Making Mountains out of Moonshots

In these 30 seconds, President John F. Kennedy visioned the original moonshot. Today it’s the job of the Director of Google X, (fortuitously named) Astro Teller, to keep developing these out-of-this-world ideas…and shoot down plenty of spaceships along the way.

 

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So, asks the Wall Street Journal, “How do [these] big ideas get turned into reality?” How does Connor come up with interesting blog topics, fortnight after fortnight?!

Well, Astro Teller and I have got three straightforward rules:

  • There has to be some huge problem with the world that we can name and say that we’re excited about going to tackle.

  • Then there has to be a radical proposed solution for solving that problem.

  • And there has to be some specific set of technologies which look really hard, that if we could get working, would enable that radical proposed solution.

Beyond that, one significant piece of advice that Teller shares with digital entrepreneurs is to “Fall in love with the problem…not the technology.” Too often, projects become derailed when a specific way of getting things done is unable to meet the original objective. For a team of young entrepreneurs and their tech startup, this can spell ruin – unless they stay focused on innovate ways to the problem they set out conquer.

 

Even just this week, Facebook execs speaking at a Wall Street Journal conference shared insight into the recent growing pains that Facebook has experienced as it attempts to cement itself as a media company rather than just a technology platform. Over the years Facebook has come to realize that if it hopes to survive then it must continually strive to address a larger need and not just serve as a platform for sharing users’ statuses and photos. As they’ve made this pivot, the technology and services that Facebook provides have grown significantly, in tandem with their user base.

This problem is prevalent enough in the tech community that it even gets played out in the hit HBO show, Silicon Valley.

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The scrappy startup team is constantly bombarded with technical or business challenges that strip them of all of their progress. But more often than not, their young founder Richard Hendriks manages to reset and helps steer them toward developing their video-compression service, Pied Piper.

 

When they started out, though, Facebook and Pied Piper were hardly the stuff-of-dreams that Astro Teller and his team are constantly developing. This team grapples with large questions: Can we build a wearable computer? (Google Glass.) How can we bring the internet to billions of people in rural parts of the world?(Project Loon.) How can we stop more than a million people from dying in traffic accidents each year?(Google’s Self-Driving Car.) Can we reduce environmental waste by reimagining the way we ship conduct international shipping?(SPOILER: for this last one they tried—and failed—to build a lighter than air floating cargo ship.)

What’s Teller’s secret to tackling some of the World’s largest and most complex problems? “Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. Get excited and cheer, ‘Hey! How are we going to kill our project today?’” By not being afraid to fail, you will begin by developing solutions to difficult challenges. Teller has found that these advances will still have tremendous impact, even if the project is unfeasible on the whole. And beyond that, you are spared countless amounts of time and money on the initial phases of a project that would’ve left you entirely empty handed. (I highly recommend his tremendous TED Talk on celebrating failure and the way it has helped Google develop incredible projects.)

 

 

Curiously enough, though, a prime opportunity for applying all of this advice—which Teller is harnessing to develop some of the most fascinating projects imaginable, from Google’s self-driving car to a WiFi network made of balloons—is in one of the most boring industries imaginable: insurance.

An article posted on Forbes this summer touted small business insurance as the “next frontier of digital disruption.” Ironically, it seems, the best thing to protect young, growing companies may be another young company. BCG and Morgan Stanley estimate that by 2020, Millennials and members of Gen-X will own over 60% of small businesses in the US. And today, these small businesses are already looking for simpler ways to get insured and understand their coverage. 38% of small businesses owners said they would already prefer to buy their insurance online if they were restarting their business right now.

The article shares a laundry list of challenges that large insurance companies will have to overcome if they hope to capitalize on this industry. It also notes that “Going digital may be expensive and painful at first, but in the long run, it will save time, cut costs and allow insurers to better tap the dynamic and growing opportunities.” I think Teller would agree with you and I in saying that these challenges would make an excellent place to start, and might just end up disrupting that entire industry.

