How do you take a great new technology and make it mainstream? I get asked this question all the time. While there are many well-known factors, one of the most important—in my opinion—is that technology’s ability to inspire an ecosystem.
The Making of an Ecosystem
Here’s an example. While it’s hard to believe now, there was a time when file servers were once a technical curiosity. When they first came on the scene they were laughed at by the “real” IT departments as being toys with less horsepower than the microcontrollers running peripherals in their big iron. While little file servers didn’t solve a problem in the traditional sense, they provided agility and freedom, and enabled a new kind of IT that was closer and more responsive to business.
But despite the fact that these little servers enabled business functions to happen more quickly than the status quo, they did not take off right away. First, existing and new vendors with domain expertise —spurred on by customer demand—needed to deliver important features like management, security and data protection. In other worlds, to move file servers from technical curiosity to trusted infrastructure required a strong ecosystem of other hardware and software companies.
But it didn’t end there. That very same ecosystem grew up to become some of the largest standalone categories and companies in their own right.
Early Adopters: Inspiring an Ecosystem
Ecosystems do not appear on their own, causing the transition to happen. The central technology must be so compelling that the earliest adopters will do whatever it takes to use it. That’s when you know the technical curiosity has a shot at making it mainstream. The early zealots spread the religion, building momentum when things are still immature. That momentum attracts the ecosystem that optimizes, secures, protects and integrates the new technology with the rest of the business world—resulting in the true liftoff. The latter rarely, if ever, appears without the former. However, without building ecosystems, the technical curiosity can remain just that, or disappear, as collateral damage in the wake of something else.
No, You Can’t Go It Alone
A startup that believes its product can become core to the business of business must ask itself the question, “who benefits because I exist?” They must declare those parties important allies in the journey. These concepts are simple, yet often ignored. To build a better mouse trap, you don’t need an ecosystem, they’ll say. Guess what? We aren’t building mouse traps.