Tag Archives: Disruptive innovation

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 4: it’s customer, stupid!

Thiel’s classes 9 to 12 leave the pure field of start-ups to the higher levels of economy, business and innovation. Thiel gives general advice such that customers are important and more important than competitors with the recurring “obsession” that peace and correlated monopoly  are better than war and deadly competition.

customer-stupid

Class 9 is about customers and more specifically how to find them. “People say it all the time: this product is so good that it sells itself. This is almost never true. […] The truth is that selling things is not a purely rational enterprise. There is much stranger stuff at work here. […] Most engineers underestimate the sales side of things because they are very truth-oriented people. In engineering, something either works or it doesn’t. […] Engineering is transparent. […] Sales isn’t very transparent at all. (As a side comment, I advise again to read Packer about transparency and politics in SV, in fact look at what follows!) […] A good analogy to the engineer vs. sales dynamic is experts vs. politicians. If you work at a big company, you have two choices. You can become expert in something. The other choice is to be a politician. […] The really good politicians are much better than you think. Great salespeople are much better than you think. But it’s always deeply hidden. In a sense, probably every President of the United States was first and foremost a salesman in disguise.

Thiel loves quadrants but does not draw one here, he just explains it:
– Product sells itself, no sales effort. Does not exist.
– Product needs selling, no sales effort. You have no revenue.
– Product needs selling, strong sales piece. This is a sales-driven company.
– Product sells itself, strong sales piece. This is ideal.

Thiel has similar views on marketing “Advertising is tricky in the same way that sales is” and he uses the famous quote: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted: the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Sales follow a power law similar to the one existing in value creation. Viral marketing rarely works… and viral marketing requires that the product’s core use case must be inherently viral.

In his class 10, Thiel begins to explore the future and shows how difficult it is to identify opportunities. He even mentions the nice quote (but never said in reality) “everything that can be invented has been invented” (falsely) attributed to U.S. Patent Commissioner Charles H. Duell in 1899. Again both in terms of technology innovation (vs. computers) or globalization (vs. China), he advises not to compete but to collaborate.

But the worst competitor is time… “More interesting are cases where people are right about the future and just wrong on timing. […]And being too early is a bigger problem for entrepreneurs than not being correct. It’s very hard to sit and just wait for things to arrive. It almost never works.” Andreessen who was Thiel’s guest approved: “For entrepreneurs, timing is a huge risk. You have to innovate at the right time. You can’t be too early. This is really dangerous because you essentially make a one-time bet. It’s rare are to start the same company five years later if you try it once and were wrong on timing. Jonathan Abrams did Friendster but not Facebook.

And Andreessen also agrees about sales: “The number one reason that we pass on entrepreneurs we’d otherwise like to back is focusing on product to the exclusion of everything else. We tend to cultivate and glorify this mentality in the Valley. We’re all enamored with lean startup mode. Engineering and product are key. There is a lot of genius to this, and it has helped create higher quality companies. But the dark side is that it seems to give entrepreneurs excuses not to do the hard stuff of sales and marketing. Many entrepreneurs who build great products simply don’t have a good distribution strategy. Even worse is when they insist that they don’t need one, or call no distribution strategy a viral marketing strategy.”

Again about timing: “You can go wrong in a few ways. One is that the future is too far away […] It’s like surfing. The goal is to catch a big wave. If you think a big wave is coming, you paddle really hard. Sometimes there’s actually no wave, and that sucks. But you can’t just wait to be sure there’s a wave before you start paddling. You’ll miss it entirely. You have to paddle early, and then let the wave catch you. The question is, how do you figure out when the next big wave is likely to come?”

A few not related topics:
– You need to find the balance that lets you think about patents least. It’s basically a distracting regulatory tax.
– What’s ideal is to have a founder/CEO who is a product person. Sales operators handle the sales force. Larry Ellison [is no exception and] is a product guy.
– Being CEO is a learnable skill. With the “world class” CEO model, you miss out on Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. The CEOs of those companies, of course, turned out to be excellent. But they were also the product people who built the companies. [Do not misunderstand] everybody thinks management is a bunch of idiots, and that engineers must save the day by doing the right things on the side. That’s not right. Management is extremely important. Great management and a great product person running the company is characteristic of the very best companies.

