This time I will try to engage your honorable beautiful minds with Columbus Eggs.
Lets see if we can get beyond unicorns and killer apps in business lingo.
Columbus egg is a catchphrase most Italians are endowed with, so much endowed that we are not even clear about its origins anymore.
As I was pitching a business idea, I mentioned it was a Columbus Egg, then realised my counterpart might have no clue what we mean by it in Italian, and – odd all the more – all of a sudden realised I had no idea why we have this idiom.
So the Columbus Egg story is rather straightforward.
Columbus, the last man to discover America, as he is sapiently dubbed in a great book I was recently presented on Ancient Romans navigation techniques, was sitting among Spanish nobles and told that travelling to America was no big accomplishment.
He challenged all sitting at the able to make the egg stand on his tip.
He then tapped on the egg slightly as to break its tip and was thus able to make it stand, to the amazement of the dignitaries.
So what is a Columbus egg in business?
It’s a solution to a known problem that is so easy that you ask yourself why no one has ever thought about it before.
Now if we are talking entrepreneurship, the answer to that is that often it’ s already out there, but you are not aware.
It’s just that you haven’t googled well enough.
There are 6 bln souls out there, 2 bln are already connected and another 2 bln is forecast that will be connected by 2020. Can you possibly imagine something that someone has not already come up with? Statistically improbable.
That was the case for me in 2000, when we wanted to launch an eLance like business in London and with a gang of heroes we registered firstname.lastname@example.org, its business plan has been on my Linkedin profile for years, got a lot of reads and downloads. I now uploaded the entire project. After 20 years it’s well deserved.
We were far ahead of the curve, if you look at eLance performance eLance was funded in late 1999, so months only before us, but we were not aware at the time, hoping the full doc does not state otherwise, else I will amend this part.
But eLance took a very long time to flourish and I think it was not until 2004 that it actually made some profit.
Our rational for work@home for rather straightforward.
eCommerce was dealing with physical merchandise, ebay and amazon had already been launched. No one was doing services, and services in modern economies make up for at least 2/3 of gdp, often more.
With work@home we decided not to proceed when we realized that there was another player out there from Spain (remember at the time there was already pressure for scale and go international asap) but was already multilingual in English, French, German and Italian. That does not mean a thing as it might just be translation. But scared we were supposed to be and scared we got.
Digital is one place where you don’t want to come second (well well .. the strategy amateur in the shoes of your author might not entirely agree on this: think Friendster and MySpace before Facebook and think Fast Second by one my favourite Strategy Professor, the funniest one for sure, Kostas Markides).
So we aborted flight before takeoff, but with the engines already at maximum rpms.
Good choice? Bad choice? We will never know.
What I can say is that the Spanish player failed, eLance took years to flourish and a few months after we all accepted our nice offers in consulting and finance, the new economy tanked in little over a few months and things became awkward for all involved.
But it has to be said that there have been studies of companies funded during bust cycles and they actually come out stronger.
The reason is a bit like those creatures thriving in harsh environments, like certain bacterias – the Thermophile – that live at very high temps or in very acid environments. Once you learn your ways, you are very safe out there, as you are alone.
So it could have possibly been a success. It “could”…
Back again to Columbus Egg and the closure of this piece, a CE in business is a a very simple yet genius idea, one often requiring limited resources, rather a different and innovative way to do the same old things, or new things. Recombining the same old parts (a patent analyst at Epo European Patent Office in Munich – where Einstein was spending his days a century ago – once told me that my patent submission was just that, a recombination of well known elements. But isn’t cuisine a recombination of all known elements? Can cuisine be very creative and innovative yet after centuries? It certainly can. In EU we don’t patent business models, just innovative technology.
If it wasn’t for Columbus in America there would still be trees and a local population.
If it wasn’t for his eggs, I would have not written this piece this morning.