When 500 Startups founder Dave McClure visited us a few months ago, he was sporting a t-shirt that said, “GET OUT OF THE BUILDING,” in big, Frankie-Goes-To-Hollywood letters. A reference to Steve Blank’s core philosophy, the phrase exhorts developers and entrepreneurs to get product in the hands of customers as early and as often as possible, leaving the navel-gazing environment of the cube and interacting with real live people to see if they actually want what you’ve got.
Today, renowned Googler Craig Nevill-Manning came to speak to the faithful. He was visiting us in the same spot that had welcomed Dave McClure: the Enterprise Precinct Innovation Campus (EPIC). EPIC was created by two local tech entrepreneurs who were displaced by the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. The campus now houses 19 IT companies.
Crais was effusive in his praise of the concept. “We all know you can talk to anyone, anywhere on Skype -- or,” he quickly corrected himself, “Google Hangout. But we also know that’s not where the magic happens.
“The magic happens when you’re making a coffee and there’s a guy next to you and you’re randomly chitchatting. And you mention a gig you’re working on or an idea you’ve got or a thing you’re passionate about, and next thing you know you’re doing a project together.” I’m certain I did not get that quote exactly right, but the essence of Craig’s comment is accurate: Physical proximity allows for the kind of random encounters that lead to serendipity. You only connect with someone on Hangout, he went on to say, when you already know that the opportunity exists -- the very antithesis of serendipity.
And serendipity is a Very Good Thing. It’s what turns mold into penicillin, or non-sticky adhesive into Post-Its. It’s one of the great heroes of innovation. It drives revolutionary change rather than evolutionary change.
Yes, I noticed that the two examples I used were not about co-location. But there’s still a parallel. Penicillin’s Fleming and sticky-note’s Fry understood the importance of their accidental inventions because that was the space they were in. They spent significant amounts of time thinking about the problems they wanted to solve and were able to notice potential solutions. When you are face-to-face with people who may offer you different perspectives on the problems you are grappling with every day, you are far more likely to stumble on the unexpected answers.
This is why Skype will never replace cities, and why cities are considered a more fertile environment for innovation than the countryside: because the greater the density, the greater the opportunity for ideas to bounce off each other, gaining purchase and momentum until a final catalyst transforms them from a, “Yeah, that might work,” to a, “WHOA. That is SO FLIPPING COOL!”
Steve Jobs said that creativity is just connecting things. So if you’re wanting for inspiration, find new things to connect. Leave your usual colleagues, your routine meetings, and your pre-planned encounters aside, and find the good folks who can help you chew on ideas or approach them from a different angle. Bumping into people at the coffee machine will do more for your serendipity than Skype ever could.