Aside from the philosophical question of whether entrepreneurship should deliver on every human whim, there are also circumstances where it seemed to start out well and end badly. A genuine need was addressed, making people’s lives better, but downstream impacts cause new problems.
Entrepreneurship shouldn’t cause problems for entrepreneurship to solve1. When I say entrepreneurship, I mean the eco-system of unrelated creative people and firms that are acting independently and sometimes competitively. Once an innovation comes on the market, many businesses build on it, with incremental innovations. That’s a good thing, but might come out badly.
A few examples, from my experience, where it seems solving the initial problem made new problems:
1. Anti-glare coating on eye glass lenses.
Problem solved: At night, traffic lights or headlights of oncoming vehicles dazzle and blind drivers wearing glasses. As the name says, the anti-glare coating eliminates this, making night driving much safer and more comfortable.
Problem created: a durable product, that could last more than 5 years, turned into one that needs replacing every year. The coating crackles and peals, making it impossible to see through the lenses that could otherwise last many more years.
2. Lightbulbs: Those things screwed into every fixture in the house, allowing people to see after dark.
In my childhood, there were three choices in light bulbs: 40, 60 and 100 watts. Every single lamp took the same light bulb base.
Fast-forward to this century, more energy efficient versions emerged, but still used the same base.
Fast-forward to now, there are a zillion different bases to light bulbs, so different bulbs are required for almost every light in the house.
Problems solved: decreasing energy consumption. Save the planet2, save money – what’s not to love? In Canada, legislation steered us away from the old, energy hogging bulbs, creating a need for compliant bulbs.
Problem solved part II: aesthetic products. Early versions of low-energy consuming lightbulbs were ugly, both to look at and in the spectrum of light emitted. New products looked like conventional lightbulbs and came in different ‘colours’ (bright white, warm white etc).
Problem solved part IIb: Customized bulbs for every application. Halogen spots became a thing in high-end kitchens a few decades ago. Could this have morphed into the opposite – lights would be considered high-end if they required specialized bulbs? So, eventually, every light required a special bulb. This is where I question if entrepreneurship is the answer, because I’m not sure there was a question. What problem was being solved with so many choices and customizations of light bulbs?
Problem created: it’s too stinkin’ complicated to put a new bulb in a lamp. Consumers are annoyed after rummaging through a household bulb collection to find the right one to put in the kitchen light before what’s on the stove burns, only to discover that despite owning 27 lightbulbs, the one required requires a trip to the store. This is the result of too much entrepreneurship in the lightbulb realm.
3. Construction fasteners i.e. screws, and nails.
Time was, pieces of wood were nailed together to make houses, furniture and many other things. The science, or the technology, of fasteners has advanced.
Physics says screws are better keeping two pieces of wood together, while nails are better at supporting a piece of wood that’s attached to another piece of wood. Screws resist pulling apart. Nails resist breaking apart.
Engineering comes along, using different materials and manufacturing processes for screws to make them as strong as nails but easier to deal with. Somewhere in this development, the screw head changed.
Bit of a segue: The head of a screw, which defines the type of tool required to turn it into place, has been contentious in NA. We Canadians are proud of the Robertson or square screw-head. It has way better contact and grab to torque the screw into place than the Philips, crossy head (my term), X-style screw heads. A Robertson screw can also be stuck on the end of a drill bit and moved into place with one hand, while the Philips screw needs to be position with a free hand.
Modern entrepreneurship has brought us the star-nosed version of the screwdriver, for Torx3 screws. Six points. Physics says that the surface area of contact with the star nose should provide easier driving of the screw from the added torque and also the better staying power of the driver in the screw head. The potential for slippage between the tool and the screw head not only slows down the work but is ultimately what leads to stripping the head and making it unusable.
Problems solved (by modern screws): nails are harder to work with than screws, but screws aren’t strong enough. Engineering delivered structural grade, outdoor grade, hanger grade, and other customized screws for specific functions.
Problem created: too may choices in screws requires specialized equipment (necessitating purchases and having the tools on hand), decreased convenience (through prep time or trips to find the right bit) and increased expense. Previously, screw heads only came in three sizes. Nails all go in with the same sized hammer. Torx screws come in 7 or more sizes.
The goal to replace the less convenient, but stronger nails with easy to use screws, has created another need for entrepreneurship to solve.
These three observations suggest to me that entrepreneurs could think about whether the problem they are solving is for a select few (niche market) or a general market. The niche market will likely love the specifics of the product. The mass market generally wants convenience.
1 I’m not talking about some evil menace plotting to addict people to a product but a more indirect effect.
2 This was early days of energy conservation, before climate crisis heightened the need to focus on lowering greenhouse gas emitting energy production. A time when electricity was expensive, so there was a focus on cutting its consumption. Currently we seem to be looking at electricity (greenly produced) as the best way, rather than fossil fuel derived approaches.
3 Dr.Seuss wrote a children’s book about the star-bellied sneetches, and how special they were. Can’t help but thinking there’s a parallel with Torx six point bits and screws. Hee-hee.