Class 11 is also about the future, but in terms of “secrets” which may be important to know how to identify real opportunities: “Some secrets are small and incremental. Others are very big. The focus should be on the secrets that matter: the big secrets that are true. The big ones so far have involved monopoly vs. competition, the power law, and the importance of distribution. “Capitalism and competition are antonyms.” That is a secret; it is an important truth, and most people disagree with it.”

Thiel explains why secrets are important: “Four primary things have been driving people’s disbelief in secrets.
– First is the pervasive incrementalism in our society. People seem to think that the right way to go about doing things is to proceed one very small step at a time. […] Academics are incented by volume, not importance. The goal is to publish lots of papers, each of which is, in practice at least, new only in some small incremental way. […]
– Second, people are becoming more risk-averse. People today tend to be scared of secrets. They are scared of being wrong. Of course, secrets are supposed to be true. But in practice, what’s true of all secrets is that there is good chance they’re wrong. If your goal is to never make mistake in your life, you should definitely never think about secrets. Thinking outside the mainstream will be dangerous for you. […]
– Third is complacency. There’s really no need to believe in secrets today. Law school deans at Harvard and Yale give the same speech to incoming first year students every fall: “You’re set. You got into this elite school. […]
– Finally, some pull towards egalitarianism is driving us away from secrets. We find it increasingly hard to believe that some people have important insight into reality that other people do not. Prophets have fallen out of fashion. Having visions of the future is seen as crazy. In 1939 Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to get serious about nuclear power and atomic weaponry. Roosevelt read it and got serious. Today, such a letter would get lost in the White House mailroom.”

But… “There is no straightforward formula that can be used to find secrets.”

Class 12 is about war and peace again, but I do not have much to comment here except a quote from Reid Hoffman: “A side note on invention and innovation: when you have an idea for a startup„ consult your network. Ask people what they think. Don’t look for flattery. If most people get it right away and call you a genius, you’re probably screwed; it likely means your idea is obvious and won’t work. What you’re looking for is a genuinely thoughtful response. Fully two thirds of people in my network thought LinkedIn was stupid idea. These are very smart people. They understood that there is zero value in a social network until you have a million users on it. But they didn’t know the secret plans that led us to believe we could pull it off. And getting to the first million users took us about 460 days. Now we grow at over 2 users per second.” Peaceful secrets are safer than competing for known things.

When Peter Thiel & Friends talk about Start-ups – part 3: company culture, founders, team, investors

Part 3 of my series of comments about Thiel’s class notes at Stanford mainly cover his Class 5-8. But first I should add that Thiel invited a “honor class” of innovators during his 19 classes. Quite fascinating!

Thiel-Friends-CS1st row: Stephen Cohen, co-founder and Executive VP of Palantir Technologies,
Max Levchin, co-founder PayPal and Slide,
Roelof Botha, partner at Sequoia Capital and former CFO of PayPal,
2nd row: Paul Graham, partner and co-founder of Y Combinator,
Bruce Gibney, partner at Founders Fund,
Marc Andreessen, general partner Andreessen Horowitz,
3rd row: Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn,
Danielle Fong, Co-founder and Chief Scientist of LightSail Energy,
Jon Hollander, Business Development at RoboteX,
4th row: Greg Smirin, COO of The Climate Corporation,
Scott Nolan, Principal at Founders Fund and former aerospace engineer at SpaceX,
(Elon Musk was going to come, but he was busy launching rockets),
5th row: Brian Slingerland. Co-Founder, President & COO at Stem CentRx,
Balaji S. Srinivasan, CTO of Counsyl,
Brian Frezza, Co-founder, Emerald Therapeutics,
6th row: D. Scott Brown, co-founder of Vicarious,
Eric Jonas, CEO of Prior Knowledge,
Bob McGrew, Director of Eng, Palantir,
7th row: Sonia Arrison, Associate Founder of Singularity University,
Michael Vassar, the Singularity Institute for the study of Artificial Intelligence (SIAI),
Aubrey de Grey, Chief Science Officer at the SENS Foundation.

