Two common obstacles that would-be entrepreneurs face are expertise and infrastructure. As the argument goes, unless you’re A) a subject-matter expert, and B) flush with cash, you can’t start a successful company in a field you’ve never worked in.
Fortunately, these two assumptions are outdated -- and just plain wrong. The fact of the matter is that many people handicap themselves from reaching their own dreams; crippled by an unconscious fear of failure, they default back to lack of knowledge and capital as reasons to defer their dreams even further.
But thanks to the power of technology, you can bypass these obstacles, leapfrogging over them so that they become just a speedbump on your journey to success. And you’d be in good company too: a huge range of organizations, from cash-strapped startups to industrializing nations, use this valuable technique to overcome these hurdles to development and prosperity.
What is leapfrogging?
Leapfrogging is actually a very simple concept with plenty of real world successes. Basically, a nation (or a corporation) uses advances in technology to skip over stages of development that older, more established countries (or companies) have had to go through. In the past, for example, nations needed lots of physical infrastructure to communicate over long distances, such as telegraph lines, and later, copper wires and fiber optic cable. Today, many developing nations simply skip right over landlines and go straight to 3G and 4G networks.
The examples don’t stop there, however. Africa, in particular, is a hotbed of leapfrogging, thanks to two factors: a lack of infrastructure and plenty of mobile technology, like smartphones. Take Kenya, where the private sector has made an art of turning adversity into opportunity. Faced with an unreliable power grid, entrepreneurs founded M-Kopa, which provides simple, cheap solar panels for homes; each kit can charge and run several appliances (like TVs, smartphones, and computers) at once. Further, users receive a small loan to purchase and pay for the kit, and once they pay it off, the solar panels are theirs.
But M-Kopa itself relies on another decentralized solution common to developing nations: mobile payment. Kenya’s formal banking institutions are few and far between, but it is a leader in e-money: there are around 17 million Kenyans (two-thirds of the country) exchanging around 25 percent of the gross national product on M-Pesa, the country’s largest e-payment system. In 2016, there were 7 billion transactions, and parent company Vodafone has launched M-Pesa in other nations, like Romania, Egypt, and India.
Who needs a degree when you can leapfrog?
But leapfrogging isn’t just for banks and solar panels; it can also be valuable for personal and professional development.
It’s a cliche that your college degree won’t be relevant to your job--but it’s true. In 2010, the Federal Reserve of New York found that only 27 percent of college graduates had a job that was closely related to their major. Even college might not be as valuable as you might think, as the Fed found that only 62 percent of graduates had a job that actually required a college degree.
That’s not to say that college is a waste of time or money; after all, the most important part of business school isn’t necessarily the curriculum (unless you’re at a top institution like Wharton or Stern), but the ability to network. But even if you don’t have a degree in a certain industry, don’t let that stop you from working in that field. Overall, our society is transitioning away from the traditional model of education (where people attend school and then work) and towards lifelong learning, where people learn, work, and continue to train in different areas as they change careers.
That’s where the internet comes in. Because it holds the sum total of all human knowledge, it’s possible to train yourself in technical skills and specialties online. For example, top-notch schools like MIT and Columbia offer a huge range of free classes in disciplines like design, business, and engineering. And for those who prefer a more personal touch, there are also bootcamps: intense classes that run for three months, covering skills like coding, UX, and design--usually for a fraction of the price of college.
On a personal note, leapfrogging played a huge role in my entrepreneurial journey. I founded Titan Aerospace in 2010 to realize my childhood dream of flight: in my mind, I wanted to build high-altitude, solar-powered drones to transmit internet to developing areas worldwide. But at the very beginning, I didn’t have any relevant experience; aside from some fond memories of flying balsa wood models, I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t have the required skills in fields like CNC, CAD, or composites, and I certainly didn’t have much capital.
But I had one thing that previous generations didn’t: the internet. I spent hours combing through articles on Wikipedia, watching tutorials on Youtube, browsing free lessons on websites like Udemy, and tinkering with open-source design software. I also used Meetup and student clubs to recruit passionate, like-minded dreamers. Four years later, I sold Titan Aerospace to Google.
Without the internet, none of this would have been possible. In earlier eras, to even think of working as an aerospace engineer required years of training and work experience. Thanks to the internet, I was able to leapfrog these obstacles, building a talented team and picking up important skills for myself along the way.
What might leapfrogging look like for you?
Let’s say you are passionate about internet access and want to found a company to take on companies like Comcast, a massive internet service provider (ISP) that is one of America’s most hated companies. Unfortunately, there are two issues: first, you might not have a background in telecommunications engineering or information technology (IT). Second, building out broadband infrastructure requires a lot of capital.
Instead of laying out trunks of fiber optic cable, you could use direct, point-to-point access: beam your internet using wireless transmitters in a mesh network. In fact, the technology already exists: though providing internet wirelessly is associated with the nation’s proposed 5G network, these mesh networks already exist in New York City and Spain (although they tend to be nonprofit organizations).
Whatever you decide to do, remember this: establishing and building your own business is hard, not impossible. With technology on your side, you can leapfrog all sorts of obstacles, whether it’s a lack of experience and technical knowledge or the need to build out expensive, massive infrastructure. So don’t let you talk yourself out of chasing your dreams.