Archive for entrepreneurs

Jun
26

Innovation Fatigue in Portugal: The Burden of Eurozone Bureaucrats

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Dave Galland’s recent column at Casey Research discusses the malaise that has swept Portugal, resulting in utter discouragement across the rising generation. In spite of the beauty and natural richness of Portugal, the entrepreneurs and innovators of the future tend to be looking to leave as quickly as possible. What has gone so wrong? Casey suggests that the innovation fatigue factor of stifling Eurozone bureaucracy and oppressive regulations have gutted Portugal’s spirit.

‘ll give you a hint by relating that as a condition for inclusion in the Eurozone, functionaries in the European Commission based in Brussels required the Portuguese to retire and destroy a large percentage of their fishing fleet. As I understand it, the commissioners felt that the size of the Portuguese fleet coupled with the sea-faring nation’s long history in commercial fishing gave it an unfair advantage over other nations in the Eurozone. They also helped rationalize the demand to burn the boats by saying that the Portuguese fishermen were putting the ecosystem of the Atlantic Ocean at risk.

The result of forcing the Portuguese to burn these tools for capital creation is that since joining the Eurozone in 1986, Portugal’s fish harvest has effectively been cut in half. I was told that the country is reduced to buying many of the sardines that find favor in the local cuisine from the Spanish fleet.

The Euro-meddling doesn’t stop with fish. The Portuguese are mandated to trash a large amount of their annual orange production lest they exceed the quotas set in Brussels. Apparently the Spanish, ever attuned to capitalize on Portugal’s mandated misfortunes, buy the unsellable excess oranges and use them to make marmalade… which they then sell back to the Portuguese.

Of course, actions have consequences. One of them has been that Portugal has run a trade deficit for about twenty years now – in other words, starting soon after joining the EU in 1986.

And even though the country (and the continent) is tight in the grips of the most dire crisis in living memory, the EU commissars are still at it. In fact, as I write, Portugal is being forced by the European Commission to kill a large percentage of its chicken population, with the slaughter to be completed over the next month. This by virtue of the ironically named EU Welfare of Laying Hens Directive, forbidding the continued use of conventional egg-laying cages.

Once the chickens are destroyed, and provided the Portuguese egg farmers can ever find the capital needed to rebuild, they will have to build to the specifications of the EC Directive that requires that all laying hens must be kept in “enriched cages” providing each hen with at least 0.8 square feet of cage area, a nest-box, litter, perches and claw-shortening devices, allowing the hens to satisfy their biological and behavioral needs.

Tragically, as Europe stumbles in a massive economic crisis, the bureaucrats aren’t backing off, but increasing the burdens on the backs of the people and making it harder than ever for business to grow and innovation to thrive. This is sadly typical of minds disconnected from reality and deaf to the voice of innovators, a voice that will become largely silent if the burdens on their backs aren’t eased.

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Mar
03

Eaten Alive By Regulation: Innovation Fatigue and Fish Therapy

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“This is something that is dangerous and clearly unsanitary,” warned New York senator Jeffrey Klein in October 2009. “Once we shed light on this dirty little process, more people will avoid it and we can ban it.” The terrifying menace that so worried the good state senator and led him to introduce legislation to ban it is a natural therapy that has been used successfully for 400 years to treat the skin of feet. 400 years of successful, healthy treatments in the form of fish pedicures. In the US, though, the process is very foreign and has a certain squirm factor to it. Small fish that nibble at dead skin are a relatively common treatment offered in several parts of Asia, but in the West, worried officials have been applying or creating various regulations to fight against the invasion of new options for beauty care, one of many highly regulated business areas where innovation fatigue often comes from the burdensome and sometimes unpredictable applications of regulation.

In the US, approximately 15 states have banned fish pedicures. Some regulators say that they require tools used for pedicures to be completely sterilized after each treatment, which would mean, of course, frying the little critters after they’ve nibbled on your feet. An expensive proposition for business owners. Several people wishing to bring this new service to their community invested heavily in the systems needed for safe, clean tanks and fish, only to have new regulations added that would single out their business and ban it.

