Lessons in exponential growth from Bold by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

In 1976, Kodak invented the digital camera.

You could be forgiven if you forgot all about Kodak. I had. Wikipedia says that, as of this writing, the company still has a bit over 6,000 employees. The company had to sell off a lot of its assets in 2012, and managed to make it out of Chapter 11 in September of 2013.

The company started way back in 1880, when George Eastman started manufacturing dry plates. It grew into film and then added cameras and eventually became a company that sold you a camera, the film and the developing.

And then they built the first digital camera. They owned the intellectual property on the technology.

They didn't care. They were early, and thought it was going to be a bust.

What happened? Peter Diamandis outlines it simply:

Kodak was married to the “paper and chemicals” (film development) business… their most profitable division, while the R&D on digital cameras was a cost center.

They saw the digital world coming on, but were convinced that digital cameras wouldn’t have traction outside of the professional market.

They certainly had the expertise to design and build consumer digital cameras -- Kodak actually built the Apple QuickTake (see photo), generally considered the world’s first consumer digital camera.

He would later write in Bold (co-written with Steven Kotler) that Kodak didn't take into account Moore's Law — which predicts the acceleration of processing speed — or the convalescence of other technology that would not only make digital photography viable, it would all but eliminate the film processing market.

In a city of 100,000 people (not big but definitely not nothing) and an art school, I know of one place to get film developed on-site. Anyone else who offers film developing sends it off for processing.

Probably to Kodak.

"Don’t be tied to your history," Diamandis goes on to write in his blog post, outlining a series of don'ts to help avoid your business being disrupted. More importantly, though, he offers tips for disrupting your own business, the way Kodak had the rare opportunity to do.

He suggests starting with adjacencies. If you make printers, look at ink. Look at what Apple did to the accessories market a couple of years ago, changing its charging sockets.

I won't rehash his post. You should go read it.

As you might imagine, if a blog post is full of great insight, a book that merely begins with the general premise of the insightful blog post must be something really worth reading, right?


Following are some of the more important takeaways, at least from my point of view.

As a business, grow exponentially. Use clear vision and big goals to motivate, and look toward major innovation. Here are some definitions and tips.

Exponential organizations spread exponentially through networks and are disproportionately large compared to the number of employees, while linear organizations have to add employees to add customers.

To think about this in action, consider, say, Facebook or Twitter. They can add a few hundred thousand customers and need to add a few people to technology support and security. If your local grocery store added a few hundred thousand customers, they'd need to add thousands of employees to help keep the shelves stocked and get people checked out.

Crowd-sourcing as much as possible can help an organization go exponential. Tim Ferriss talks about testing the title and subtitle of The Four-Hour Workweek on Google Ads, setting up unique URLs with "Under Construction" pages and seeing which title and subtitle combination drew the most visitors.

On the product side, Quirky calls for designers to submit products and the most popular ones wind up in their shop, with enough funding for fulfillment. It crowdsources product R&D while giving designers a place their stuff will get sold without having to deal with it themselves.

"Goal-setting is one of the easiest ways to increase motivation and enhance performance," he writes, noting that having goals increases performance and productivity 11-25 percent.

While having big goals is important to driving innovation — improving something 10 percent keeps you stuck with the same tools and limitations, he writes, while going for a 10 times improvement requires you to invent something — lining goals up with values can lead to some amazing work.

In 1943, the US Army charged Lockheed Martin with building something entirely new to help defeat the Germans, whose jet fleet was increasingly becoming a major threat in World War II.

Since improving existing technology only a little was not going to be a good strategy, Lockheed sent some engineers into isolation — where they would be uninfluenced both by the other work going on in the company and by distraction — and they created something brand new in a month.

They innovated and delivered a new jet months quicker than the Army even managed to get them a contract.

That project, the Skunk Works, still exists as an innovation team.

Other notes

Gartner hype cycle.

The Gartner hype cycle details the commercial success arc of new innovations. It peaks early and then crashes, but then works its way back up.

While the hype cycle research has been around for a while, we can see it clearly in recent technology, even in the internet age. Think about Friendster and MySpace. They peaked early, and while they're both still around, they didn't make it for the long haul, really.

It also puts me in mind of virtual reality. Remember the movie Hackers? Fisher Stevens' character stands on a VR platform with goggles and gloves. It's been around a long time, and is only just now — decades later — starting to get near to being in many homes.

The great Kevin Kelly thought virtual reality was coming in the 1990s. He tells Chase Jarvis he's not real sure it'll be in every household this time, but there's a reasonable chance he'll be wrong a second time.

The Six Ds of emergent technologies and exponential growth

  1. Digitalization — Anything that can be digitized can be subject to Moore's Law
  2. Deception — The first steps appear small, but if we think the early steps at .01, .02 and .04 all look like zero, we miss that we're getting toward one, and once we hit one, we're 20 steps from over a million
  3. Disruption — New technology comes along deceptively slowly then blows up
  4. Demonetization — The shadow economy in plain sight. Think Google giving away office tools (like Docs and Sheets) in exchange for data instead of dollars, or Linux being entirely free
  5. Dematerialization — Goods disappear, so do services surrounding those goods (think about Apple getting rid of the headphone jack)
  6. Democratization — Costs drop so low that (almost) anyone can afford them

Google's 8 innovation principles

Here are the ways that Google looks to grow:

• User focus
• Share everything
• Look for ideas everywhere
• Thing big, start small (iterate)
• Never fail to fail
• Spark with imagination, fuel with data
• Be a platform
• Have a mission that matters

Think at scale

These are the things that Larry Page (Google), Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink), Richard Branson (Virgin) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon, Washington Post) consider when growing their businesses:

• Risk-taking and risk-mitigation
• Rapid iteration and ceaseless experimentation
• Passion and purpose
• Long-term thinking
• Customer-centric thinking
• Probabalistic thinking
• Rationally optimistic thinking
• Reliance on first principles (fundamental truths)

Make stone soup

You're probably familiar with this old tale of soldiers who get a village to chip in to make a good soup from nothing.

You can throw something out there, and if it has a good foundation, others will chip in to help build your product.

Other resources

A few places you can connect with Diamandis and his projects:

Abundance Hub
Singularity Hub
Singularity University