Thiel covered how to build a company from the ideas and vision of founders, through hiring and sometimes funding from investors. But he began with a critical though fuzzy concept, the company culture: “A robust company culture is one in which people have something in common that distinguishes them quite sharply from rest of the world.”

He mentions also some important dimensions of the culture:
– Consultant-nihilism or Cultish Dogmatism: “You want to be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. To the extent you gravitate towards an extreme, you probably want to be closer to being a cult than being an army of consultants.” which could be why Thiel said earlier,
pre-money valuation = ($1M*n_engineers) – ($500k*n_MBAs).
– To Fight or Not To Fight (i.e. Nerds or Athletes or again Zero-sum and Non zero-sum). “So you have to strike the right balance between nerds and athletes. Neither extreme is optimal. Consider a 2 x 2 matrix. On the y-axis you have zero-sum people and non zero-sum people. On the x-axis you have warring, competitive environments and then you have peaceful, monopoly/capitalist environments. The optimal spot on the matrix is monopoly capitalism with some tailored combination of zero-sum and non zero-sum oriented people. You want to pick an environment where you don’t have to fight. But you should bring along some good fighters to protect your non zero-sum people and mission, just in case.”
I was just told this is crytic… I agree… another reason to read Thiel directly!

Foundings are obviously temporal. But how long they last can be a hard question. The typical narrative contemplates a founding, first hires, and a first capital raise. But there’s an argument that the founding lasts a lot longer than that. The idea of going from 0 to 1—the idea of technology—parallels founding moments. The 1 to n of globalization, by contrast, parallels post-founding execution. It may be that the founding lasts so long as a company’s technical innovation continues. Founders should arguably stay in charge as long as the paradigm remains 0 to 1. Once the paradigm shifts to 1 to n, the founding is over. At that point, executives should execute.”

Max Levchin: The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible. There are a few reasons for this. The most salient is that, as a startup, you’re underfunded and undermanned. It’s a big disadvantage; not only are you probably getting into trouble, but you don’t even know what trouble that may be. Speed is your only weapon. All you have is speed. […] How to hire? A specific application of this is the anti-fashion bias. You shouldn’t judge people by the stylishness of their clothing; quality people often do not have quality clothing. Which leads to a general observation: Great engineers don’t wear designer jeans. So if you’re interviewing an engineer, look at his jeans. There are always exceptions, of course. But it’s a surprisingly good heuristic. […] PayPal also had a hard time hiring women. An outsider might think that the PayPal guys bought into the stereotype that women don’t do CS. But that’s not true at all. The truth is that PayPal had trouble hiring women because PayPal was just a bunch of nerds! They never talked to women. So how were they supposed to interact with and hire them?

“No CEO should be paid more than $150k per year” (in Silicon Valley)
“Another important insight is that people must either be fully in the company or not in it at all.”

Dilution and funding
Building a valuable company is a long journey. A key question to keep your eye on as a founder is dilution. The Google founders had 15.6% of the company at IPO. Steve Jobs had 13.5% of Apple when it went public in the early ‘80s. Mark Pincus had 16% of Zynga at IPO. If you have north of 10% after many rounds of financing, that’s generally a very good outcome. Dilution is relentless. The alternative is that you don’t let anyone else in. It’s worth remembering that many successful businesses are built like this. Craigslist would be worth something like $5bn if it were run more like a company than a commune. GoDaddy never took funding. Trilogy in the late 1990s had no outside investors. Microsoft very nearly joined this club; it took one small venture investment just before its IPO. When Microsoft went public, Bill Gates still owned an astounding 49.2% of the company. So the question to think about with VCs isn’t all that different than questions about co-founders and employees. Who are the best people? Who do you want—or need—on board?

The VC model in a nutshell: a power law. “To a first approximation, a VC portfolio will only make money if your best company investment ends up being worth more than your whole fund. (And the investment in the second best company is about as valuable as number three through the rest.)”

