Wayne Gretsky is considered my many, including me, to be the greatest hockey player of all time. (Boston hockey fans will scream, “No, it’s Bobby Orr!”)
Yet Gretsky is just six feet tall and played at about 170 pounds – no one would say he had the hardest shot in hockey, nor was he the fastest skater.
When asked by a journalist what contributed to his success, Gretsky responded, “I skate to where the puck is going to be not, to where it is.”
Gretsky’s ability to anticipate better than anyone who ever played the game enabled him to outplay bigger, faster, stronger players.
In the same way, startups can defeat larger, better resourced incumbent companies, by skating to where their industry’s puck is going – the incumbents tend to focus on where the puck is. Anticipating where markets are going is the key for a startup. Timing is of the essence.Too soon and infrastructure and enabling technologies may not get be sufficiently mature (We developed a mobile shopping app in 2000, called iShop. We were waaaaaay to soon – no smartphones, W-Fi was hardly pervasive, etc.) or too late (social networks like Path just couldn’t compete with Facebook).
But how do you know where the puck is going? You can’t ask the customer. As Henry Ford said, “If I asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”
Steve Jobs said “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
That’s why I believe every great startup begins with a fundamentally new insight that drives the company. Much as I hated taxis – in Boston they are dirty, expensive, hard to find, the drivers often don’t know the city, etc. – it never occurred to me there was an alternative. But the founders of Uber had the insight that turned the taxi industry upside down.
So if you have an idea, if you thinking of starting a company, ask yourself: what insight do you have that other miss? What makes you think the puck is going there?