My failed attempt to compete against the Internet

By Ray DePaul

The year was 1990. The Oilers were Stanley Cup champions, Vanilla Ice was a thing, my little brother almost got the lead in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (seriously), and the world wide web had yet to launch. I was the software manager at a startup that was enabling companies to connect their computers together into a network for sharing files and other boring things. We were on the leading edge, or at least we thought so.

A computer science co-op student named John was lobbying me and the other decision makers that we needed to make a big shift away from building our own networking technology and embrace this newish thing called the Internet. He was recommending that we ignore the chief architect, one of the smartest guys in the company, who was advocating that we continue to build our own solution since we could do a better job than this fledgling standard popular at universities and the government.

I remember how I took John aside, thanked him for showing initiative and "spunk", but explained that the experience and vision of our architect was far more compelling than following the path he learned about in a class the semester before.

Well, that little startup went on to be bigger than the Internet… no, wait, that's not right… we shut down and everyone lost their jobs.

I think there are a couple of interesting lessons here that have nothing to do with my stupidity. The first is that disruptive ideas often come from unexpected sources. Blindly following the "experts" may lead you to a very dark place filled only with bitter experts, but no customers. The second lesson is how hard it is to recognize a massive opportunity that requires a fundamental shift when you have momentum taking you in a different direction. This is why spunky startups, not big incumbents, often benefit from these inflection points in history.

So if you're a 22 year old with a transformative idea, get really good at selling your vision. And if you're a 30 or 40 year old with some authority, don't be so quick to discount the crazy kid with the big idea.

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