Locked with the President of my country, Cyril Ramaphosa, in what was already a ‘do-not-disturb, bromance-in-progress’ kind of moment, he must have developed an on-the-spot inkling that our intimacy stands to grow by leaps and bounds if he were to somehow ask me what I do for a living. And in not so many words, I said what I say to just about anyone – from Long-Rich Sales Reps – to Twitter Bios – right up to C-Suite level, thick-necked folk: “I chase rats for a living.”
I am in the rat business. No, really; the rat race is not a metaphor to describe how miserable I am on Monday mornings, or another of those “job dissatisfaction” dinner-time rants. It is an everyday reality that my outfit, and that of my competitors’, are constantly inundated with. Our clients, in not so many subtleties, want to find out, almost all the time; “how many rats can you catch?” And almost invariably; the answer, in point-blank absolutes, is; “slightly more than what the guys in the internet claim to catch.” While this might not be a sexy occupation to career-drop when asked what you do for a living by long-legged, model-type ladies whose aesthetic demeanours conspicuously abide by Hollywood standards, it offers life and business enough metaphors to change the course of history.
In a couple of ways, modern business thinks of itself as the proverbial rat race, and everybody, start-ups and big businesses alike, line up under the proverbial gun with new products – ready to dash off into the deepest parts of clients’ pockets because, intuitively, we believe that that is what is going to enable us to lead the proverbial rat race. But, innovation, as it were, is good on paper. In the actual track, mothers, wives, girlfriends, and investors, alike, lament at the heartache their loved ones face when the rat race offers unexpected hurdles. There are many hurdles to hop over so as to increase your chances of piercing through to the front of the race, but allow me to take you through three important ones; the kinds that the world of business has placed before us:
1: The Design Hurdle
Productization gets to be called daddy right here. You and your design team have worked your tails off in describing to yourselves what the industry lacks. Now that you have solved that part of the equation, you have taken the first step in creating a product that is equal to what is a pain in that industry. And so you launch it, only to be greeted by clap backs in the functionality of your product. What went wrong? When my partner and I invented a mass-eradication, poison-free rat gadget; the type the industry had never seen before, we were sure that what was neatly filed on paper, at Patent Offices, was set to lead the field. Long story cut short, it later took a partnership with another firm, the course of a year, and 38 different models, to get the design to be functional. In some industries, the design aspect of the product is not tangible. Financial Services, for example: its products cannot be touched, but can very much be experienced. Well-meaning actuaries and numbers people sit down and engage in designing financial products meant to benefit the industry, while promising greater yields. But not everything planned, calculated, and predicted gets a warm reception when released. It is the reality of innovation. The design hurdle is the first step; but is in and of itself part of a much broader virtuous, but sometimes vicious, cycle.
2: The Moral Hurdle
It was design number 38. We had cracked the code and believed we had also aligned the colours in the Rubik’s Cube. And so as a result, we proceeded to go on a duel with the City of Johannesburg’s environmental health arm, to see which product would catch the most rats. Three newspapers came on board. One journalist dubbed the duel, ’14 Days in September.’ The other, from another popular newspaper, called us ‘The Pied Pipers Of Msawawa,’ likening us to the German fable, “The Pied Piper Of Hamelin.” By the time the duel had reached its crescendo, we had already taken the CoJ and their product to the cleaners. We claimed victory. The industry was now waiting for us. But no, there emerged from the tracks a hurdle that had to be overcome if we had hopes of ever calling ourselves a business. It is what I coyly refer to as the Moral Hurdle. It would be typically referred to as the Law, or regulatory material. But that honour would categorically belong to Fundis. It was exactly that, and it differs from industry to industry. We had Animal Anti-cruelty Act folk knocking on our door. For the aforementioned Finance folk, the FSB would be the industry’s Watch Dog. And it would be something else for another industry. For seemingly unregulated industries, the people served would themselves revolt at the harsh discrepancies provided by your business. The Moral Hurdle causes us to go back to our drawing board and alter certain parts of our design elements. Again, I had stated earlier that in innovation, everything forms part of a cycle. Oftentimes we are sent back to where it all started – so as to compliment – with our design and functionality – the Moral components of our businesses and products.
3: The Market Hurdle
In the grand scheme of things, the Market Hurdle is the mother of all hurdles. And, uncertainty is its surrogate mother. Innovation is a fallacy if its lifecycle is stopped dead in its tracks in the stages leading up to the market hurdle. You have not innovated if you have not sold. And more often than not, you need to innovate if you ever hope to sell. This hurdle demands the culmination of everything, and oftentimes, all at once. This hurdle will test whether what you have created fits reality or not, and that is why the aforementioned hurdles were necessary. They do not right away give you a seat at the table – but they filter what will not stand the heat at the table. It is not enough that we, as entrepreneurs, are able to spot loopholes in industries, and proceed to design products that we passionately assume will shut those loopholes. We need to be “businessy,” long after we had been entrepreneurial. The leaders of industries are not men and women whose prowess ended with dreaming up great solutions. They are people who have thought through the whole system.
The rat race, in business, or the world of work, can be led. If it can be led, it deceptively gives cues that it can be won. But winning a rat race in a high-speed era full of innovative breakthroughs, is a fallacy. At best, it can just be led, for but a moment.
By Simphiwe Makapela