Faith, idealistic goals, and scale: success tips for entrepreneurs from Melissa Schilling, author of ‘Quirky’


Melissa Schilling shares her insights on innovation and entrepreneurship, the contribution of academia, scaling tips for entrepreneurs, the power of crowdsourcing, and innovation policy.

NYU professor Melissa Schilling is the author of Quirky: The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators who Changed the World (see my book review here).

The book presents seven traits of breakthrough innovators: separateness, extreme self-confidence, creative mindset, a call to higher service, driven to work, harnessing trends, and access to resources. The profiled innovators inclue Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Elon Musk, Dean Kamen, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and Steve Jobs.

In an interaction with YourStory, Melissa covers a range of topics about entrepreneurship and innovation, and her next book on women entrepreneurs.

Edited excerpts:

YourStory: What is your current field of research in innovation?

Melissa Schilling: As professor at New York University, I research and teach innovation strategy. I have done quite a bit of work on network externalities and platform industries, alliance networks, and breakthrough innovation.

YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?

MS: Great question! I got a lot of positive feedback and invitations to do interviews and speeches. I also received a number of inquiries about why there weren't more women or people of colour in my set of case studies. I had to explain to people that the book started out as an academic research project and I used a strict research protocol that selected the innovators rather than handpicking them myself.

They had to be at the top of multiple “most famous innnovator” or “most famous inventor” lists, they had to be known for multiple breakthrough innovations in science and technology, they had to have multiple biographies written (in English) about them, and there had to be abundant first-person material (quotes, interviews, recordings).

This strict set of criteria meant that I was looking at a window of people from roughly 1750 to today, but in practice, most people who have had multiple biographies written about them have already completed their careers -- there are few contemporary innovators with multiple biographies (Elon Musk being a notable exception).

Unfortunately, since women and people of colour had much less access to education, science and business in the past, they were significantly underrepresented in “most famous innovator” or “most famous inventor” lists, and there were few about whom multiple biographies had been written. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future, and there is much more diversity among the innovators of today. I'm working on something specifically about women now.

YS: How would you formally define the terms creativity, invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship?

MS: Innovation is the application of a new idea to a useful purpose. It can be a new business process, a new scientific method, a new technology or product, etc. "New" and "useful" are key here. An invention is typically defined as a new and useful product or process. To be patented, for example, an invention must be new, useful, and non-obvious.

Innovation is thus somewhat broader than invention because "the application of a new idea" doesn't necessarily require the creation of a new product or process -- it could be the use of an existing product or process in a new way, or it might involve a new idea that someone might not think of as a new product or process. All of the people I studied were innovators, and seven of eight were also inventors (Einstein is not typically considered an inventor).

Creativity is the creation or use of original ideas, but they need not be useful. Drawing beautiful pictures in the sand, for example, would be considered creativity but not typically considered innovation or invention.

Entrepreneurship is usually formally defined as the creation and operation of business, including bearing the financial risk, though in practice some people think of innovation as being a form of entrepreneurship even if it is not business oriented or occurs without risk bearing. Entrepreneurs also do not have to be innovative; they could start a replicative business that closely imitates other businesses.

I study innovation. It often has implications for entrepreneurship, but I did not set out to identify the most famous entrepreneurs for this study (although I did that in a previous study with Will Baumol and Ed Wolf).

One more important note: sometimes people look at the list of the people I studied and say "But XX isn't really an innovator, but only an entrepreneur". That indicates an incomplete knowledge of the person's history. Anyone who takes the time to know the life story of any person in my set here will know with 100 percent certainty that they are innovators.

YS: How big a role does academics play in innovation? Can innovation be formally taught?

MS: This question has a complex answer. On the one hand, many innovators are self-taught, which shows us that formal academic training is not always necessary and sometimes even harmful in that it can make someone a rigidly paradigmatic thinker.

On the other hand, all of the most prolific innovators I studied invested heavily in intense study of academic books, suggesting that the existence of academic research and documentation of scientific knowledge is extremely important.

