Innovation needs perspective not isolation

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I was honoured to be invited to Bahrain this week to give a talk at an event organised by Bahrain Development Bank’s Rowad Programme, a comprehensive platform providing multiple layers of support to Bahrain’s entrepreneurs and start-ups.

Rowad’s breadth and depth are far greater than anything else that I have seen in the region, and addresses multiple facets of the challenges faced by entrepreneurs and startups. The programme comes as close to being a super-contained entrepreneurial ecosystem as I have seen. If you are an entrepreneur I urge you to seriously consider their offerings. If you are an investor you might consider looking at the entrepreneurs and start-ups that Rowad is supporting as when entrepreneurs have that breadth and depth of support then they should have a greater probability of success.

The Rowad Talk, moderated by the programme’s co-founder Areije Al Shaker, was a dynamic event that featured some good discussions with the audience. One point in particular, about the necessity for entrepreneurs to seek external feedback, deserves elaborating upon.

A theme that emerged loud and clear from the talk and the discussion was that entrepreneur communities can easily become insular, with start-ups reinforcing each other’s beliefs and rarely venturing out of the microcosm they operate in to understand what is really happening in the outside world.

This process begins with incubators and accelerators, facilities which provide critical support to entrepreneurs and start-ups in their early years. But because such programmes usually house everyone under the same roof, these entrepreneurs and startups can end up spending an inordinate amount of time with their peers, at the expense of investing the right amount of time with potential clients, potential partners, vendors and suppliers, actual and potential employees, and so on.

Such insular behaviour is compounded by the many conferences and events around entrepreneurship and startups. Again, these are important initiatives, but if one is not careful one can end up interacting predominantly with others that share the same mindset, rather than those that can bring a fresh perspective.

It takes effort to break out of your familiar comfort zone. It takes even more effort, and quite a bit of courage, to establish new relationships, especially with those who are different. In turn, effectively interacting with people coming from a different place – and the different ideas they bring with them – requires an open mind and a willingness to explore new ideas, some of which might be in total opposition to your established beliefs. However, these ideas can have great value.

At this week’s event, one audience member told me that he had a start-up that was struggling, because it was in an overcrowded market, and that this was a problem that the government should do something about. His approach typifies the problem I’m talking about. The entrepreneur was facing market issues and was suggesting that the correct response was a policy response from government. I could just imagine him sitting with his friends and fellow entrepreneurs, all of whom care deeply for him and want him to feel better, and so the idea is born of the powerful government riding to the rescue.

I, on the other hand, had no emotional connection with him, and was able to give advice unbiased by friendship. I simply pointed out that the entrepreneur himself had demonstrated that his current approach was unsustainable due to the market he was operating in, and that he shouldn’t continue on the course he was on.

In the few minutes we talked at the event we had we came up with two alternatives. The first is one I’ve written about in detail before: instead of setting up his own company the entrepreneur could sell his concept to one of the established players in the market, with the idea of his building his concept from within one of these established players. If the market is truly overcrowded, then other participants should be eager for any edge. The second solution would be to find another product or service to develop in a less-crowded niche.

When developing a business, never underestimate the usefulness of an outside perspective.


This article was originally published in The National.