I have not yet read the following classes…

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 2: value creation

As promised, here are additional comments from my reading Peter Thiel’s class notes on start-ups at Stanford University (after the general ones in part 1 about innovation). And today, it’s about value creation. When I teach valuation techniques at EPFL, I provide similar information: value creation is future cash flows adjusted for time value (check Wikipedia for valuation using DCF). The difficulty with DCF is that in the case of start-ups most of the value appears in the very long term and given the uncertainty of start-up projection revenues, it makes DCF nearly useless… This is why, for start-ups, it is often easier to use techniques based on multiples & comparables (again check Wikipedia for valuation using multiples.)

Thiel enlighted me here by providing a very interesting explanation of why DCF still makes sense for start-ups. First he defines “Great Technology Companies”: “Great companies do three things. First, they create value. Second, they are lasting or permanent in a meaningful way. Finally, they capture at least some of the value they create.” Surprisingly (for me), the second thing is the most important: they are lasting or permanent in a meaningful way. He then introduces DCF with a growth rate:
dcf-valuation
and then he adds: “Tech and other high growth companies are different. At first, most of them lose money. When the growth rate—g, in our calculations above—is higher than the discount rate r, a lot of the value in tech businesses exists pretty far in the future. Indeed, a typical model could see 2/3 of the value being created in years 10 through 15. This is counterintuitive. Most people—even people working in startups today—think in Old Economy mode where you have to create value right off the bat. The focus, particularly in companies with exploding growth, is on next months, quarters, or, less frequently, years. That is too short a timeline. Old Economy mode works in the Old Economy. It does not work for thinking about tech and high growth businesses. Yet startup culture today pointedly ignores, and even resists, 10-15 year thinking.”

I will not add much more here but just mention that Thiel has in this Class 3 & 4 very interesting arguments about why competition may not be that good and monopoly not that bad for the economy and individuals… “Whether competition is good or bad is an interesting (and usually overlooked) question. Most people just assume it’s good. The standard economic narrative, with all its focus on perfect competition, identifies competition as the source of all progress. If competition is good, then the default view on its opposite—monopoly—is that it must be very bad. But exactly why monopoly is bad is hard to tease out. It’s usually just accepted as a given. But it’s probably worth questioning in greater detail.”

He does the analysis not only for companies but also for individuals with a moving section about fierce competition at Princeton, Yale or Harvard with an interesting comparison with Stanford: “Of all the top universities, Stanford is the farthest from perfect competition. Maybe that’s by chance or maybe it’s by design. The geography probably helps, since the east coast doesn’t have to pay much attention to us, and vice versa. But there’s a sense of structured heterogeneity too; there’s a strong engineering piece, the strong humanities piece, and even the best athletics piece in the country. To the extent there’s competition, it’s often a joke. Consider the Stanford-Berkeley rivalry. That’s pretty asymmetric too. In football, Stanford usually wins. But take something that really matters, like starting tech companies. If you ask the question, “Graduates from which of the two universities started the most valuable company?” for each of the last 40 years, Stanford probably wins by something like 40 to zero. It’s monopoly capitalism, far away from a world of perfect competition.”

zerotoone

He finishes with an analysis consistent with his first class on zero to one: “If globalization had to have a tagline, it might be that “the world is flat.” Technology, by contrast, starts from the idea that the world is Mount Everest. If the world is truly flat, it’s just crazed competition. (…) And yet, the single business idea that you hear most often is: the bigger the market, the better. That is utterly, totally wrong. The restaurant business is a huge market. It is also not a very good way to make money.
(…)
Where does venture capital fit in? VCs tend not to have a very large pool of business. Rather, they rely on very discreet networks of people. That is, they have access to a unique network of entrepreneurs. So VC is anti-commoditized. That kind of dynamic arguably characterizes all great tech companies, i.e. last mover monopolies. Last movers build non-commoditized businesses. They are relationship-driven. They create value. They last. And they make money.”

More to come…

When Peter Thiel talks about Start-ups – part 1

““We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” The Founders’ Fund

PeterThiel

Peter Thiel is probably one of my favorite characters when I think of start-ups and Silicon Valley. Here are just two posts where I mentioned him:
Technology = Salvation in October 2010
The promise of technology. Disappointing? in November 2013 (about the great article by George Packer from the New Yorker: No Death, No Taxes – The libertarian futurism of a Silicon Valley billionaire.
And I should not forget short mentions related to The Social Network and PayPal.