Dean Kamen is a great example -- he didn't like school, and was a mediocre student. However, he reads science textbooks and teaches himself things. Elon Musk taught himself rocket science by reading seminal textbooks in the area. Edison had only a few months of grammar school but had read many of the great classics in science and physics by the age of 12.

With respect to whether innovation can be formally taught, I would argue an emphatic "Yes", though not that many people understand yet how to teach it. We can teach people to be better at abstraction, which can give them a "bigger picture" of a problem or situation and help them see alternative paths to a solution. We can teach people to follow longer paths of association that help people come to more sophisticated innovative ideas.

We can also teach people to train themselves and trust themselves, both of which will help them to become more innovative. I have an article on "The Cognitive Foundations of Visionary Strategy" that lays out some of these processes and gives contemporary examples.

YS: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from startup to large enterprise? How can these challenges be addressed?

MS: Scaling is one of the hardest and most important parts of growing an entrepreneurial business. Many people can come up with a useful new product or service, but scaling up requires a more complete understanding of the economics and value chain of that product and its market.

Timing is key; you need cash flow, or a source of capital, to come in at the right rate to build up production and distribution capacity, or you can suddenly find yourself insolvent and your business evaporates even if its underlying idea was a great one.

It's a bit like running a restaurant: lots of people can come up with an interesting dish to cook but effectively running a restaurant requires that you can anticipate the dishes that will be ordered, have supplies on hand so that you don't run out but not so many supplies on hand that you're wasting money, prepare the dishes in the right sequence to get them to customers when they order them, make sure you have enough staff to serve everyone well but not so many staff that you have people idle, etc.

Most of the operation of a restaurant isn't about that great dish you came up with, and it's the same for any other business. This is why many entrepreneurs bring in professional managers with experience in manufacturing or supply chain management as they scale up.

YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘stick to your vision’ and ‘adapt to a changed world’?

MS: This is where a big idealistic goal comes in very useful. If you are pursuing a big, far-reaching and important goal, these two axioms are no longer inconsistent. For example, Musk wants to colonise Mars to preserve the human species.

He doesn't just want to create reusable rockets for the sake of creating reusable rockets; they are just a means to an end. This means that if the world changes in such a way that reusable rockets no longer look like the best way to colonise Mars, he will happily adapt while remaining committed to his vision.

YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for an innovator, or can the creative bug strike you at any time?

MS: There's no ideal age for an innovator, but it is true that people often allow themselves to become entrenched in their beliefs and rigid over time, which is why we think of innovation as being something youthful. Young people haven't yet been indoctrinated into all the assumptions; they are still forming their beliefs and ideas.

The key is to never become dogmatic, never assume you know all the answers, and never assume that everything you have learned thus far is completely correct. Always be learning, and always challenge assumptions.

YS: Who are some of the modern-day innovators you admire the most today? What makes them outstanding?

MS: I admire Elon Musk because he’s not only brilliant and courageous, but he’s also keenly idealistic. All of his projects are about preserving the Earth and humanity (though not everyone understands that!). I admire Dean Kamen for the same reasons. I admire Jack Ma (who founded Alibaba) because of his creativity, perseverance, and general positive attitude.

You have to be optimistic to be a breakthrough innovator -- you have to believe the world can be better and that you can be an agent for change. Jack Ma has this optimism and tenaciousness, even though he experienced a lot of rejection and failure when he was young. We can learn a lot from that.

I admire Oprah Winfrey because she is intelligent and fearless, and built an astonishingly successful business during a period when that was extremely uncommon for women, and especially uncommon for African-American women.

I admire Uma Valetti, who has created a company called Memphis Meats that grows real meat from small biopsies of animal cells. Animal agriculture contributes as much to global warming as the global fleet of cars. Eliminating animal agriculture would drastically reduce greenhouse gasses, significantly reduce land and water consumption, be a more efficient use of the planet’s food resources, and reduce cruelty to animals.

