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Friday Links

October 27, 2014


The vast majority of articles about startups and innovation focus on Silicon Valley. Today we look at two innovators far removed from the typical incubators.

There is no shortage of reporting about startups and innovation, but the vast majority of articles focus on companies in or around the 95014 zip code. Today we look at two unlikely innovators whose path to success wound through places very far removed from typical Silicon Valley incubators (though there was Valley investment involved). First up, Frederick Hutson, who used his time spent in prison to launch a company that would ultimately serve the people with whom he had shared cells.
Frederick Hutson looked like he had everything going for him: he had a clean record, built some businesses, served in the U.S. Air Force and had been discharged honorably. However, things took a major turn for the worse in 2007, when at a mere 24 years of age, Hutson was caught trafficking marijuana with his friends and sentenced to more than four years in prison. During his 51-month prison stint, Hutson recognized that there were huge inefficiencies in the prison system when it came to prisoners keeping in contact with their loved ones. From there, he came up with Pigeonly, a photo-sharing service that prints photos uploaded from a cell phone, computer or tablet and then ships them to any prison in the world.
At the end of the day, we're all human, and an important piece of the humanity puzzle is the expectation that we will all provide and be provided with humane treatment and communication, even, and maybe especially, if we misstep along the way. The world - and this applies very much to business and how you lead - thrives when we put in place strategies and systems that help us grow past mistakes. Learning from mistakes is central to growth and rehabilitation. But also central to growth and rehabilitation is, again, being reminded that we're still, at the end of the day, human. This is partly what Hutson recognized: that allowing those toiling behind bars a basic act of humanity - the simple ability to view a crisp, real image of a loved one - is an important part of the system, the process. Another pertinent part of the linked interview with Hutson comes when he's asked the question, "What do you think separates you from the gazillion other startups unable to raise funding or build a profitable business?"
[laughs] I think the only thing that separates me from others is that I build something to solve a real problem; I didn't manufacture a problem. A lot of the times what I see people do is they have this idea that will be cool — and there's nothing wrong with that, there's a place in the world for those things. However, the fastest way to build a viable business is to solve a real problem for people. When you solve a real problem for people, they'll gladly pay you for it, and that's all we've done... I think that the more entrepreneurs that get away from doing things that are just 'cool' or 'fun' and they look around at the problems they encountered in their everyday life or within their community and they build a product to address that, then I think that you're going to see a lot more viable business that will take the track to be profitable."
Look, I love Twitter. It is useful in connecting and re-connecting with people I care about, and it is instrumental in information gathering, including in finding the content that finds its way into Friday Links. And, as it turns out, Twitter has been useful in solving real world problems. Twitter has become embedded into a great number of people's personal and professional lives, providing real value, and drastically changing the communication landscape. But the business world desperately needs advancements born out of solving real, hard, and tangible problems, too. I don't mean to single out Twitter - it's just one of thousands, hundreds of thousands maybe, of companies Hutson refers to when he hoped that entrepreneurs "get away from doing things that are just 'cool' or 'fun'" and "look around at the problems encountered in their everyday life..." And Twitter is an example of an entrepreneurial and investment culture that perhaps places too much emphasis on the next big and sexy thing. Sometimes you don't have to be cool, fun, sexy, or on the edge; you just have to solve a real problem experienced by those around you. If you follow this blog, you know we're huge fans of Steven Johnson. We just reviewed How We Got to Now, a companion book to his just started PBS series of the same name. Johnson also runs How We Get to Next, and excellent site with great breadth of topical business-related thought. One recent post to the site came from David Hambling as he detailed How a musician beat Space-based GPS and sold his invention to the US military.
Australian Nunzio Gambale started out as a musician. In 1997 he was working with engineer David Small on what looked like a simple project: a location-based guide for Canberra (Australia) using satellite GPS. Visiting a particular spot would trigger an audio file, such as commentary pointing out landmarks. But there was a problem. "GPS signals today are very unreliable – or totally non-existent – in a huge number of modern settings, from crowded downtowns to anywhere indoors," says Gambale. They needed something better than GPS. In the end, they built it themselves, founding a company called Locata to market their powerful new technology called Locata that beats satellite navigation hands-down.
The piece weaves through the engineering process, then shows how a whole lot of naysayers (and investors) are eating crow, before finishing by discussing the potential impact of Gambale's innovation:
This could enable a whole new generation of location-based indoor services. If you want to find the way to Platform 18 or Meeting Room K, meet someone in a crowd or just locate the peanut butter in the supermarket, there could be a Locata-based app to help you. And for the user it has an advantage over other indoor navigation systems. "Locata is the only high-precision technology I know of which will work in phones in cities [in] the future and still allow the user complete anonymity from tracking," says Gambale. Improved navigation will be a key enabler for self-driving cars, but the real breakthrough area may be for robots indoors. One of Gambale's current projects is an automated warehouse system. Current indoor navigation approaches generally rely on laying down markers on the floor or walls for robots to follow. In the future, the whole world could be moving to a new beat, one that is synchronised by Locata transmitters playing in time with each other.
We're a tad skeptical that any future location services product/app will provide certain anonymity from tracking, but that's another post altogether, and probably involves tin foil and hats. I think a real takeaway from those last two paragraphs is that technologies almost always have more, and greater, impact than originally intended. Why? Because there are a lot of people in this world with a lot of problems, and a lot of our problems, while often very different in scale and scope, share common traits and conditions. So, naturally, companies and problem-solvers the world over will see a development and ask, "How can I similarly solve my problem?" or "how can I use that technology to solve my similar problem?" or even, "that's nothing like my problem, but the process by which the inventor solved the problem might be useful to me." That's what you do right? You're reading a business thought site, so clearly you have a desire to at least learn, at most change the world. Maybe start by looking at your neighbors (your actual, physical neighborhood neighbor) and ask yourself, "What can I help with?" The answer might be nothing, but it may very well be a pretty significant something. "...and the memories flood the levies of my boredom."

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