Can’t people make their own decisions about where they stick their feet, or how they deal with their bunions? If someone wants to use a natural method that has 400 years of successful history, do we really have to tell them that they aren’t allowed to for their own good? Sure, there are risks, perhaps similar to the risk of putting one’s feet into the water at a beach or swimming pool. But regulators protecting the public from themselves with unnecessary layers of regulation and bureaucracy represent one of the most difficult and painful forms of innovation fatigue. Someday we need to allow business and innovation to flourish and just get out of the way.

Yes, I recently tried fish therapy and found it to be remarkably refreshing and effective. The fish–I think these were Chinese chin chin fish, though Middle Eastern doctor fish are most commonly used–just nibble at dead skin and leave the healthy live skin alone, so they don’t cause bleeding or irritation. It’s hard to see how this could be any more dangerous or terrifying that placing one’s foot in a lake, a stream, or swimming pool, with the exception that there are 100% organic fish like to tickle your feet. I hope to try this again.

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Maybe China is just too far from the smug innovation circles of the West. Maybe language and cultural barriers make the events unfolding in China too inaccessible to Western media. Maybe decades of concern about IP theft from Chinese companies has closed the eyes of the West to present realities. Whatever the reason, the West today seems generally blind to the innovation powerhouse that China is becoming. Witness, for example, the highly publicized list from Reuters-Thompson of the top 100 global innovators, based on “patent activity.” With China having become one of the world’s true hotbeds of patent activity, not to mention economic impact with innovation in many fields, one might expect Chinese institutions to be well represented on the list. Incredibly, the list has ZERO Chinese entities on. None from Mainland China, none from Taiwan, and none from anywhere else in Asia except for a heavy dose of Japanese companies (27) and 4 from South Korea. Tiny Switzerland makes the list 3 times, and its minute neighbor, Liechtenstein, makes the list with Hilti Corporation. But zero from China and Taiwan? The list is related to “patent activity,” but its compilers wisely recognize that patent volume alone is a poor metric for innovation. Instead, they have created other metrics based on patent data:

The Thomson Reuters 2011 Top 100 Global Innovators are companies that invent on a significant scale; are working on developments which are acknowledged as innovative by patent offices across the world, and by their peers; and, whose inventions are so important that they seek global protection for them.

Sounds fair. So sure, the manufacturing and supply chain innovation that has been a big part of China’s economic rise are not expected to make a showing on this list. That kind of innovation doesn’t show up in terms of granted US and European patents. And the tendency for many Chinese companies to mostly file patents in China doesn’t help them with the methodology Thompson Reuters has, which looks for measures of international impact and international patents. But did they miss all the international activity of some Chinese companies? For example, a couple of days before this list of innovators came out, I posted this on LinkedIn and Twitter (@jefflindsay):

Two Chinese companies, ZTE and Huawei Tech., are among the top 5 international (PCT) patent applicants. Lots of IP here! https://is.gd/t2tUb4

OK, so Thompson Reuters doesn’t follow me, but these companies should have shown up strongly in their patent searches. These are innovative companies with products marketed internationally, having strong economic impact, and loads of patents. Being in the top 5 for international filings wasn’t good enough to even place in the top 100 for Thompson Reuters. Huh? OK, it turns out the ZTE’s surge in patent filings is recent and their numbers prior to 2010 were probably too low to make the cut for this study–that’s fair. But Huawei had 445 US patents from 2005 to 2010, a number in greater than some other companies on the list. For 2011, by the way, Huawei isn’t just in the top 5 so far–they are Number One, the world’s leader in international patent filings (see the Nov. 2011 article in the Vancouver Sun). Think they’ll be on the next list of leaders in patent activity Thompson Reuters publishes? Perhaps, who knows?

How about the Liechtenstein firm that’s in the Top 100, Hilti AG. Heard of them? They have good products for the construction and building maintenance industries such as hammer drills and other tools. They have 20,000 employees, including 2,500 in the US, and market products and file patents internationally. For the 2005-2010 time frame of the Thompson Reuters study, Hilti had 327 patents. Not bad. Well below Huawei’s score, but still respectable.

Now let’s consider a little company that was not on the list: Foxconn. Heard of them? They have over 1 million employees and are the world’s largest producer of electronic components, including circuit boards. They are the ones who actually make Apple’s products such as the iPhone and iPad. This Taiwanese/Chinese firm (China considers Taiwan to be part of China, and much of Foxconn’s work is in China) is arguably the real powerhouse behind the success of Apple and several other companies on the Thompson Reuters list. Foxconn builds Apple’s products, and not just as a mindless executor, but as an innovative partner.

