Your Competition is Not Who You Think They Are

You spend your evenings scouring industry journals and websites and flatter yourself with the satisfaction of knowing your market inside and out. You keynote regularly at trade shows and are the first to buy table at large industry conferences. If there’s a competitor in the wings waiting to chew off some of your business, you’ll be ready to flatten them – right?

Not so fast. The days of tracking competition by immersing yourself in your own industry are gone. In its place is an environment where the competition can come from anywhere – most likely from outside your industry – and will blindside you before you’re even aware it exists. We live in transformative times, and we can thank exponentially powerful technology for this development. It makes it possible for highly innovative companies, like software and synthetic biology businesses, to emerge against traditional leaders in fields as diverse as healthcare, education, manufacturing and energy.

The lesson for executives: Your competition is not who you think it is. If you persist in ignoring what’s happening beyond the narrow confines of your industry, your company could end up on the endangered species list.

Several months ago I chaired a panel discussion of CEOs who were discussing the future of their respective industries. I brought up 3-D printing, a technology that allows for the creation of product parts in record time, thereby revolutionizing manufacturing. I asked my fellow panelists how this disruptive development would change their businesses.

The awkward pause told me all I needed to know: I have seen this same response too often. Most business leaders aren’t taking a far, wide, or deep view of the competitive landscape. In this case, 3-D printing, which collapses product development and manufacturing timeframes, has become a disruptive technology.

Another example of competition coming from unexpected places is in the pharmaceutical industry. Traditionally, companies that conduct healthcare or medical research have considered biotech firms as their competition. However, software companies, not biotech businesses, are the ones that keep pharma executives awake at night. Healthcare research has become an information-gathering challenge, and this is where software companies – and more specifically, companies with expertise in managing large databases of information – have an advantage. Who in the pharmaceutical business would have guessed that their competition would come from a company like Google?

Groupon, the online couponing website, is another company that has seemingly come from nowhere to clobber a more traditional industry. In this case, the Yellow Pages and other phone directories have enjoyed a leadership position since the dawn of the telephone.

In contrast to paging through a dense book of offers, Groupon conveniently sends real-time discounts directly to your email inbox. Members are free to decide what services they want to use and when – at zero delivery cost. Yellow Pages companies, whose coupons and special offers turn up in a big fat book that hits your doorstep a few times a year, could never have imagined that a startup like Groupon and a high-tech company like Google might herald their downfall.

If your leisure time is spent reading trade journals and attending industry conferences, you may have a woefully incomplete picture of your competitive future. You may not see the stealth innovators who are quietly harnessing technology advances to displace your business.

When the X Prize Foundation (where I serve as chairman of the education and global development initiative) ran a competition last year to develop street-ready vehicles that would average more than 100 miles on a gallon of gas, not one of the prize finalists came from the traditional auto industry. A group of Philadelphia high-school students came close to the finals, with a modified Ford Focus using lithium-ion batteries. The lesson: don’t underestimate who competitors are and where they’ll come from, and don’t get too comfortable about your ability to out-innovate your traditional competitors.

Here are three steps to take to break out of the executive comfort zone:

1) Expand the circle of events you attend, or experts you consult, far outside of your market space. When you listen to the buzz only within your industry, you tend to hear about the same businesses and innovations over and over again. You’re not stretching your worldview by staying in the industry box.

2) Go to visionary events that look at innovation from many different angles, and don’t restrict the discussion to a specific industry. The venues I like are the Exponential Technologies Executive Program at Singularity University (on whose board I sit), which is dedicated to teaching executives about exponentially growing technology; The Economist’s Ideas Economy: Innovation conference; the WIRED Disruptive by Design conference; and the TED events.

3) When you expose yourself to new concepts, think hard about how you can make them work for you. Could these innovations apply to your business and make it better, or can you envision how an upstart company could use them against you?

Opening your mind to new ideas for evolving your business makes you realize that you are vulnerable to competition. However, this realization will propel you to embrace game-changing business concepts that may not have occurred to you a decade ago. In short: stay curious, stay open-minded and stay alert. And remember that your competitors may be hiding in plain sight.

More details here.

