Faster, cheaper, disruptive ~ by Thomas Zurbuchen

This is the speech I was giving as part of the 1000 pitches awards ceremony. A record number of over 4500 pitches were contributed by University of Michigan students, making this the largest annual idea competition on any campus world-wide!

Congratulations to all of the finalists and all the winners. For many of you, this is your first time participating. I hope this is the beginning of a lifetime of entrepreneurship. Some of you will start companies; some of you will find ways to solve challenges on this campus, in this state, and worldwide.

We need those of you who won’t just settle for “getting a job,” but ones that make jobs! But, it is critical to recognize that entrepreneurial skillsets and entrepreneurial thinking are a lot broader than startup companies. I was reminded of that again while I prepared my testimony that I gave in DC last week. I will be talking to the house science committee about the future of NASA.

NASA is a prime example of an organization that was started with a sense of innovation and entrepreneurial mindset. A young workforce of innovators and some of the best technical talent in the world came together to make the impossible happen – “to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth.”

The only sad part of this story is that most of you have never seen that. I was just about 1 year old when history was made and I have no recollection about this event either. In fact, we celebrated an anniversary this week – it has been 40 years that the last man was on the moon. This happened too long ago, it’s not present in our minds.

So, what’s the solution of this? We are in a time of limited government resources and things seem hopeless for great history to be made again. Well – don’t tell that to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, or BlueOrigin founder Jeff Bezos. They are inventing and defining a new playbook, one that is using the rules of innovation, not the constraints to history.

Here are three parts from that playbook that those of you who will turn from idea carriers into doers, from inventors into entrepreneurs. It’s about “faster, cheaper, and disruptive.”

Be faster – The battle for winners in a market is not primarily defined by who started first, it’s by who is fastest. In fact, there are many problems in entrepreneurship that cannot be solved slowly – one has to dive in and get slugging away. Many entrepreneurial teams are in an eternal warm-up phase – they are constantly pitching and thinking, but they stand at-bat and slug away. Entrepreneurs need to be faster.

Be cheaper – People who want to make big ideas happen have to be cheap. Find the cheapest way to start and try your ideas and stay cheap as long as possible. That will allow you 2-3 shots on goal, while your competitors only have one shot, because they made things gold-plated right away.

I talk to a lot of great innovators and ask them about their worries or obstacles. So many of them immediate say the obvious: “a lack of funding,” and it is almost never the most important problem. If you think funding is all you need, I ask you: What is your second most important challenge? Do you have customers? Is your product really addressing a need? Very likely, if that second problem is solved, the first problem – lack of funding – is much more easily to address.

Be disruptive – Innovative disruption is very good.  Disruptive programs overturn old paradigms, create new markets and engender new value systems. Disruption is about thinking small before thinking big: What are our first 100 customers and how do we find and keep them? What is actually the problem we want to focus on? We want to have big aspirations, but we want our boots firmly planted on the ground as we start moving – step by step. Innovative disruption is about focus about narrowing down to address a very specific need and to do so in a simpler fashion and for less money than the solution currently being used.

It’s these kinds of tools and approaches that have value in a large variety of spaces and for many careers. I hope many of you will experience them as they start implementing your ideas, and others will learn how to use them as they enter a big company or as they start addressing the ills of the world, empowered by entrepreneurship. There will be doubts, but they will overcome it through the entrepreneurial mantra they are learning here: When in doubt, act!

Comments (3)
  • Paul Murray

    December 25, 2012


    I am working on launching a social entrepreneurial enterprise in the Ann Arbor area. I’m interested in learning about any help that is available through UofM. Where do I start?

    Paul Murray
    231 350-0897

  • zaman-it

    January 4, 2013

    This article is very helpful for every entrepreneur.

  • jolyy abresnt

    January 10, 2013

    thanks for this post it is very enlightened

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