One of the questions that I find consistently fascinating and informative is “How do entrepreneurs find world-changing insights?” For those with active, searching minds, inspiration can be found in many places, but the insights that have shaped product development and consumer behavior over the last several decades often came from where we might least expect them. By studying innovative minds and their sometimes surprising influences, we can learn a lot about how to create vital, transformative products ourselves.
The Future is Already Here
Acclaimed science-fiction author William Gibson once said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” The author of many prescient works such as 1984’s Neuromancer, Gibson has a gift not just for imagination but for seeing the undercurrents of human progress and extrapolating them to create a compelling vision of what the future might hold. To learn more about Gibson and his thought process, check out this recent interview in Business Insider.
The future doesn’t appear out of thin air, we build it ourselves based on the needs of the present. I believe this is what Gibson means when he states that “the future is already here.” True innovators are those among us who are able to catch a glimpse of that future, develop it, and then distribute it to the masses. They find the seeds of what the future will become in the successes and failures that surround them now.
Steve Jobs and the Future of Music Distribution
One of the greatest examples of this comes from the iconic innovator himself, Steve Jobs, and the development of iTunes, the platform that disrupted decades of stagnation in the way we buy and enjoy music. Walter Isaacson explores this process in chapters 30 and 31 of his bestselling 2011 biography, Steve Jobs, giving us insight into Jobs’ vision for a new paradigm in music distribution.
In the very early years of the 21st Century, widespread internet access was changing the way consumers purchased music. No longer content to drive to Best Buy or Barnes & Noble to purchase albums on CD, many (especially young people) started downloading MP3s online. Peer-to-peer music “sharing” sites such as Napster sprung up to cater to this need, creating a major problem for record labels: customers were downloading single tracks for free instead of buying albums in stores.
While the record industry was busy struggling to stem the tide of free music (by initiating legal action against websites and developing digital rights management techniques to “lock down” files), Steve Jobs glimpsed the future of music distribution. As Napster’s success clearly demonstrated, customers wanted to buy music digitally, they wanted access to a larger selection of options, and they wanted the freedom to purchase individual tracks. Instead of trying to solve the problem that was upending an industry, he turned the problem into the new solution: iTunes.
Seeing Beyond Problems and Solutions
Jobs’ innovative genius in this case was the ability to see beyond the problem/solution dichotomy. Many entrepreneurs have had great success because they have identified a problem and built a solution, but fewer have been able to embrace the uncertainty of allowing the problem to become a part of that solution (Casper Mattresses, as I explored recently, achieved this as well).
In the “problem” for the music industry, Jobs observed a market longing to be freed from convention. Instead of pioneering a “solution” such as digital rights management or digital watermarks, he embraced the problem and built a platform that ultimately gave both consumers and suppliers what they needed to move into the future of music distribution. Needless to say, iTunes was wildly successful for well over a decade and remains so today, despite consumer’s recent shift towards streaming music instead of purchasing it.
Glimpsing the Future
I see William Gibson’s statement that “The future is already here – it just hasn’t been evenly distributed.” as a rallying cry for today’s entrepreneurs and innovators. If, like Steve Jobs and many others before, we can catch those glimpses of what the future holds, we create an opportunity to develop and distribute that future today.
I’ll continue exploring the inspiration behind several other successful innovations on this blog, so stay tuned for more. In the meantime, look around and ask yourself “Where is the future shining through?”