Developing the technology is expensive and risky, and Uma left a very secure well-paying job as a cardiologist to start this company. But if he and others working on this technology are successful, it will radically and positively change our world.

YS: It’s one thing to fail with a product, and a bigger dimension to fail with a company. How should founders regroup in these two situations?

MS: Innovators need to embrace failure as a natural and valuable part of the process. Most innovations are going to fail, as are most entrepreneurial ventures. You have to learn from it, and just treat it as one more step toward your success.

Every successful entrepreneur I've met has been a serial entrepreneur. They didn't become famous from their first idea; they became famous from their 12th idea, or their 20th idea, or 100th idea.

YS: Are new models like crowdsourcing and open innovation opening up new methods beyond those of quirky innovators? How should introverted innovators adapt to this changing reality?

MS: Crowdsourcing is a great opportunity for the introverted innovator. One of the biggest obstacles for a person with a great deal of creativity but also a great deal of separateness, nonconformity or awkwardness is that they struggle to find the people who can help them execute on their ideas, and they may also struggle to work for others or to convince people in the workplace of the merits of their ideas. That is often their Achilles heel -- most innovations require some degree of cooperation to make them happen, and innovators are often poor at cooperation.

But crowdsourcing enables the innovator to contribute their idea to a platform designed to take those ideas and make them happen. A good crowdsourcing platform is seeking valuable and novel ideas, and doesn't care whether the innovator is charming or has the ability to raise capital. It fills an important gap for the introverted innovator.

YS: How can social entrepreneurs and non-profit organisations make use of your model?

MS: Social enterprises, non-profit organisations, and for-profit organisations have exactly the same challenges and opportunities with respect to innovation and all of the ideas in the book apply as aptly to for profit and non-profit organisations.

Innovation doesn't even have to happen in the context of an organisation; it can happen in your home, among a group of people with a shared goal, etc.

YS: What are the top three success factors for government and industry to work together and grow innovation and entrepreneurship in their countries?

MS: Wow, what a big question! I'd say the top three would be:

  1. Meritocracy: Governments need to be especially wary of making decisions based on cronyism or based on the size, age, or reputation of a firm. They should instead be open to working with all kinds of organisations, and any resources they contribute need to be allocated based on the quality or potential of the project.
  2. Use regulation that promotes competition and the safety of consumers and workers, but avoid regulation that stifles the formation of new companies (such as limiting licences to operate or onerous taxation of new ventures) or the formation of international relationships (e.g., some countries have historically limited who companies can partner with). Any rule that creates favouritism is very likely to prioritise processes from the past rather than processes for the future.
  3. Government has the ability to bring people together to work on important ideas, for example by forming special research centres to address an important problem or through funding the creation of a science park or incubator. It is key to remember that money usually isn't the true bottleneck for innovation (none of the innovators I studied began their careers with any wealth); finding people who can help you execute your ideas is the true bottleneck. The more that governments can find ways to help people find and access the people they need, the more innovation will result.

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

MS: I've got a couple of projects I'm developing, but the next book is likely to be about the value of disagreeable women. Part of why women have historically been underrepresented in innovation is that to be a breakthrough innovator you have to have ideas that break with the past and you have to be willing to fight for them even if nobody agrees with you -- you have to be willing to be disagreeable -- and in many cultures women have been socialised to be agreeable.

I'm not talking about the kind of angry, loud, disagreeability that Steve Jobs was known for, but the tenacious "I'm going to do this even though you don't want me to" disagreeability that Marie Curie was known for. Embracing this kind of disagreeability could unleash a lot of good things.

YS: What is your parting message to innovators and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?

MS: The most valuable characteristic all of the innovators I studied had was very high self-efficacy, i.e., faith that they could overcome all obstacles to achieve their goals. It was like a superpower that gave them courage and grit. Self-efficacy can be cultured, and it can be learned (I give some examples of how in my book).

We should all be working to increase our own self-efficacy and the self-efficacy of others.