Can eureka moments be taught? Maybe not. But we can learn how to employ our rare and valuable revelations. Here's how.
We now know how to teach entrepreneurs how to think about business models and use customer development to turn hypotheses into facts. But there is no process to teach how to get an epiphany. We can only try to create the conditions where this might occur.
Luis, one of the CEO's from our first National Science Foundation class, came in to speak to our next class. We had a couple of minutes to catch up between sessions and the conversation got strangely awkward when I asked him how their startup was going.
"I'm kind of embarrassed to tell you, but we dumped the entire
business idea and are doing something else" he said, avoiding eye
"Oh, you pivoted when your team analyzed customer feedback?" I
said as I grabbed some coffee. He looked uncomfortable.
"No, I was standing in the shower when it just hit me that our nano-materials technology should be used for something completely different. I didn't change a few business model components. I changed all of them."
I guess my jaw dropped a bit because Luis just continued. "I'm feeling guilty because I was using Customer Development and the Startup Owners Manual until I had that insight. But there was nothing in your book that prepared me for what just clicked in my head. I just saw our entire new business model in a flash, all of it at once. I'm now having the company execute on what came to me in the shower. A small part of me is confused whether I'm doing the right thing, but mostly I'm just convinced it's as right as anything I've ever done. But there's no chapter in your book or anyone else's on this."
Realizing what I was hearing, I pulled Luis outside the conference
room into the quiet of the hall. "Luis, did this ever happen to you
before?" I asked. "Well no, not in a startup, this stuff is new to me."
"No," I replied. "I mean in your lab. Did you ever have this feeling
where it all just came to you?"
He thought for a bit as he stared in the distance and then responded, "Yeah, I never thought about that until now, but in fact I did. It felt a lot like when I was writing my thesis five years ago. I had struggled with the data for two years. Then one weekend I went for a walk by the ocean to clear my head -- and I had an insight that won me the fellowship. I had to spend six more months checking the data and working my tail off, but my thesis was awarded best paper of the year."
I tried to stay calm as I realized what I was hearing. "Luis, you need to pay attention to me very carefully. You just had an epiphany. If you're lucky you may have a few more in your career. But while epiphanies are extremely rare, they are immensely important and need to be listened to. What you had was no accident. You were collecting enormous amounts of data on one side of your brain, but it was the other side that recognized the pattern. No one knows if epiphanies are always right, but people who follow them tend to get rich, famous or both."