Baseball and Early Stage Technology

Baseball and Early Stage Technology: More alike than you think?
I have always liked baseball. Whether that is generational, because my father liked baseball or because of the memories that it evokes is hard to say, but the fact remains, I have always liked baseball. And having spent years both working in and studying the early stage technology world, I am intrigued by the similarities between batting and creating new technology product offerings. Both fail more than they succeed. Both demand a great deal of expertise. Both offer rewards that are uncertain and that vary in ways that are not directly correlated to how well struck a ball is or to how clever or complex a solution is solving a particular problem. Let me explain.

In baseball, a hitter can scorch a ball to the warning track 400 feet away only to have an outfielder catch the ball at the wall. A well struck ball to be sure, but an out nonetheless. An out that is no more consequential to the hitter’s batting average than if he had tapped out to the pitcher. While certain statistical measures try to differentiate one out from another, most metrics don’t do a particularly good job of differentiating these scenarios. Alternatively, a batter can loop a ball between two fielders (the “hit them where they ain’t” philosophy) and end up with a double. A not particularly well hit double perhaps, but a double in the scorebook. The odds certainly favor the well-struck ball falling in more often the poorly struck one, but they are not deterministic.

Likewise, within the early stage technology world, compelling technology products are created all the time. Some will succeed, and many will not. A well-crafted product launched into a less well-defended sector stands a better chance of success than a poorly crafted solution launched into a sector dominated by a few powerful competitors, but even a well thought out solution, elegantly implemented and methodically rolled out can still fail. Just as a well struck ball can find a fielder. Ultimately in defining and launching new solutions, we are working on improving the odds, just like a batter taking extra batting practice and looking at video of his swing mechanics. It does not guarantee success, but it does help.

I was reminded of this recently when interviewing a candidate that had created a pretty interesting product that seemed to offer some interesting functionality – though it regrettably may have overlapped a bit too directly with Facebook. Many of the presumptions underpinning their initial development efforts were sound from a technical perspective, and they were cognizant of the well-accepted drawbacks to a large network such as Facebook, but trying to hit a ball out of the deepest part of the ballpark with a wiffleball bat (given their funding and experience base) can work – but the odds aren’t good.

How do you respond to marketplace opportunity? In baseball parlance, you hit it where it’s pitched. For the technical innovator, respond to the marketplace and thrive or hit it into the teeth of the defense and go back to the dugout. Recognize that the odds are against you. Its’ OK to fail, but if you do, fail fast and fail cheap. And iterate. Think of technology iteration as the process that a hitter goes through in trying things in batting practice, and then in game hitting repeated over a series of cycles. Baseball as a metaphor for technology innovation. George Will would be proud.

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