Innovation

What 'Back to the Future' Teaches Us About Innovation

3 keys to empowering entrepreneurs from Doc Brown and Marty McFly
What 'Back to the Future' Teaches Us About Innovation
Image credit: Universal Pictures
Guest Writer
CEO, Rocksauce Studios
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Back to the Future, the smash-hit movie trilogy, is 33 years old but continues to capture the public's imagination, even three decades on. Proof? When October 2015, rolled around, fans celebrated "Back to the Future" Day, marking the date that Doc Brown, Marty McFly and Jennifer Parker made their way into the future, in Back to the Future II.

More recently, the movie made news in August because of a mini-reunion at the Fan Expo in Boston, where questions of a remake or sequel were raised and, unfortunately, shut down once again.

This fascination level continues for many reasons, but I’m not writing about Back to the Future just because I think it’s awesome, I’m writing for another, very specific reason: The trilogy possesses lessons for entrepreneurs at every stage in their careers. Apart from just being a fun set of movies, the Back to the Future series is, in many ways, infused with the spirit of innovation.

What entrepreneurs can learn about innovation from Marty and Doc.

Back to the Future's lessons have less to do with the movie's outlandish technology and more with the characters we get to know. To start with, the series' premise flows around a serial entrepreneur and inventor, Doc Brown, who creates a time machine from a swanky, high-dollar car.

While that’s really cool, what’s most impressive about Doc Brown is that throughout his life, he never gave up on his vision of the Flux Capacitor.

Related: Why Embracing Failure Is Good for Business

Though the myth of the innovator is wrapped up with geniuses who hit it out of the park the first time around, much more often the myth revolves around those who failed, learned lessons, then moved forward to another, newer concept which had a major impact on the world.

That’s the story of Doc Brown and it’s also the success stories of some of the world’s biggest innovators, like Steve Jobs, whose biggest successes only came after his most crushing failures.

Doc Brown isn’t the only role model for entrepreneurs, either. When we look at Marty McFly, this message of never quitting carries over, albeit in a different way. Marty isn’t an innovator, but he is a problem solver. Solving problems in the face of adversity -- or, more often, in the presence of naysayers -- is a daily challenge for entrepreneurs.

Marty, in fact, is faced with being sent back in time and potentially being erased from the existence he knew. He’s repeatedly challenged by bullies and utilizes the world around him to overcome every obstacle. He turns a scooter into a skateboard to escape a bully named Biff  (who becomes Marty's arch-enemy), and he cobbles together a sci-fi story to persuade his dad to ask his mom to the dance (and ensure he'll eventually come into the world).

Paying attention to the world around him, and his as well as others' needs is Marty's recipe for success.

Even Biff possesses some of the entrepreneurial spirit, seizing an opportunity when it’s presented in the second movie and starting his own auto-detailing business at the end of the first. Not that Biff is the role model entrepreneurs should latch on to, but the idea of seizing opportunity, never quitting and continuing forward -- regardless of who you are -- is one every entrepreneur should take to heart.

Related: How to Stay Focused When You Feel Like Giving Up

Three lessons from 'Back to the Future'

These comparisons are all well and good, but how does film theory turn into business practice? Here are three lessons from Back to the Future that we can apply to the entrepreneurial world.

1. Innovation knows no age limit.

Far too often, companies see those over 50 as “unable to innovate” and view those under 30 as magically able to pull the next Snapchat out of thin air. The reality is, innovation doesn’t know an age (or even a job title), and world-changing ideas don’t stop coming just because a person hits 40.

The Doc Brown character was in his late 60s when he invented time travel, despite coming up with the idea 30 years earlier. Meanwhile, in real life, Robert Noyce founded Intel when he was 41, and Bill Porter launched E*Trade at 54. According to the Kauffman Foundation, the chances of someone over 55 starting a new business is nearly double that of a person under 34 doing the same. Great Scott!

Moral of the story: Give everyone the opportunity to participate in the brainstorming of new ideas. Sometimes, the person you'd least expect is the one who changes a company’s trajectory.

2. Stop paying attention to the way things are; focus on where things are headed. 

One of Marty’s biggest strengths is how he can quickly figure out the long-term ramifications of current actions. That’s not to say there aren't mistakes -- I'm looking at you, Back to the Future II -- but Marty nearly always stays one step ahead of his obstacles, be they the latest actions by Biff or the effects of time itself.

So, here's the lesson: Skate to where the puck is going, instead of where it was. That can make all the difference in the entrepreneurial world, too. Netflix started out as an alternative to Blockbuster DVD rentals, but the true genius of Ted Sarandos lay in his ability to see where the future of Blockbuster was headed before the video store chain did.

Netflix's innovation in the streaming movie space changed an entire industry, destroyed video rental giants and even gave HBO a run for its money.

Related: How Successful Entrepreneurs Predict the Future

3. Innovation doesn’t always mean creating something wholly new.

Rather than trying to steal plutonium or create a whole new time machine, Brown and McFly adapt the DeLorean to harness the power of lightning. Sometimes, the best path to innovation is in retooling existing technologies or ideas toward a new goal or endeavor.

Creating a dating app in the style of Tinder isn’t going to be innovative, but modifying those same concepts to work with a different industry may be. Take BarkBuddy, which uses the Tinder concept to match people looking for a dog with pets that need adoption. There’s a whole industry of “Tinder for (blank),” which takes the UI of Tinder and successfully applies it to a different niche. That's innovation by modification, and it's worth thinking about.

So, enjoy rewatching the Back to the Future movies. While the movies may not provide you any new business plan or inspiration for a new idea, the characters within them can provide everything a person needs to know about the attitudes an entrepreneur should have.

And don't forget to use Marty McFly as a role model: Seize opportunity where it comes, never give up and always look to the future. We’re entrepreneurs, after all. So, for where we’re going, we don’t need roads. We carve our own.

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