 

So your parents may have taught you that it doesn’t pay to make a mountain out of a molehill. But, if you embrace moonshots and start with the toughest part of the problem, you might just wind up on the summit of a mountainous accomplishment.

6 comments

  1. emmaharney21 · ·

    This is a great post. I specifically loved your title, organizations and visuals. It was engaging and easy to read. I think your post does a great job highlighting the constant pressure that tech companies feel to be innovative, new, and revolutionary. Your post made me think about the role of business in society. Businesses are supposed to identify market opportunities and areas of our world where problems need solving. I loved how you specified that Google X becomes obsessed with the problem. I think this is essential to Googles success, their mission is to become obsessed with understanding where our world is failing, and offering a solution. I would love to know more about Astro Teller and how he decides what problems are worth solving. I found this interesting article about how he decides what problems are worth looking into http://www.wsj.com/articles/astro-teller-outlines-googles-moonshot-philosophy-1477880341 you should check it out. This post also reminds me of Tesla and Elon Musk. These tech innovators have the ability to set unbelievable goals and even potentially achieve them. I really enjoyed reading this!

  2. kdphilippi18 · ·

    Interesting post! You bring up a number of great insights that are applicable to all businesses and individuals. I thought your point about the constant need to evolve and solve a larger need was particularly important. This needs to be the main focus of all businesses (tech industry or not) in order for a business to remain relevant. The world is changing at an incredible pace so in order to succeed, businesses need to be always thinking about the next step or evolution of their business. Additionally, your point about the ability to be flexible and agile and not fall in love with a specific technology is just as essential. I would be curious to see if many of the great inventions or companies came out of the first idea or if it evolved and changed over time before it became successful.

  3. cmackeenbc · ·

    Cool post. I remember reading a few articles on Google X and their strategy when researching for my last blog post–it seems like a very demanding yet positive culture. I know one of the hardest things they deal with is scrapping and starting over, which can be so difficult emotionally for those attached to their work and of course, financially, for those constantly funding projects that may or may not pan out. I like your point that people need to be attached to solving the problem rather than the technology that solves it. It is interesting that that requires people to be attached to an “end” rather than the “means”, when we talk so often about trying to do the opposite in the business world (i.e. don’t be attached to profits, purse mission and strategy instead). Overall nice work!

  4. dabettervetter · ·

    I wonder how futuristic movies about space and technology have changed our perceptions and expectations of space travel today. What if people soon expecting Interstellar like space travel to millions of planets? Probably not, but I wonder how we can learn from JFk’s vision of space travel to get us to Mars. Great post and I see some of Portico woven in there with the reference to the ends and the means!

  5. mashamydear · ·

    It’s sad to know that NASA’s Space Shuttle Program has ended because it was such a high cap expenditure when their budget was cut! But yes, I agree and appreciate you speaking about the importance of failure in innovation and also how these companies are aiming to be something much larger than just platforms for posting photos, messages, etc. I think people and companies do get lost in the tech of it, making higher tech for the sake of having better and more efficient technology rather than addressing a worldwide problem. I don’t remember the name of the device exactly, but I remember there was some country that didn’t have access to specific medical equipment. However, they did have access to auto manufacturers, and innovators were able to improvise and create medical equipment using car parts. I believe thinking like that should be encouraged!

  6. Very interesting post! I have also read the Forbes article. The thing that socks me is that the biggest change that the insurance companies should do, in order to step in into the small business insurance is to use metadata analysis. This data could personalize the premiums in a very considerable way, reducing them and decreasing the risk . As the presentation we saw the other day, if you use normal data, you can reduce the chances of fraud considerably. It is true that the industry needs to simplify terms and reducing the complexity of their products ( I really don’t know what he means by that really) but in my opinion the development of the usage of big data and metadata are the key of the revolution in the insurance industry.

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