Traditionally, the largest and most successful corporations were also the largest employers. Manufacturing and retail businesses required factories, warehouses, logistics and plenty of manpower, all working in harmony to deliver their product or service. Building this capability took years, requiring significant capital investments. Thus, competitors were few and far between, and disruption was painfully slow to make a dent on existing hierarchies.
But with the rise of technology, the model of success has gradually evolved, with businesses requiring fewer and fewer resources and employees to make an impact. Whatsapp is the perfect example; already worth $19bn with only 55 employees. And as we enter the next wave of tech innovation, we’ll increasingly see power transfer away from traditional ‘corporations’ and fall into the hands of smaller groups of highly skilled and hyper-talented individuals.
More, but increasingly complex opportunities
There has never been a more exciting time to be an entrepreneur, with emerging technologies bringing an unprecedented number of opportunities for innovation across platforms and software, with minimal physical resources and infrastructure required. We’re only now beginning to understand the potential of tools such as AI, machine learning, AR, VR, and the Internet of Things, and how they can be combined to create breakthroughs across a whole range of industries and problems.
Yet, identifying and then maximizing these complex and increasingly technical opportunities requires equally specialist knowledge and skills, along with the ability to respond rapidly to new innovations and competition. Understanding and manipulating the most cutting-edge tools requires the best brains, not to mention the drive, resilience and vision to identify the ideas with the most potential. The barriers to entry are rising, placing the power in the hands of those highly capable individuals, who are no longer reliant on building large organizations or physical assets to realize their ambitions.
Size doesn’t equal power
Corporations have always struggled to innovate, lacking the natural agility and flexibility of smaller organizations. However, as we enter this new age of innovation, it is becoming even tougher for the incumbents to keep up with the pace of change and increasing complexity, even with all their manpower and their abundance of cash lying dormant on the balance sheet.
What these big businesses are lacking is the ability to harness the power of the most talented individuals, by providing an environment where they can thrive. Radical change needs mavericks and risk takers who in turn need the freedom and ability to innovate; not be put in a straight-jacket and told to behave and operate according to corporate rules. The most extreme innovators don’t fit into old-fashioned, archaic organizational structures, which means it’s very difficult for big businesses to attract, integrate and retain these individuals.
Investing in these most cutting-edge technologies is also extremely risky, and corporations are too afraid of making mistakes and too busy covering their backs to take a serious punt on ideas that might not build any value. Innovation requires agility and radical thinking, which is impossible in an environment that is paralyzed by politics, an aversion to change and worries of cannibalising its existing revenue streams and product lines. Their only real hopes are spin-offs, joint ventures and acquisitions of the most talented individuals – not in-house innovation.
Supporting the individual
Those who succeed in the next wave of innovation will be those individuals and small teams with the technical skills and a ‘knack’ for understanding the end vision, along with the freedom and agility to explore the unknown. But to have this freedom, these individuals must be adequately supported with resources, networks and capital to take the necessary risks and follow their instincts.