What is Enough to Start a Business?

Is a marketplace solution a good enough platform from which to start a business?


Is a marketplace solution a good enough platform from which to start a business?

One way to form a business is to solve a perceived problem in the marketplace; business planners identify a need and move to fill it. The thinking is: I’ll solve this problem and therefore I’ll have a business. But where does a business go once it has achieved its immediate objective? Striving to solve a problem is a great underlying reason to start a venture, but it’s not always a sustainable way to continue after you’ve hit your target. Instead, your venture has to evolve and adapt as more information about the problem (and the market) becomes available. PROBLEM Flintbox, developed (and still managed) by UBC Research Enterprises Inc., the university’s commercialization arm, began in 2001 as a way for the institution to describe various research projects its scientists were working on. The flintbox.com website was set up to solve a simple problem: the university’s commercialization office wanted to attract collaborators, partners and investors by letting the world know about the innovative research that was coming out of the campus’s rabbit warren of laboratories. But the information was extremely specialized – mostly research into medical, industrial or agricultural problems that were of interest only to a few other researchers, if they could find it. For example, one of the early postings involved “a software tool for diagnosing the causal problem or problems behind a vehicle failing an emissions test.” Let’s just say it probably didn’t set the heart of the average potential investor or collaborator thumping. By 2003 it was clear that while the website was a good directory of current UBC research, the world didn’t appear to be all that interested in it. The directory style required that someone out of the UBC orbit randomly find the listings and then attempt to contact someone involved in interesting research. Even though flintbox.com had grown into a national directory of institutions that were also interested in posting summaries of the research coming from their own labs, there was still no mechanism that was able to connect all the interested parties. Flintbox had achieved its objective but definitely lacked the all-important “need it, want it” factor that would make it grow. SOLUTION Flintbox’s development paralleled the development of the Internet. By 2005 the Web, which had started out as one-way information delivery vehicle, was evolving into a network of communities of like-minded individuals who shared information with each other. Sure, these community-building sites often look like the food court at the mall, filled with teenagers apparently chatting endlessly about nothing. But the explosive popularity of these social-networking sites has resulted in the creation of a new set of tools that can connect people with shared interests. Flintbox organizers saw the new tools and wondered why they couldn’t bring MySpace thinking to the academic world, whose inhabitants usually heard about each other through narrowly focused magazines, conventions or conferences. The people behind Flintbox responded by applying some of the new networking tools to their venture and refined the concept in a couple of pilot projects in 2006. Earlier this year, they went whole hog and launched Flintbox 2.0, an “intellectual property matchmaking system that redefines how industry and research connect, interact, and exchange IP.” The site now summarizes research results from North America and, most recently, Europe and posts those summaries to foster commercialization in the form of licensing, partnering or sale. Flintbox recognized that its real purpose was not just to create an electronic listing but also to create a gathering place for researchers. By designing a Web-based platform that fosters direct interaction between industry, researchers and technology-transfer professionals and allowing opportunities for licensing and collaboration, it formed an online community for innovation researchers. So what started as a dusty directory of research evolved into a vibrant platform on which the world’s supergeeks can talk to each other. Think MySpace to MyLab. LESSONS

  • A real organization is alive. It’s like a biological entity that grows and evolves in response to changes in its environment.
  • It’s the purpose, not the objective, that matters. All businesses have to have a purpose, and that’s a lot more than a simple objective. That purpose is what sustains the business once it’s past the start-up stage.
  • Constantly survey your environment. New tools and innovations are appearing all the time, no matter what sector an organization operates in. Use them to advance the business.

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