Ah, but what about real technological innovation expressed in patents? Surely Foxconn is just about cheap labor and low cost manufacturing, right? A quick search of Foxconn patents granted in the US from 2005 to 2010 shows they have over 700 patents. Some are design patents, but the vast majority are technological. Foxconn apparently is conducting serious R&D and spending millions on patents to find new ways to make leading edge high-tech products better, safer, faster, and cooler (both in terms of heat management and the “wow” factor). I have the privilege of interacting with some Foxconn people and from what I’ve seen and heard I can say that they have a world-class IP program to support innovation, and I feel that they are way ahead of many Western companies in these areas. Foxconn innovation and Foxconn IP may be the real key to Apple’s success. Foxconn innovation is abundantly expressed in patents, not just trade secrets and know how, with an estate twice as big as Hilti’s over 2005-2010 and an economic impact on the global market far in excess of Hilti. But Foxconn doesn’t make the list. How do none of these Chinese companies break into Thompson Reuters’ Top 100? Did they miss the 2010 story, “China Poised to Become Global Innovation Leader,” based on patent activity? That must be from another source they don’t follow.

Nov. 24, 2011 Update: My search on Foxconn patents needs to be updated. Yes, Foxconn has an impressive 700+ US patents for the 2005-2010 period, more than some companies in the TR list. But my search was deficient, failing to consider that many Foxconn patents might have been filed under the real name of the company that owns Foxconn, Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. So I expanded my search term to be “Hon Hai Precision” or Foxconn. Now, instead of 700 patents, we’re looking at a massive estate of 5,872 US patents (perhaps a couple dozen more when typographical errors are considered). This estate now dwarfs MOST of the companies on the list such as Brother Industries (2873, searching for Brother Ind* or Brother Kogyo), BASF (2771, searching for BASF or Bayerische Akt*) Goodyear (1152), ABB (948), Airbus (926), Avaya (<600), Arkema (205), Cheil (116), etc. Oh, and what about innovation giant Apple Compute? A search for simply “Apple” (which might include some smaller companies unrelated to Apple Computer) returns 1809 issued US patents from 2005 to 2010, less than 1/3 of the US patent activity of the invisible innovator that makes Apple what it is.

Let’s return to Huawei for a moment. There should be little doubt about the innovation prowess of Huawei, even though they tend to be far more secretive and do much less P.R. than Apple. But this telecom company is big (with over 100,000 employees, they connect 1/3 of the world’s cell phones) and highly innovative. Read, for example, BBC’s story, “Innovation in China: Huawei – the secretive tech giant.” Maybe the Thompson Reuters methodology docks them for being on the young side. Over half of their 445 US patents from 2005 to 2010 came in 2010–but they still clearly outpace Hilti and others over the 5-year span of the study. So what gives? I suspect that the youthfulness of the estate means there has been less time for others to cite Huawei patents, and that may be part of the problem since patent citations are part of the methodology. But to miss Huawei completely?

Thompson Reuters will surely argue that their methodology was developed and implemented fairly, even blindly (a fair term), but someone should have immediately seen that something was wrong if top international filers and innovators like Huawei, and Foxconn didn’t make the list. But when it comes to innovation, innovation in China tends to be largely invisible to Americans, who are stuck in the old paradigm of US being the innovation leader and China just being a copier. That kind of blindness will catch the West by surprise in the very near future when US companies find themselves facing numerous patent barriers from the Chinese companies that will own much of the most valuable IP. China is creating and will create much of the most important global innovation for the future. Innovation needs to ramp up in the West in order to not be left completely behind.

Dec. 8 Update: Chinese computer giant Lenovo, the world’s 2nd largest producers of personal computers, may also deserve to be on the list.

