As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. If you really need something, you will figure out how to get it, or how to engineer a workaround or tool to aid in the process. Our ancestors must have thrown a heck of a party for their fellow caveman Zog when he invented the wheel in 3500 BC.
Other major human inventions or discoveries such as the printing press, the steam engine, the lightbulb, and penicillin/antibiotics similarly ushered in immediate paradigm shifts for how mankind lived and thrived, and the inventor of each will forever be known for his contribution to history. Whether he was recognized at the time or not, anyone living today can look back on those achievements and recognize how and why they changed the world when they did.
“Most important problems aren’t that hard to solve. It’s just that no one has really tried.” - Larry Page; founder, Google
As time passes and the world continues to become more complicated, it is easy to believe that “Eureka!” moments will be fewer and fewer, and humanity will settle for more technological evolution rather than creation. The internet is a good example. Certainly the most important technological advancement of the last generation, today’s internet was not really “invented” in the sense that we traditionally think about inventions. Its backbone was shaped starting in the 1960s, became more clear in the 1980s, and eventually took the current form in the early 1990s. No, Al Gore did not invent it, and no, it is not really clear who did because a number of individuals contributed to the many building blocks that eventually came together to create what we see today.
Name any currently discussed breakthrough and the conversation will be similar. Who invented artificial intelligence? Who invented the self- driving car, the delivery drone, or the concept of the blockchain? Technological innovation is moving faster than at any point in human history, and yet there aren’t many famous inventors running around in the vein of the Wright brothers or Thomas Edison or Jonas Salk. The reasons for this are primarily twofold: 1) most modern innovation involves incrementally improving some existing process or concept, and 2) because intellectual property tends to be owned, licensed, and marketed by companies and not individuals.
Just as Mark Zuckerberg is the creator of the social media platform Facebook, Howie Liu is the creator of an organizational software tool called Airtable. Liu, the son of Korean immigrants, grew up in College Station, Texas as his father worked through a biochemistry Ph.D. at Texas A&M University. He attended Duke University (graduating in 2009 at age 20) and passed on a high-paying software development job at Accenture to start his own company right out of college. Within two years he had sold that company to Salesforce.com, worked within Salesforce on a messaging app, and quit Salesforce to think about starting up another business on his own.
Above: Howie Liu, Airtable founder. Forbes, 2018
Airtable was born in 2012 and raised its first capital – $3 million – in March 2013. Liu and team spent the next two and a half years perfecting the product and its underlying software, and the consumer version of Airtable was launched in late 2015. The easiest way to describe Airtable is that it is like a shareable version of Microsoft Excel, on steroids. A user can input any type of data, from numbers to text to pictures to web links, and then organize or sort the information in any way imaginable. It is user-friendly and simple for users with no software programming experience to build even complex databases. But the real beauty of the product is that it can be shared real-time among users and manipulated in any number of ways, collaboratively, between two people or two thousand.
As of early 2019 the company has raised $170 million of investor capital, has 80,000 companies globally using its software, and is valued (according to its latest round of investment) at $1.1 billion.
Howie Liu’s namewill never be mentioned in the same sentence with the world-renowned inventors like Gutenberg or Edison. His path to success, though – like that of many modern-day inventors – is actually very similar. These people made a decision to strike out on their own and blaze a trail where none existed. The method of delivery is very different in the 21st century, where venture capital and other investors back entrepreneur-owned companies and the founders typically receive little fanfare unless their company rises to unicorn status. But the spirit of the inventor is the same.
Basic necessity was once the mother of invention. That statement was apropos for millennia, but today it hardly seems that residents of the developed world are faced with necessity anymore, at least at first glance. They have most of what they really need to survive in the short term, so innovation has become focused on efficiency. Airtable makes it more efficient to share complex data with co-workers and friends in the same way that the iPhone makes it more efficient to conduct business while moving around.
In order for economies to continue growing and for societies to continue improving their quality of life over time, efficiencies must continue to be wrung out of energy production, transportation, food production and distribution, and almost any other area of life that we could consider. The nature of large companies – even those like Google or Microsoft that would profess to be innovators – is that bureaucracy and layering tend to relate inversely with true innovation. The reason Microsoft’s latest version of Excel does not contain some of the forward-thinking features found within Airtable’s product is not because its engineers are incapable of coming up with good ideas. It is because Howie Liu, untethered to extraneous responsibility and distraction, put himself in the position to focus for years on creating something altogether more functional.
Above: Illustrated progression of the wheel
Innovation like this is generally not conceived and executed by huge companies or governments. It is born from the bottom up, in the mind of the trailblazing individual. Numbers are important in our business, but creating value through financial investment is more about people and relationships than income statements and balance sheets. True North’s and Western’s partnerships with and connections to these people – clients, operators, industry friends, and anyone else in our fraternity – remain our most valuable asset.