Startup 101

Jim Cossler:
Look Ahead, Not Back

January 30, 2018

One of the best parts of my job over the past 20 years at the Youngstown Business Incubator is the time I spend every day trying to look into the future. It was always important for us, as an organization, to do so.

Why? Because, first and foremost, we had to try to predict where the next iteration of a technology was heading if we were to keep our startups one step ahead of the game. So that’s what we’re going to share with you in this column, a look at the future, so you, too, can stay one step ahead.

There should be no doubt that the ever increasing sophistication of our technology has had, and will continue to have, a profound effect on each and every one of us.

We will live longer – and healthier – lives. Diseases will be prevented. Diseases will be cured. More birth defects will be corrected in the womb. Death by accidents, such as car crashes, should be all but eliminated.

And we’re going to work less. Maybe, not at all.

A growing number of scientists and researchers are beginning to talk about a “Post-Work Economy,” one where humans no longer engage in what we know today as work.

Sounds, farfetched, right? Well, not to some of the people who give serious study to such matters. Not to the people who really understand the power, and implications, of advancing technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine vision, machine learning, augmented and virtual reality, IoT networks, 3-D printing and additive manufacturing, genetic engineering and robotics.

In the end, there simply is no law, scientific or natural, that dictates that human activity is required to produce a product or service for human consumption. And all of these aforementioned technologies are eliminating the need for human activity.

Case in point: the almost miraculous recent performance of Alpha Go Zero, Google’s latest iteration of its artificial intelligence technology. Without a single piece of human input, without using a single human datum, without using human expertise in any fashion whatsoever, Alpha Go Zero, in three days, developed its own superhuman intelligence. Completely on its own.

New technologies, unquestionably, will lead to massive jobs losses in the coming years. As an example, once Autonomous Vehicle technology fully matures, and is adopted, it is projected that 3.8 million jobs will be lost in our domestic transportation industries. That said, new technologies will also lead to new opportunities, opportunities we can only imagine, as well. But, only for those prepared.

One need look only at the massive disruption that technology has created in the retail industry to understand both sides of that equation.

Technology massively disrupted the retail industry because it allowed one of that industry’s business “rules” to be rewritten to the advantage of its customers. Since the beginning of commerce, the legacy business rule has been: “The customer will travel to the product.” The digital technology of e-commerce changed that. The new rule is: “The product will travel to the customer.”

No surprise here. Customers like the new rule better. And because they do, bricks-and-mortar retail stores are being shuttered at shattering levels all over the world. Millions of jobs have been lost in retail. Not because we are buying fewer products, but because e-commerce retailers require substantially fewer workers.

So where’s the opportunity? It lies in the power of digital. And entrepreneurship. More important, in our ability to fully understand and capitalize on both. What digital has done for us is to completely democratize business, particularly the retail industry.

Before digital, starting a retail store required significant investment capital. You had to pick the best location. You had to build or lease your storefront. You had to build out your merchandising displays. You had to hire employees. And on Day One, your business had a “geo-fence” built around it, that is, the distance a customer would travel to you, or your trucks would deliver to them.

Digital changes all of that. Case in point: Shopify. For as little as $29 a month, Shopify will give you a world class e-commerce storefront platform that can be up and running in under one day. Without you needing more than the most basic of digital skills.

Major upfront investment? Gone. Location concerns. Nope. Need to build out merchandising displays? No longer. Need to hire employees? Gone. And the best news: The sales barrier of the geo-fence? It crumbled. On Day One, you have the ability to reach customers in every corner of the world.

The retail industry is far from the only industry facing massive jobs losses. We’ll talk about more of them in the coming months. In the meantime, start thinking seriously about the future. Your future. And how you can incorporate the power of digital into it.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.