Related stories:

Oct
03

Malinvestment: Crushing Innovation Where It’s Needed Most

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One of the biggest problems from economies directed by bureaucrats rather than a free market is that the bureaucrats don’t just spend money on foolish areas that don’t make sense economically, but their diversion of funds causes money to dry up where it is needed. Thus the housing bubble, created by government intervention and waste, resulted in billions of dollars being lost for unnecessary home building when it could have been helping small business grow. When government creates artificial markets and bubbles that are sure to pop, there is a lot of hidden carnage in addition to the obvious disasters one sees down the road. A top victim of bureaucratic excess and meddling in the economy is innovation.

Right now, for example, the government continues to direct billions into solar energy in the name of advancing innovation, while simultaneously increasing the cost of patent protection for all innovators by about 15% due to the harmful new patent legislation that was just signed into law. Government interventions in the field of energy are often likewise tailored to increase the cost of energy to consumers in order to achieve political objectives that make little economic sense. We have not yet learned from the Solyndra scandal but continue to misdirect billions into areas with simply no hope of being economically competitive. The problem, again, is not just that those projects will fail. The deeper problem is that the innovators who really could make a difference are less likely to gain access to capital and less likely to be noticed in the market because of the artificial barriers they will face. The market is being skewed and real innovation by real entrepreneurs, the kind of innovation that can succeed and make economic sense, is likely to suffer as a result.

One of the mysteries of the current economy is why so little capital is going into business investment now in spite of all the billions being dumped into the economy. Part of the problem is that the artificially low interest rates being set by the Fed create an easy, low-risk way for banks to make money at our expense. They can borrow money from the government for almost free and then simply buy treasuries to collect the interest. When a risk-free cash cow is created this way, why should they want to make money the risky, market-based way by investing in businesses that can fail? But this cash cow distorts the economy and makes innovation more difficult in the long run. Innovation fatigue.

Want less innovation fatigue? Let’s not pretend that bureaucrats in DC know which innovations deserve billions of dollars. Let the market decide. And ditto for interest rates. Get the Fed out of that equation and let the market set the cost of money.

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Jun
02

“How Much Do You Spend on Printing?” The Mystery Question Behind the Business Model Innovation of E-Lynxx

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Ask the leaders of a business how much they spend on printing. The response can be interesting, even hilarious. It’s an expense that is easily overlooked yet can be substantial. Few companies know if they are being overbilled. Decisions may be handled by cloudy processes where influences other than quality and value sometimes hold sway. Indeed, the fundamentals of the procurement process in many companies leave inefficiency if not outright abuse. The problem isn’t just in printing, either. Many parts and services handled through standard procurement systems can result in excessive costs. Enter an interesting business model innovation: E-Lynxx. For added spice, we’re talking patented business model innovation. Yes, E-Lynxx has a business model enhanced with the aura of two US patents.

William Gindlesperger is the founder and CEO of E-Lynxx. My source tells me he has over 25 years of experience in the printing industry, where found that the decision making process was antiquated and left companies vulnerable in many ways. He pursued business model innovation to come up with a system that could make the process transparent and more efficient. Under his business model, be provides software and services up front at not cost, getting paid only when the client saves real money from his work. Then he gets a cut of the savings. Low risk.

When a company turns to E-Lynxx, they receive software and training in how to use E-Lynxx’s open auction system. Bids are offered to a large array of qualified vendors who then bid on the deal. The vendors can see the competitive bids and so can the client. This transparency helps bring costs down substantially, often reducing print costs by 25-50%. E-Lynxx gets part of the savings. What’s not to like? Well, those who aren’t getting as much gravy might not like it, but if it’s your business, these kind of cost savings should be welcome news.

Here’s claim 1 of E-Lynxx’s first patent, 6,397,197, assigned to the CEO and founder himself:

1. A method for competitive bidding by print information product vendors comprising steps of: inputting a plurality of vendor records into a storage of a general purpose computer, each of said vendor records having a data field identifying a print information product vendor and a buyer identification data field identifying a buyer that said vendor is associated with, at least one of said vendor records having a vendor capability data representing a set of vendor manufacturing capabilities of the vendor identified by said record; inputting a buyer’s invitation-for-bid data into said general purpose computer, said buyer’s invitation-for-bid data having a buyer identification data, and having an invitation for bid on a print information product job from said buyer; calculating a vendor requirement data from said buyer’s invitation-for-bid data, said vendor requirement data representing a set of vendor manufacturing capabilities required for performing said print information product job; comparing said vendor requirement data to a plurality of said vendor records having a buyer identification data field identifying the buyer from which said buyer’s invitation-for-bid data was received; identifying at least one vendor record as qualified, based on said comparing; transmitting a vendor’s invitation-for-bid data based on said buyer’s invitation-for-bid data to each vendor identified by said at least one vendor record; inputting into said general purpose computer a plurality of bid data, each from one of said vendors to which said vendor’s invitation-for-bid data was transmitted, each of said bid data representing a bid price; identifying a bid data from said received bid data having the lowest represented bid price; outputting a selected vendor data representing the identity of the vendor corresponding to the bid data identified by said identifying step; and transmitting an order to the vendor represented by said selected vendor data.

