Some consultants and investors make me grumpy. In my line of work I speak with junior members of giant consulting firms and newly minted researchers within the back offices of VCs. When I talk to these young folk, I cringe in the face of ignorance about aging, never mind about the markets they are studying. Recently one of these investors opined this gem: "I like to invest in areas where there is demonstrated demand." Let’s mull that over, I thought. But don’t you own a number of technologies that a few years ago had zero customer demand?” Well, yes, that’s true, he admitted and we silently contemplated tablets and smart phones, portable GPS devices, and iPods, where consumers gravitated toward an invention they never knew they needed. Did anyone actually demand telepresence, location-based restaurant meet-ups, Skype video conferences, smart bandages or interactive TV? For that matter, in the 1980’s did anyone conceive of an assisted living industry, telehealth nurses, or self-checkout in a store?
The technology industry maxim is 'if we build it, they will come.' And there are the thoughtful and strategic investors who see a customer where none yet exist. It’s easy to joke about engineering-driven businesses, propeller-head inventors, and products in search of a market. We can all recite a litany of business failures, stores that evaporated, services and products whose websites simply disappeared. The Darwinian world of business mandates that 90% of all startups eventually fail. And although the number one reason startups fail is poor execution, the number two reason is targeting a market that doesn’t exist. Sometimes markets prove not to exist on their own, but the intellectual property can be folded in as a feature within broader solutions – in the aging in place tech industry, I’ve often thought that fall detection may be an example of a feature, not a solution.
Hats off to the investors who see opportunity in advance of demand. Innovation is nothing without inventors, and inventors cannot succeed without investors. How fortunate we are that investors have faith in inventors who show them a prototype, a mockup of an idea or storyboard for a website. Imagine the imagination to see the possibilities at the first glimpse of WebMD, Amazon, or a peek at Marty Cooper’s clunky portable phone? Ironically, not only are visionary investors required to scale unproven ideas up into sustainable businesses, but investors help propel acquisitions of the small to enable the promising to grow, prosper, and cannibalize the markets around them. Those of you slouching around the nether reaches of the tech industry know who these heroes of optimism are, the angels, friends and family, private wealthy backers, and early stage venture capital firms. Emerging industries to help boomers and seniors, chronic disease sufferers, nursing home residents, home security and home owners, we silently salute you who invest in advance of obvious consumer demand, because without you, consumers would not know of unmet needs, unsolved dilemmas, and silent but enormous opportunity.