For Real Impact, Entrepreneurs Must Do More Than Solve Big Problems
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Much has changed since 2008 when Ankur Jain founded the Kairos Society, a diverse community of power players brought together to connect young entrepreneurs with expertise and opportunity. Back then, the Great Recession was in full swing and Jain was just 22 and a student at the University of Pennsylvania.
In the near decade since, global interest in entrepreneurship has exploded. Meanwhile, the Kairos Society has expanded to 55 countries and helped launch more than 100 companies working toward big solutions such as clean water and mobile healthcare. Its top companies have raised up to $600 million in capital reaching a combined $2.5 billion valuation.
Jain has been busy too, graduating from Wharton’s business school and founding Humin, a technology company acquired last year by Tinder. He’s currently Tinder’s vice president of product.
Jain says those experiences have given him a full and nuanced understanding of entrepreneurship’s role in problem-solving -- and refine how he thinks about it. “Kairos is always bridging that gap between these governments, CEOs and these young entrepreneurs," he says. "But it’s not just about solving impact problems. It’s about identifying where are these fundamental market failures and can we innovate there, since that’s where you’ll really make an impact.”
Kairos held its first major summit since 2013 last week in a three-day gathering that kicked off with helicopter rides from Manhattan to the Rockefeller Estate. The kickoff drew a diverse group ranging from Casey Neistat to former CIA director Mike Hayden to Amazon’s chief technology officer Werner Vogels. At the invite-only summit, 250 young entrepreneurs from across the globe networked with big names. In a flip on the Shark Tank script, these innovators got pitched big problems to solve by CEOs and former world leaders such as Vincente Fox, the former president of Mexico, and George Papandreau, the former prime minister of Greece.
We caught up with Jain to talk about what’s changed since he founded the society and how that’s shaped how he thinks about opportunity for entrepreneurs.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How is opportunity evolving?
There’s been this massive shift where capital is going. It’s become very bifurcated. For so many years, the business was "displace the Silicon Valley leader.” So Alta Vista would go after Lycos and Yahoo would go after AltaVista and Google would go after Yahoo.
For the first time, Silicon Valley is now a mature market, so you’ve got these massive incumbents: Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook. You’re not just going to displace them in a year because you’ve got a scrappy startup. And so what’s happening is that the ability for venture money to fund those kinds of businesses has changed, so you’re seeing all these feature companies get started just with the goal of getting acquired. That doesn’t really drive the world forward.
You can’t just build another Google because competing against an incumbent with so much technology prowess is just not fair. So you look at these old industries that are failing to innovate. There’s massively more capital than even the Valley, very little innovation and massive customer pain points. The more we can try and solve those kinds of issues, there’s a double win. You drive massive impact and you have the biggest chance to actually displace incumbents the way Silicon Valley has historically done.
How has the summit evolved?
We’ve doubled down on the thesis on where real impact can be made. It’s not just about young entrepreneurs building cool tech or solving problems. It’s getting the right leaders to help us identify market failure. And that’s a big part of the summit. Because you can say you’re going after healthcare, but if you don’t know where to focus, it won’t do you much good. Bringing in the right young talent from around the world who can tackle that market failure with a fresh perspective and say, "What if we built this technology solution?" and then bringing it to market both with our capital and these partners to scale these businesses.
Do you feel there’s been a larger shift in how entrepreneurs are approaching problem-solving in general? Like an acknowledgement that disruption had its moment, but that we can break as well as build?
We don’t ask entrepreneurs, "What are you disrupting?" We ask, "What is the market failure that you're rethinking? How are you rethinking it so that now you can go to a consumer?”
What’s an example of a company rethinking a market failure?
Well, this even applies to things like Dollar Shave Club. The market failure was that it was a duopoly. You’d go in to buy the whole razor with the handle and it was like $8. To get new cartridges it was $20. And so it was a clear market failure. Instead of kind of creating revolutionary technology, [Dollar Shave Club] said, "Let's just rethink this model and in a consumer-friendly way with a new perspective."
Disease prevention is another example. Currently, a majority of our health care costs go into disease management and there's been very little in the prevention space and the stuff that is out there is not sticky. There's very little adoption from a behavioral standpoint. So a new company PlateJoy focuses on that market failure. It learns about your body and your genetics and creates weekly meal plans with a grocery list. If you eat this way, the research is there, the nutrition will help you prevent certain chronic diseases. PlateJoy says personalized nutrition is the key to chronic disease prevention and insurance companies should pay for that. So it's rethinking the insurer/patient model.
How should networks evolve to help people think differently about how to get things done and find opportunity?
The key to a lot of what Kairos has done is recognize that the real big opportunity to drive impact is done by working across sectors. And so you have the Silicon Valley world and all that one thinks about is Silicon Valley. You have the Hollywood bubble and all anyone thinks about is that world.
Surprisingly, even though we're so connected through the media and social networks today, there's very little overlap from a professional standpoint. When you're trying to think outside the box of your industry, the fundamental problem is that you already know what the box is. So you're only incrementally able to think ahead. When you work across sectors, you're able to think about problems with a different box. And so when the financial sector looks at a science and engineering problem, a Silicon Valley person might look at that same market failure as a product experience problem.
How else are partnerships critical to really finding solutions for the long term?
I think a lot of people have this assumption that industries and governments aren't innovative because they're just stupid. And therefore it’s simple and you can just come in and redo it all and "disrupt." And that’s obviously not quite right. There are a lot of institutional barriers that drive these market failures. Legacy companies have these insights. These guys know better than anyone in the world where the market failures are. They're just not sure what the solutions look like. And so creating that partnership instead of almost dismissiveness from entrepreneurs I think also been critical.
There’s big opportunity in traditional sectors. What’s something that people need to keep in mind?
In traditional sectors it's very hard to identify the simple problem because where do you even begin with airlines? With news media? With retirement? Where is the problem? Is it education? Is it just basic product experience? And I think if you look at the people who have succeeded in these traditional industries like Uber they didn't start by trying to change the entire transportation network. They just said the market where you can rent cars for hours on end or a four-hour minimum didn’t make sense. So they said, "Book on demand like a taxi.” They made that first thing accessible. And then they solved the next market failure and the next market failure.
So, smaller hills, not larger mountains.
Exactly. But knowing what those are is very difficult.