Here’s claim 1 of their second patent, US 7,451,106:

1. A method for facilitating a buyer’s selection of a vendor via automated comparison of records and bidding by vendors of customized goods or services via a computer operated system, comprising steps of: prior to receiving job data from a buyer pertaining to a job for which the buyer seeks a vendor, receiving electronic communications from a plurality of vendors, the electronic communications being used in establishing a plurality of vendor records which are stored in an electronic memory associated with the computer system, the vendor records corresponding to each of a plurality of vendors and having vendor capability data identifying a plurality of capabilities for said vendor to provide a customized good or service; each buyer using the system generating an electronic communication providing information identifying a plurality of vendors for inclusion in a pool of vendors associated with said buyer to potentially receive a job solicitation, wherein the system stores electronic data sufficient to identify every vendor pool and its association with a corresponding buyer based upon the buyer transmitted vendor pool identification information which occurs prior to analysis of job data pertaining to a job for which bids are sought by or on behalf of the buyer; receiving an electronic communication defining a job data from or on behalf of at least one buyer, after said buyer’s vendor pool is determined, said job data including a job descriptor data which specifies a plurality of characteristics of said customized good or service for which said buyer wishes a bid; automatically comparing via a computer processor said vendor records to said job data, wherein said comparing includes comparing said plurality of characteristics for said customized good or service with corresponding plural capabilities for vendors from the pool of vendors associated with said buyer; automatically identifying via a computer processor at least one subset from the buyer’s associated pool of vendors as qualified for receiving the solicitation, based on said comparison; thereafter transmitting the solicitation to only selected members from the identified subset of the buyer’s associated pool of vendors; receiving bid response data from at least one of said vendors which received said solicitation, said bid response data identifying each of the vendors from which it was received and a bid price; and outputting to said buyer an electronic communication providing at least one of said bid response data.

And here’s claim 1 of 7,788,143:

1. A method for facilitating a buyer’s selection of a vendor via automated comparison of records and bidding by vendors for customized goods or services via a computer operated system, comprising the steps of: prior to processing job data from a buyer pertaining to a job for which the buyer seeks a vendor, receiving and processing electronic communications from a plurality of vendors, the electronic communications being used in establishing a plurality of vendor records which are stored in an electronic memory associated with the computer system, the vendor records corresponding to each of a plurality of vendors and having vendor capability data identifying a plurality of capabilities for said vendor to provide a customized good or service; receiving an electronic communication from or on behalf of any buyer using the system which provides information identifying a plurality of vendors for inclusion in a pool of vendors associated with the buyer to potentially receive a job solicitation, and storing electronic data sufficient to identify every vendor pool and its association with a corresponding buyer based upon the received electronic communications from the buyers providing vendor pool identification information, the vendor pool identification information being processed prior to analysis of job data pertaining to a job for which bids are sought by or on behalf of the buyer; receiving an electronic communication defining a job data from or on behalf of at least one buyer after the buyer’s vendor pool is determined, the job data including a job descriptor data which specifies a plurality of characteristics of said customized good or service for which the buyer wishes a bid; automatically comparing via a computer processor said vendor records to said job data, wherein said comparing includes comparing said plurality of characteristics for said customized good or service with corresponding plural capabilities for vendors from the vendor pool of vendors associated with the buyer; automatically identifying via a computer processor at least one subset from the buyer’s associated pool of vendors as qualified for receiving the solicitation, based on said comparison; thereafter transmitting the solicitation to only selected members from the identified subset of the buyer’s associated pool of vendors; receiving bid response data from at least one of said vendors which received said solicitation, said bid response data identifying a bid price for the corresponding vendor; and outputting to said buyer an electronic communication providing at least one of said bid response data.