An EPFL acquaintance and business angel (thanks Dave :-)) just told me about the course Thiel gave at Stanford in 2012 and the comprehensive notes taken by one of his student, Notes Essays—Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup—Stanford, Spring 2012. I copied and pasted the notes from this 19-session class, and it makes a 233-page pdf document. Indeed, Thiel will publish this together with his student as a book next summmer: Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

zerotoone

As I did with Mazzucato, I plan to posts a few articles about this piece of work which I find really interesting. His first chapter is about the need for start-ups in innovation and technology, and it motivates the title Zero to One:

“Progress comes in two flavors: horizontal/extensive and vertical/intensive.
– Horizontal or extensive progress basically means copying things that work. In one word, it means simply “globalization.”
– Vertical or intensive progress, by contrast, means doing new things. The single word for this is “technology.”
Intensive progress involves going from 0 to 1 (not simply the 1 to n of globalization).
[…]
Maybe we focus so much on going from 1 to n because that’s easier to do. There’s little doubt that going from 0 to 1 is qualitatively different, and almost always harder, than copying something n times. And even trying to achieve vertical, 0 to 1 progress presents the challenge of exceptionalism; any founder or inventor doing something new must wonder: am I sane? Or am I crazy?
[…]
Teaching vertical progress or innovation is almost a contradiction in terms. Education is fundamentally about going from 1 to n. We observe, imitate, and repeat. Infants do not invent new languages; they learn existing ones. From early on, we learn by copying what has worked before. That is insufficient for startups. At some point you have to go from 0 to 1—you have to do something important and do it right—and that can’t be taught. So case studies about successful businesses are of limited utility.”

Then he addresses “why start-ups?” and “why do a start-up?”

“Size and internal vs. external coordination costs matter a lot. North of 100 people in a company, employees don’t all know each other. Politics become important. Startups are important because they are small; if the size and complexity of a business is something like the square of the number of people in it, then startups are in a unique position to lower interpersonal or internal costs and thus to get stuff done.
[…]
The easiest answer to “why startups?” is negative: because you can’t develop new technology in existing entities. Anyone on a mission tends to want to go from 0 to 1. You can only do that if you’re surrounded by others to want to go from 0 to 1. That happens in startups, not huge companies or government.
[…]
Doing startups for the money is not a great idea. Perhaps doing startups to be remembered or become famous is a better motive. Perhaps not. A better motive still would be a desire to change the world. The U.S. in 1776-79 was a startup of sorts. What were the Founders motivations? There is a large cultural component to the motivation question, too. In Japan, entrepreneurs are seen as reckless risk-takers. The respectable thing to do is become a lifelong employee somewhere. The literary version of this sentiment is “behind every fortune lies a great crime.” Were the Founding Fathers criminals? Are all founders criminals of one sort or another?

More to come soon. But if you like this, just read Thiel!

Myths and Realities of Innovation in Switzerland

Xavier Comtesse has just published an excellent report The Health of the Swiss innovation – Ideas for its strengthening, which he gave a summary on his blog, Innovation in Switzerland: it is primarily the domain of Health! This is a very interesting report and it is challenging for me because it “proves” that Silicon Valley is not and should not be a model for innovation in Switzerland: in his introduction he states that “the success of Switzerland in this area is still largely and for many people a mystery, especially since the only model actually known and studied is that of Silicon Valley and it does not fit, as we shall demonstrate, that of Switzerland. Although this model has made California the envy of all, it seems to have finally not been fully copied by anyone.”

cover_dp_innovation_f_400-282x400

But as Comtesse is a bit “Contrarian” (as I am also – my friends often accuse me of debating with myself), he cannot be satisfied with the health of the Swiss innovation. “As soon as the lines of the Swiss model will emerge, it will also show its weaknesses. This will allow us to propose changes to the current situation for a successful future evolution.”

