visionaryHere’s a popular misconception: To be an entrepreneurial visionary, you need a unique idea and the ability to envision it as a future product. You need to see that thing that is invisible to others yet teasingly stares at you. You need to go big or go home. You must dedicate yourself, your life, to your idea. Because only you have heard its call, and because this beautiful, singular, and painstakingly detailed vision burns brightly in your brain.

You are on fire. This big idea is your big chance, hence you code feverishly 24/7, which propels you into the perpetual ramen-profitability of the favela-chic startup lifestyle.

What? Why?

Because you have fallen victim to the Myth of the Visionary, the mistaken idea that visionary entrepreneurs – revered talents like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford – are able to envision a future, based on some supposed unique idea, upon which they must simply execute to create a disruptive product.

But that’s a sucker’s bet – a buzz saw that enthusiastic would-be entrepreneurs walk into and emerge, at best, cut up and scarred – but usually, painfully eviscerated watching the remains of their precious idea bleed out in their hands.

This myth manifests itself in entrepreneurs with two types of pernicious behaviors.

Most typically, entrepreneurs, those we call the “inflated,” confidently declare themselves as visionaries. Their primary driving force is nothing more than their firmly held (yet untested) conviction in their own ideas. They scoff at interacting with their customers, willfully ignore market feedback, focus on building product for themselves, not on validating the quality of their ideas, and consider skepticism a debilitating weakness.

They go “stealth” and most of them will fail miserably.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the “deflated” – those who fail before they start – who flail at generating an impeccable “Big Idea” and therefore view themselves as non-visionary, neither worthy nor capable of creating a great product.

Being a visionary, however, has less to do with any specific idea than with committing to relentless change. The former is trivial; be stubborn and persevere undaunted. The latter is onerous and painful; propel your idea forward as you steward its evolution.

Arguably, the most disruptive aspect of the iPhone is the App Store and the ecosystem of third party apps, which didn’t exist until the summer of 2008. Opening the iPhone to third party developers was something that Steve Jobs vehemently resisted, since he felt such an action would, as Walter Issacson noted in his biography of Jobs, “pollute its integrity.”

Jobs had good reasons for resisting opening up the iPhone – remember, when he launched the iPhone at MacWorld in January 2007, he pitched it as a 3-in-1 device. Equal parts touch control iPod, revolutionary mobile phone, and breakthrough Internet communications device, a product over which hardware, software, and content Jobs and Apple held firm control, having been burned on an earlier collaboration with Motorola and Cingular on the ROKR.

Apple board member Art Levinson, venture capitalist John Doerr, and Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller lobbied Jobs, arguing that that such a powerful platform as the iPhone would benefit from inviting third party app developers to create new services.

Jobs’ initial solution announced at WWDC 2007 was to allow third party developers to develop Web 2.0 applications (with access to iPhone core functionality), which iPhone users could access through Safari. Developer reaction was largely one of irritation. In response, the emergent ‘jailbreak community’ spun up Installer.app and Cydia, which allowed developers to build apps for jailbroken iPhones and for users to download and install third party apps.

Rather than sticking to his initial vision of the iPhone as a defensive market response to the potential of cellphones eating into the fat profits of the iPod market, Jobs made what appears to be a Solomonic product decision by announcing the iPhone SDK in spring 2008.  This was his answer to consumers who wanted third party apps for their phone to do things that Apple hadn’t even considered.

Refusing to be held captive by (his own) bad ideas, he altered his vision to capture the best of both worlds, retaining control of iPhone apps with a strict app approval process while allowing third party apps to flourish.

Steve Jobs, like other great entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, didn’t have a perfect vision of the future. Neither should you.

As Jony Ive observed about Steve Jobs’ impact on Ive’s own ideas, “The ideas that come from me and my team would have been completely irrelevant, nowhere, if Steve hadn’t been here to push us, work with us, and drive through all the resistance to our ideas into products”.

True visionaries are not like the Myth of the Visionary would have us believe, they are not rocks in a stream – stubbornly refusing to be moved – but are more like water flowing around obstacles while synthesizing inputs, making tradeoffs, and learning from the market to create great products with great impact.

Don’t believe us?  Take it from someone who knew (emphasis ours):

As you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows, it never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it. You also find tremendous trade-offs that you have to make. There are certain things you cannot make electrons do, or plastic or glass or even factories or robots. Designing a product is keeping 5,000 things in your brain – fitting them altogether in new and different ways to get what you want. Every day you discover something new that is a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together.

That’s from Steve Jobs in “The Lost Interviews.”

Take it from him. Don’t fall prey to the Myth of Visionary and assume your idea is either too perfect to alter or too incomplete to start. Pursue the change, not the idea itself.

[Image courtesy gentlepurespace]