Another patent is still pending.

Business method patents are still alive and can play important roles in some companies. Whether they are needed or not for this company, I like the innovative approach that E-Lynxx is taking to bring the procurement process into the light where more efficient transactions can occur with large costs savings.

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Apr
03

Recycling Carpet: A University Invention Becomes a Green Business

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Renewlon®: Recycled Carpet

Renewlon®: Recycled Carpet

Did you know that carpets can be recycled? The typical carpet has nylon fibers and a polypropylene backing. Thanks to Dr. Chris Roberts in the Chemical Engineering Department at Auburn University, there is now a clear, simple, practical way to extract pure nylon powder from used carpet. The remaining polypropylene can be used as well. The technology developed by Dr. Roberts was patented, and the patent estate became the basis for a start-up company, Modular Carpet Recycling (MCR). The elegant process is described in U.S. Patent No. 5,994,417, “Process for recovering polymers from commingled materials,” issued to Christopher B. Roberts and Aron T. Griffith, Nov. 30, 1999.

Formic acid, the compound that provides the sting of ants and stinging nettle, is used to dissolve the nylon. The solution is then injected into a chamber with supercritical carbon dioxide. Formic acid remains soluble in the carbon dioxide but the nylon precipitates out, forming a fine powder. The pressure of the carbon dioxide can then be lowered to take it below the supercritical state which causes the formic acid to separate from the carbon dioxide. Both materials can then be used again. Simple, clean, efficient.

Another group recognized the value of what Dr. Roberts had created and worked with him to commercialize the technology, creating additional intellectual property in the way to bring the technology to an industrial scale.

The polypropylene backing of the carpet, after the nylon has been dissolved away, is also recycled. It can be used to make laminated board materials, for example.

As with most inventions, there is a need for others to contribute further advances to bring the invention forward to the point where it becomes commercial and has impact on society–in other words, to turn the invention into an innovation. Partnerships between industry and universities are increasingly important in solving real world problems in ways that change society (and make real money). And once again, having a patent made the partnership work. Without it, there would have been no motivation to work with the university and less incentive to take on the risk of commercializing an unprotected technology. It’s very basic, but worth repeating: patents can help create partnership opportunities. Patents can make it more likely for research to result in commercially important innovation, not less likely.

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Jan
31

The Long Journey of Discovery and Innovation: Lessons from Columbus

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columbusEvery October, the United States celebrates Columbus Day (well, maybe “celebrate” in the sense of “ignore”). Though now a controversial figure, the journey of Columbus has much in common with the journey of many innovators. It began with a vision, a dream that he could sail west and reach India to change the world of international trade. Like many inventors and entrepreneurs, his initial dream was wrong, but it did lead him in the right direction for one of the most important discoveries in our history. What many people don’t realize is how long it took him to turn his vision into reality. In 1484, after extensive study and development of his vision, he was determined to sail west and had (incorrect) calculations to back up his plan. But he needed funding for the project. He would spend nearly 8 years pitching his proposal to one European court after another, encountering delays and bureaucrats who slowly evaluated and then repeatedly rejected his proposal.

It’s not clear what kept him going and how he provided for himself during this time, but he persisted. Everything seemed to stand in his way, though. After having pursued all options and having received an absolute and final rejection from the Court of Spain, he was heading away to give France a try again, when he was called back and told that Queen Isabella of Spain, for reasons not known, had decided to support his proposal after all. A lucky break from a powerful ally–the kind of luck that often only comes through years of hard work and persistent evangelizing. The rest of the story, including many risks to be faced and conquered, is well known. Columbus would discover the New World and dramatically change the world.

As an entrepreneur, your initial vision is almost certainly wrong. There may be entire continents between your neatly drafted business plan and your intended destination, but the journey of discovery must begin. You will need funding and perhaps years of persistence. Endurance and vision is needed to get through the early years. Hopefully, you will find success–and may it be success free of controversy.

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Our Mission

InnovationFatigue.com is the official blog for the new book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Here we provide supplementary innovation, news, tips, updates, and, when needed, a correction or two, to keep those who are using the big on the inside edge for innovation success.