He begins by showing the strength of R&D from the private sector – 75 % of the 16 billion spent in Switzerland. He adds that Roche and Novartis in pharma represent a large portion of this amount (approximately 30% of all R&D spent in Switzerland) and they invest more abroad.

A first point of divergence, R&D is not innovation … In simple terms, innovation is the creation, closer to entrepreneurship than to R&D. Apple has always innovated and much better than other companies, but its R&D ratio is very low.

swiss-r6d-spending
(Click on image to enlarge)

Then he compares Silicon Valley and Switzerland: “Silicon Valley massively encourages the emergence of new actors (start-ups) in the field of information technology and communication (ICT) while the Swiss model promotes rather large incumbents in the field of health.” [Page 20] and even [page 25] “Silicon Valley has deliberately chosen the new technologies of information and telecommunications (including the Internet) as the innovative axis of its development.” He concludes with: “You could say that Switzerland is for health what Silicon Valley is for ICT.”

Second point of divergence: Silicon Valley is not the Mecca of ICT, but that of high-tech entrepreneurship. Genentech and Chiron were the leaders of biotech before being bought by Roche and Novartis respectively. Intuitive Surgical is a leading medical technology company, Tesla Motors could become a major player in the automotive industry and there are hundreds of other start-ups in the fields of energy (massively financed by funds like Khosla or KP), in clean technology and health. Furthermore Silicon Valley has also large established companies such as HP and Intel which are no longer startups.

Comtesse is convinced that Switzerland is less fragile. “As amazing as it may seem, the Swiss model is more robust and efficient over the long term than Silicon Valley because it is less dependent on global rivalries and Silicon Valley may be under threat from Korea, China or any other part of the world. Switzerland is less so because the entry ticket in the field of health, namely the huge investment to develop higher education, university hospitals, research centers, the creation of companies producing blockbusters (products reaching the billion in sales) is so high that few regions can compete in this field.”

Third point of disagreement: I do see how Korea (through Samsung and LG) has indeed become a threat to Silicon Valley but I cannot see why it could not be in the field of health. Investments in electronics and telephony were also huge. Also, the higher and higher reluctance of emerging countries with intellectual property protection (patents) on drugs and the emergence of generics seem to me equally destabilizing.

Finally Comtesse also describes the weaknesses of innovation in Switzerland: “But the question that no politician really wanted to answer was the lack of good projects. If this question is asked the answer is obviously not the creation of science and technology parks, or even the transfer of technology, let alone coaching. It is the creativity that is lacking. How to make Switzerland and especially young people from higher education to be more creative?” Neil Rimer, from Index Ventures, said similar things: “There is innovation in Switzerland, but few entrepreneurs are ready to conquer the world” and “To attract [ … ] you need a critical mass of start-ups so that there are other options available in case of failure. […] Switzerland and its cantons seek to attract traditional companies or the administrative centers of large corporations. […] My biggest wish would be that the authorities encourage the creation of jobs creation in engineering, design, marketing and management. This is how we will attract a critical mass of professionals who create and grow start-ups in Switzerland.” (See L’innovation en Suisse d’après Neil Rimer).

There is a slight difference. Neil Rimer is not talking about good or bad projects, but about ambition. He even said on this blog a few months ago : “I continue to be amazed to hear that there is not enough support in Switzerland for ambitious projects. We and other European investors are perpetually in search of global projects from Switzerland. In my opinion, there are too many projects lacking ambition artificially supported by institutions – who also lack ambition- which gives the impression that there is enough entrepreneurial activity in Switzerland.”

Comtesse then returns to the role of government by distinguishing incremental innovation and disruptive innovation . “Indeed what matters to a nation is its overall innovation capacity including disruptive innovation. But if the State does not take all the risks, then nobody will do it. That is why it is urgent to give further instructions or guidelines to the CTI. Financing incremental innovation should not be its task, or only marginally.” [Page 27] “The Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) tends to support incremental innovation projects, which are less risky and easier to implement. These should be the prerogative of private companies and therefore should not benefit from government support. On the contrary, disruptive innovation, similarly to basic research, should be largely the responsibility of government.” [Page 30] “So on the one hand our innovation system is supported by large companies, and on the other hand by innovative SMEs as well, but those do not reach a sufficient critical mass to make often a difference. The idea would be not to finance individual projects as does CTI in general, but multi-partners programs led by one of the major Swiss companies.” [Page 28] “This approach does not preclude the emergence of new start-ups but these would be placed under the protective wing of medium and large Swiss companies. This would avoid start-ups to be immediately sold to the Americans (a phenomenon called “born to be sold”) or and help to counter the fact that they are never able to grow. It should be remembered that over 80 % of our start-ups do not perish in 7 years, while the “normal” rate is 50 % (one might well say that “never die” is another Swiss phenomenon).” [ Page 31]

