Simplicity is the common thread that links all great ideas. and sometimes they arrive like a lightning bolt. We asked three innovators about their ‘A-Ha’ moments.
Sabeer Bhatia — Co-founder of Hotmail
The idea for Hotmail came to my business partner (Jack Smith) and I back in 1995. We were employed at the same company and were happily exchanging information over our private email (AOL.com & Stanford.edu). Then the company installed a corporate intranet firewall and it became impossible for us to access our personal email accounts. We began exchanging information on diskettes, floppies — even pieces of paper — then we created a website where we could download this, upload that. It was really cumbersome. One afternoon Jack was driving home from work and said, “Sabeer, I have an idea. What if we had email on the web?” I said, “Jack, put down the phone. I don’t want anyone to hear this. When you get to a landline, give me a call.” He did and we discussed it for about two hours. I stayed up all night writing a business plan. When I arrived at work the next day my boss said, “Sabeer, have you been partying again?” I said, “Yeah, something like that.”
We knew we were onto something really big. Nineteen venture capitalists actually turned us down. They questioned our business model of giving it away for free. But it solved a problem for us, and instinctively we knew that it would help others, too. Now there are 200 million Hotmail subscribers, and 400 million subscribers of web-based email. The best ideas are the simplest ones. If it takes too long to explain an idea to someone over the phone, it probably is not worth doing.
Sabeer Bhatia was in Australia late last year as a guest speaker at TiECon2004 in Sydney. TiE is a non-profit global network of 10,000 entrepreneurs and professionals committed to the commercialisation of great ideas.
Sir Martin Evans
Director of the School of Biosciences and Professor of Mammalian Genetics, Cardiff University
‘Father’ of Embryonic Stem Cell research
I wouldn’t say that there was so much a single moment of inspiration, but I do recall a very clear moment, in 1981, when I looked down the microscope and saw the pluripotential stem cells that Matt Kaufman and I had isolated from a mouse embryo and grown in tissue culture. It was clear that these cells had great potential because we could to some extent control their development and differentiation by altering their growth environment.
This certainly was not a serendipitous ‘A-Ha’ moment, as we had set up the experiment to test exactly this. But it was a satisfying moment of revelation, and it was pregnant with possibility. I actually lost those cells but was able to reproduce them quite regularly thereafter. The beauty of empirical research is that it is there in front of you. It is clearly demonstrable, so the doubters are easily silenced.
My research has all been performed on mice. While stem cell research offers great promise for human beings, such application requires serious thought and strict regulation. The argument for stem cell research on humans is similar to the GM crops debate. It is a moral as well as a scientific decision for each society to make following extensive discussion. It is not for me to decide. I can merely advise and urge caution.
Sir Martin Evans was a special guest at AusBIO2004. He was accompanied by a delegation from the Welsh Development Agency (WDA), a dedicated agency sponsored by the Welsh Assembly Government to drive the development of the Welsh economy through diversified business sectors.
Lindley Edwards — CEO, Venture Group
I don’t really have profound ‘A-Ha’ experiences that lead to momentous decisions. The reason, I think, is that I spend time each day reflecting, which is conducive to a series of smaller moments of realisation throughout each day, rather than earth-shaking epiphanies every once in a while. The reflection space is created by taking some time to do something like write, to sit quietly, to exercise or do an art-based activity.
In the early 90s I saw a documentary on Carl Jung called ‘Matter of the Heart’. One of Jung’s statements in this documentary had a huge impact on me. Jung stared into the camera and made a comment along the lines of this: “Unless you actively seek your destiny, fate will cause it to happen. The challenge with fate is that it happens in one instant whilst continual seeking allows gentler change and adjustment”.
So I have opted for the continual adjustment path. I find that taking the time out to reflect allows me to see connections and patterns that are not obvious, to see below the surface and to read the play/situation better and with more insight. I agree with the postulates of Jung and others of similar ilk, that is much wisdom resides in our unconscious/subconscious minds and that making time to connect more into our intuitive selves is essential to live a life well lived and to encourage the processes of innovation.