Intelius Honors Five World-Changing Startups

Young people sharing ideas at the Kairos Global Summit

We recently announced recipients of the 2011 Intelius Entrepreneurship Awards at the Kairos Global Summit. On behalf of Intelius, I presented this honor on Saturday to five of the most exceptional young entrepreneurs of our time who have committed to using their entrepreneurial skills to solve the world’s greatest challenges.
Marketing: PurBlu Beverages
Social Impact: WaterWalla, Inc.
Technology: DxTura
Sustainability: ThinkLite LLC
International: Solben

iConference Debate: Information’s Role in the 21st Century

iConferenceGoing on now is the iConference hosted by University of Washington’s Information School. The conference runs from February 8-11 at the Renaissance Hotel in Seattle.

Each year, hundreds of students and professionals from information schools around the world come together to collaborate and debate about topics such e-government, education and data security. I think it’s important for us to understand the impact information will have on our personal lives and the global economy. By bringing together the best minds in academia and industry, I’m confident that we can advance information’s role in the 21st century economy.

As a sponsor, Intelius will be contributing to two panels: Big Data and Privacy in the Cloud.

You can see the conference program schedule here.

Kairos Society Partners on Free Enterprise Campaign

White HouseOn Monday the Kairos Society was present at the White House when the Obama administration announced the Startup America Initiative, a commitment to increase the growth and success of entrepreneurs in America. This initiative is aimed at jump-starting new job creation by encouraging entrepreneurship through mentorship and education.

According to Startup America’s website, “The Partnership will bring together top entrepreneurs, start-up firm funders, CEOs, university presidents, foundations, and other leaders to help entrepreneurial companies start or grow. Partners (including corporations, foundations, startup funders, CEOs, and others) will contribute funds to existing proven models or develop new programs and efforts to help entrepreneurs.”

As part of this overall initiative to promote entrepreneurship, the US Chamber of Commerce is expanding its Free Enterprise Campaign to young entrepreneurs by partnering with the Kairos Society. This is very timely with the Kairos Society’s 2011 Global Summit coming up in a few short weeks. On February 25th-26th some of the nations brightest and most innovative entrepreneurs will gather at the New York Stock Exchange to explore humanity’s greatest challenges and develop creative solutions to these problems.

Intelius, a founding corporate sponsor of the Kairos Society, will once again present the prestigious Entrepreneurship Awards—recognizing exceptional student-founded companies in the following categories: social impact, technology, marketing, and sustainability. See last year’s winning startups here.

On behalf of Intelius, we couldn’t be prouder of the Kairos Society’s achievements.

Bettering my leadership skills at Forbes Global CEO Conference 2010

Traveling CoupleWhen I’m not collecting coins or enjoying fine wines, anyone who knows Naveen Jain can tell you that I’m usually hard at work at Intelius. To hear how other executives are guiding their companies through the murky waters of the global recession, I am currently at Forbes Global CEO Conference 2010 in Sydney, Australia.

This year marks the tenth annual Forbes Global CEO Conference. The invite-only conference runs until September 29. The event is attended by 400 of the greatest CEOs, tycoons entrepreneurs and thought leaders, so I hope to gain more insight on how others are handling their companies and startups in this day and age.

Several sessions and panels will be held at the Forbes Global CEO Conference, offering advice on a variety of subjects, ranging from investing in new markets to thriving on adversity. Speakers, such as Forbes CEO Steve Forbes and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue will be at the conference.

While the convention focuses on the bright prospects of Asia, Steve Forbes spoke briefly at the event about his views on the American economy. As SkyNews, notes, the CEO is optimistic about its recovery over the new few years.

Intelius teams with KJR to provide Seahawks fans with latest football news

FootballAs everyone who knows Naveen Jain knows, I am a huge fan of the Seattle Seahawks. With the commencement of the new season, my team gets another chance to hopefully make it all the way to the Super Bowl.

For the 2010 season, my company, Intelius, is teaming with the local sports radio station KJR to provide my fellow football fans with in-depth Seahawks and NFL coverage. Veteran sports writer Jason La Canfora will be joining the show’s regular reporters every Wednesday morning for an Intelius-powered “Live in the Know” section.

In addition to getting an insightful take on the latest pigskin news, regular listeners will get the opportunity to win free background checks provided by Intelius.

This partnership will last for the duration of the 2010 football season, through the Super Bowl in February.

The Seattle Seahawks are off to a great start this season and are at the top of the NFC West. They have a tough game next Sunday though, as they play the San Diego Chargers.