I agree with him on the analysis, less on the implemention solutions. I find interesting the idea of giving priority of government support to disruptive innovation. It reminds me of the excellent analysis of Mariana Mazzucato about the Entrepreneurial State. I remain much more cautious about the idea of ​​a consortium of major companies to develop and protect our start-ups. I understand the desire to reduce the risk of the sale, but I do not think the concept is realistic. Which real entrepreneur wants to be protected or controlled by a big even if nice brother… I also have some doubts about the ability and entrepreneurial desire of large corporations.

In a little artificial manner, Comtesse adds the idea of ​​a tax incentives for innovation companies. “The Swiss tax system does not explicitly provide incentives for companies that conduct R&D. The simplest solution is the tax credit for innovation that would, in various ways, decease the burden of corporate tax based on their spending in innovation. Many large countries (the United States, Canada, England, Spain and France) have already implemented such an instrument. It is not, however, about encouraging any sector by this tool but rather to create an emulation for long-term innovation in the country. This device must provide to companies, especially SMEs, more freedom of maneuver to face the innovation process.” (See again Comtesse’s blog).

Here I can speak of complete disagreement. You can read again my analysis of Mazzucato denouncing tax optimization in this area. I never believed in tax incentives and I could be wrong. I understand the greater effectiveness of the approach, but I believe there are more perverse effects than real positive ones. Just look at the plight of the American Taxation system of the large technology companies.

Despite my criticism, this is an excellent report. Like all Contrarians, I focus more on disagreements but there are, in this analysis, extremely interesting points about the myths and realities of innovation in Switzerland. A short reminder as a way to end this post: Comtesse published a few months ago a Prezi presentation on the same topic, and you can read my comments about the Swiss model innovation : is it the best?

Innovation is not about small or large, it’s about fast.

The debate is recurrent and in my last post, I was questioned about my fascination for start-ups and Silicon Valley. In a way this is related, I will come back on this at the end. Two recent articles nearly surprised me. The first one has a famous author, Clayton Christensen. The Empires Strike Back – How Xerox and other large corporations are harnessing the force of disruptive innovation was published in the latest issue of the MIT Tech Review.

Here are short extracts: “It has been a long time since anyone considered Xerox an innovation powerhouse. On the contrary, Xerox typically serves as a cautionary tale of opportunity lost: many obituaries of Steve Jobs described how his fateful visit to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1979 inspired many of the breakthroughs that Apple built into its Macintosh computer. Back then, Xerox dominated the photocopier market and was understandably focused on improving and sustaining its high-margin products. The company’s headquarters became the place where inventions in its Silicon Valley lab went to die. Inevitably, simpler and cheaper copiers from Canon and other rivals cut down Xerox in its core market. It is a classic story of the “innovator’s dilemma.” […] But now Xerox is turning things around […] In the past, Xerox’s success would have been an anomaly. Less than a decade ago, when we were finishing the book The Innovator’s Solution we highlighted the fact that disruptive innovations are typically introduced by startups, the rebel forces in the business universe. […] Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, only about 25 percent of disruptive innovations we tracked in our database came from such incumbents, with the rest coming from startups. But during the 2000s, 35 percent of disruptions were launched by incumbents. In other words, the battle seems to be swinging in favor of the Empire, as the following examples confirm. The author mentions examples such as GE, Tesla competing with GM, Dow and Microsoft in the article.

