As we all know, some of the best ideas come when they are least expected. For me, the epiphany came just as I turned into my driveway; how fortunate that I was moving very slowly at that point, as it was a bobby dazzler of a thought.
Insight often comes through one of three routes: aggregation, extrapolation or conversation (for the record the last is often the most useful but the most risky, due to its anecdotal nature). Aggregation comes from quantitative research; extrapolation from analysing trends and, in the parlance, looking at where the hockey puck is headed.
In my experience, two kinds of extrapolation exist. The first is shorter-term, based on seemingly sudden changes in the business or demographic landscape. Right now, for example, everyone is going digital, mobile, social and so on. And the sharing economy is in full swing, based on the valuations of Uber, AirBnB and the like.
Such waves tend to overlap with, and overtake each other, each wave revealing new winners and sending others crashing into the rocks. Behind such shorter-term changes however, are relatively glacial forces of technology evolution, each continuing on its well-trodden path.
For example Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws, driving miniaturisation and the network effect, each of which has had such a global impact over the past few decades. While such principles may eventually reach their logical ends, they have a way to run before their impact recedes – the Internet of Things is the most recent consequence.
As they continue, it is they that create and destroy whole businesses. The sharing economy has emerged due to cloud-based information sharing capabilities, creating a cookie cutter of opportunities to link suppliers with consumers. The resulting businesses are symptoms of where technology is at today.
But technology continues, regardless, becoming easier and more open. Inevitably, the ability to link trusted parties will commoditise, becoming a feature of the platforms upon which we increasingly depend. “Sharing” is something we will just do, as it becomes as straightforward to borrow a book or a shovel as to offer a lift.
Any new technology startup has an opportunity to benefit from a massive pool of potential difference as it short circuits traditional business models — simply put, making things cheaper for people while operating at lower cost than traditional businesses. Once such opportunities are plugged however, they become part of the landscape.
This means, however successful a young company might be (I’m looking at you, Uber) it has limited time with which to establish itself. This means either becoming a new platform (move over, Amazon, Google and Facebook) or being subsumed, potentially at massive profit to the original founders — in which case, job done.
But it would be a mistake to see any such business as the shape of things to come. I have seen the future and it is us, going about out daily lives with the tools we need to do so. Sure, we will be sharing and serving each others’ needs. But we will not need multiple third parties to do so, however successful they may appear in the short term.