The disruptive industry shaker isn’t always the one with the biggest bells and whistles. Instead, the successful first-mover knows that having an idea is one thing, executing it is another, and sustaining that idea -- 10 to 20 years later -- is something else entirely.
When I had my first “big idea,” it was 1989. I had been working with the U.S. Postal Service as an independent consultant and had been tasked with creating a laser-printed envelope that included the then-new POSTNET routing barcode, the destination address and an eagle logo that served as a postage stamp.
That’s when this little gem of an idea hit me: if the Postal Service could print postage directly on an “official government” envelope with a PC and printer, then why couldn’t an ordinary business person? It seemed simple enough and was sure to save people time because they wouldn’t have to drive to the post office. So I filed a patent for PC Postage in 1991.
Our patent was issued in 1995 and 15 years later, Endicia would comprise 60 percent of the PC postage printed in the United States alone. Newell Rubbermaid acquired our venture in 2007 and by 2013, our customers would print a cumulative total of more than $10 billion in postage -- largely because we recognized that the real value proposition was in printing shipping labels -- not envelopes.
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It’s been a long road since that first idea, and I’ve learned a few things along the way -- mainly, that being a successful first-mover requires planning, flexibility and a particular mindset. So for all those brilliant disruptors ready to take on the status quo, here are five things you can do to ensure your success.
1. Keep the faith. If you have a truly unique and disruptive idea, the majority of people won’t understand it -- at least not right away. Expect blank stares and patronizing glances, but at the same time, make sure to touch base with people and share your idea. This is what will help determine whether your business is viable.
Keeping your mind balanced between big dreamer and pragmatist is one of the toughest aspects of being an innovator. It requires maintaining confidence while making sure you are seeing reality correctly. The ultimate goal is to find a handful of people that believe in your idea as much as you do.
2. Take smart risks. When I decided to pursue the idea for PC postage, I didn’t stop everything I was doing to focus solely on one business. Instead, I kept a couple irons in the fire.
I continued my consulting practice with the U.S. Postal Service and other agencies, and this ended up being Endicia’s saving grace.
It is absolutely pivotal when executing an idea to make sure you have a baseline system for survival. Then use your spare energy to build and evolve your business until it’s established. Once viable, you can take away that baseline and run your new business full-time.
3. Prepare yourself to work like a dog. Remember, having an idea is just the start: you’ve got to bake it, refine it and show it to people. In my case, I like to prototype ideas so people can get a better understanding of what I’m trying to do.
Endicia had a small team that was dedicated and super passionate about what we were doing. We’d go into four-hour-long demos with the Postal Service and come out buzzing with a dozen new fixes and add-ons. Being innovative means always going back to the drawing board.
4. Expect others to reach for your lunch. At the time of Endicia’s founding, there were a number of companies entering the PC postage space, and since this was during the Dot-com Boom, many were backed by VC funding.
It was hard watching these flashy startups enter what we thought of as our arena – after all, we had been working with the Postal Service since the early ’80s. But we held our tongue and bided our time. Though we were self-funded and didn’t have a lot of money to burn, we were also careful in making sure we had enough income to cover our expenses.
In the end, it paid off. We emerged as the leading postage producer, and we didn’t burn through our money the way some of our competitors did.
5. Don’t get comfortable. One thing that has ensured Endicia remain relevant is our ability to keep our eyes peeled, identify opportunities and deliver what customers want quickly.
I remember being at a trade show and observing three distinct aspects of postage, shipping and tracking. It made me start thinking about iterations that could work for the shipping industry. What resulted was the first integrated shipping label with address, postage and tracking all in one -- and customers went nuts over it. Later, in the mid-2000s, we began to see growth in the shipping market, so we made the decision to re-focus our business model on the e-commerce shipping market instead of mailing.
Being able to keep an eye out, keep active and keep inventing is what has helped us remain a chief contender in PC postage more than 20 years after its inception.
While it may seem tempting to get swept up in your big idea, experience shows that there are benefits to staying grounded. Make sure to pace yourself and play smart -- but in the end, it’s passion and strength of conviction that will set you apart.