The second article comes from The Ecomist and is entitled “Why large firms are often more inventive than small ones.” Let me quote it a little more extensively: “Joseph Schumpeter […] argued both sides of the case. In 1909 he said that small companies were more inventive. In 1942 he reversed himself. Big firms have more incentive to invest in new products, he decided, because they can sell them to more people and reap greater rewards more quickly. In a competitive market, inventions are quickly imitated, so a small inventor’s investment often fails to pay off. […] These days the second Schumpeter is out of fashion: people assume that little start-ups are creative and big firms are slow and bureaucratic. But that is a gross oversimplification, says Michael Mandel of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think-tank. In a new report on “scale and innovation”, he concludes that today’s economy favours big companies over small ones. Big is back, as this newspaper has argued. And big is clever, for three reasons.” The arguments are that 1-ecosystems are big, 2-markets are globals and 3-problems to be solved on a large scale. This is not for small companies. “He is right that the old “small is innovative” argument is looking dated. Several of the champions of the new economy are firms that were once hailed as plucky little start-ups but have long since grown huge, such as Apple, Google and Facebook. […] Big companies have a big advantage in recruiting today’s most valuable resource: talent. (Graduates have debts, and many prefer the certainty of a salary to the lottery of stock in a start-up.) Large firms are getting better at avoiding bureaucratic stagnation: they are flattening their hierarchies and opening themselves up to ideas from elsewhere. Procter & Gamble, a consumer-goods giant, gets most of its ideas from outside its walls. Sir George Buckley, the boss of 3M, a big firm with a 109-year history of innovation, argues that companies like his can combine the virtues of creativity and scale.”

Well I was not surprised for long. The debate is not about small or large. Let me explain by quoting my book again and more specifically the section Small is not Beautiful [page 111] “There is one misunderstanding concerning start-ups. Because they would be young, recent companies, and because many macroeconomic analyses focus on the jobs generated by small structures, there is a tendency to consider with high regard that “small is beautiful” as if it were a motto for start-ups. The ambition of a start-up is not to stay modest. On the contrary, the successful companies have become large, sometimes dinosaurs. In early 2007, Intel had 94’000 employees, Oracle 56’000, Cisco 49’000 and Sun 38’000. These “start-ups” have become multinational companies. […] The San Jose Mercury News, the daily newspaper at the heart of Silicon Valley, publishes once a year for example the list of the 150 biggest companies. The simple comparison of the list between 1997 and 2004 shows that among the top 50 in 2004, 12 were not part of the first 150 in 1997. Zhang also analyzed this astonishing dynamics by comparing the 40 biggest high-tech Silicon Valley companies in 1982 and in 2002 as provided by Dun & Bradstreet. Twenty of the 1982 companies did not exist anymore in 2002 and twenty one of the 2002 companies had not been created in 1982. These dynamics of birth and death are known and positively acknowledged.”

It is exactly what the Economist article explains: “However, there are two objections to Mr Mandel’s argument. The first is that, although big companies often excel at incremental innovation (ie, adding more bells and whistles to existing products), they are less comfortable with disruptive innovation—the kind that changes the rules of the game. The big companies that the original Schumpeter celebrated often buried new ideas that threatened established business lines, as AT&T did with automatic dialling. Mr Mandel says it will take big companies to solve America’s most pressing problems in health care and education. But sometimes the best ideas start small, spread widely and then transform entire systems. Facebook began as a way for students at a single university to keep in touch. Now it has 800m users. The second is that what matters is not so much whether companies are big or small, but whether they grow. Progress tends to come from high-growth companies. The best ones can take a good idea and use it to transform themselves from embryos into giants in a few years, as Amazon and Google have. Such high-growth firms create a lot of jobs: in America just 1% of companies generate roughly 40% of new jobs. Let small firms grow big The key to promoting innovation (and productivity in general) lies in allowing vigorous new companies to grow big, and inefficient old ones to die. On that, Schumpeter never changed his mind.”

I say it again, there is a difference between start-up and SME. This does not fully answer Christensen argument about the Empire striking back. Well it means large companies have smart managers who learnt from the mistakes of the past. But he also implicitely say that 65% of disruptive innovations come from new comers, not incumbents. Gazelles still have a bright future.