aren't here. And somewhere up here is stuff that we think technology can do some day. You know it's pie in the sky stuff, it's you know holograms and you know, crazy block chain ideas. Or somewhere just a little beyond what technology can do.

And along this axis down here is what society adopts and can accept. So you know in this part here are things that we readily use in our lives. We got email, we watch TV, all those things. And out here are things that we're not ready for. You know you can introduce that product but we're not quite ready for it. And you know you imagine way out here somewhere is like basically science fiction. It's teleportation, it sits out there. So Steven Johnson's point about the adjacent possible is that all the great world changing inventions tend to come in this thin line, just outside of what's already what technology can provably do and what society provably wants to adopt. But not so far out that we don't quite get it yet. Or not so far out that the technology's still sketchy. And what happens in this thin band right here is it's usually a combination of a bunch of things that exist already.

So it's not, you know and the mini van is a perfect example of that right? It wasn't like this radical like new bubbly invention of a car or a flying car or anything like that that would sit way out here somewhere. But it wasn't just, let's take a Volkswagen van and put nicer seats in it. It was something that took a bunch of pieces that were already here and already had here and just took it outside this line a little bit. So that it seemed new, and it seemed to solve a problem that didn't exist before, and it seemed to push the technology or the capability just a little bit. But not so far out that it seemed crazy. And that's important because you know, I mean through my career I've seen like probably a thousand start ups. I've sat with them and I would say half of 'em are creating something that sits out here somewhere.

That you know you go, and actually one of my co-authors for the book was Al Ramadan. And I first met Al in the 1990's because he started a company called Quokka Sports. And Quokka Sports had this idea of basically putting sports online and creating a new experience by adding a lot of data to you know what was flowing in. And being able to watch it you know on the web. Everything about what Quokka Sports was doing was right, 10 years too soon. Because we didn't have you know, we still had dial up modems, it was just you know in the way that people thought wasn't quite there yet. Like I wanna watch this stuff on my laptop. And so Quokka was a break through company like NBC and other companies signed contracts with him, they thought it was really cool. But as soon as the tech crash started to happen in the early 2000's it went out of business because it didn't have the kind of adoption here and the technology couldn't quite do it yet.

And so you know we see that all of the time. It just sat too far out here somewhere. So. You know the great new categories are in fact, just a little bit outside of what's already exists.