The price of starting a company has never been lower, and science is unpacking the common characteristics of entrepreneurs
An important change is taking place in the world of innovation. Put simply, innovation can be done very cheaply.
It used to be that innovation was relatively expensive. For example, one case taught in Harvard Business School's entrepreneurship program describes how Robin Wolaner came up with an idea for a high-quality magazine targeting parents in the mid-1980s. Wolaner's original plan suggested that it would cost $5 million to develop the idea. Before she attempted to raise that amount of capital, she decided to run a simple market test. She sent a sample issue of her magazine to a set of parents. Each test issue included a reply card that people could return to indicate interest in subscribing. High levels of response validated the market interest in the idea, and Wolaner was off and running. She eventually sold her magazine (Parenting) to Time Life, Inc., for about $10 million. This test cost Wolaner about $150,000 to run.
Contrast Wolaner's story to the two bright entrepreneurs my colleague and I met in Singapore in September 2010. The duo had an idea for a Web site that would democratize tools used by designers of a type of chip called a field programmable gate array (FPGA). It's a big market -- the companies that sell FPGAs are multibillion-dollar enterprises, and the leading tool providers are big companies, too. The founders had built a functional Web site with real, live tools. They had run a marketing campaign to attract a couple hundred users to the site. The company had earned modest revenues.
"Wow," we said. "A functional Web site, a marketing campaign, and early revenue. Who are your investors, and how much have they invested to date?"
They looked at each other sheepishly. The total out-of-pocket investment was less than $1,000. They had done the Web site themselves in their spare time. They did focused advertising on Google to attract early customers. Now that's what I call doing things on the cheap!