May 2, 2021
Visit www.agileinnovationleaders.com for the full episode shownotes (including interview transcript and bonus resources - free chapter of Where to Play and Navigator worksheets).
Dr. Marc Gruber is full professor at the College of Management of Technology at EPFL where he holds the Chair of Entrepreneurship and Technology Commercialization (ENTC) and was Vice President for Innovation at EPFL in the 2017-2021 presidency period. Marc also acted as Associate (2013-2016) and as Deputy Editor (2017-2020) at the Academy of Management Journal (AMJ), the highest ranked empirical research journal in the management domain. Furthermore, Marc is co-author of the book “Where to Play: 3 Steps for Discovering Your Most Valuable Market Opportunities”, which introduces the Market Opportunity Navigator – a practical business tool that was recently added to the ‘Lean Startup’ toolset by Steve Blank and is used by tens of thousands of startups and established firms to improve their capabilities in opportunity identification and new wealth creation.
Marc Gruber joined EPFL in the fall of 2005 coming from the Munich School of Management, University of Munich (LMU), where he held the position as vice-director of the Institute of Innovation Research, Technology Management and Entrepreneurship (INNOtec) and established the LMU’s Center for Entrepreneurship. He has held several visiting scholar posts at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, where he conducts research on technology commercialization and entrepreneurship. He is also a visiting professor at the Business School of Imperial College, London.
Marc has published his research on innovation, strategy and entrepreneurship in several leading journals such as the Academy of Management Journal, Management Science, Strategic Management Journal, and the Journal of Business Venturing. In an independent research study on the most impactful entrepreneurship scholars (Gupta et al., 2016), Marc was ranked as the worldwide #1 researcher in entrepreneurship for the 2005-2015 period (shared #1 spot), and among the worldwide top 5 for the 2000-2015 period. Beyond his research work, he is currently authoring a textbook on technology commercialization and was the co-editor of a textbook on entrepreneurship as well as a regular contributor to a weekly column on entrepreneurship in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”.
Marc Gruber received a doctorate from the University of St. Gallen (UNISG) in 2000. In spring 2005, he received a venia legendi from the Munich School of Management (LMU) for his habilitation thesis on marketing in new ventures.
Websites/ Resource URLs
Marc Gruber contact/ social media:
Related podcast episodes
Hi everyone. My guest today is Dr Marc Gruber. He is a full professor at the College of Management of Technology at EPFL (a Science & Technology Higher Education Institution located in Switzerland). Marc is also the Chair of Entrepreneurship and Technology Commercialisation at EPFL and amongst his numerous other achievements, he co-authored the book Where to Play: 3 Steps for Discovering Your Most Valuable Market Opportunities with Dr Sharon Tal.
This episode complements the conversation I’d had with Sharon in Episode 6. This time around, Marc shares his side of the story behind the book. He also explains how the Market Opportunity Navigator fits in with other Lean Start Up tools like the Business Model Canvas, Customer Discovery & Development, etc. With no further ado, ladies and gentlemen, my conversation with Marc Gruber. Enjoy!
Dr Marc Gruber, thank you so much for joining me on the Agile Innovation Leaders podcast.
Marc Gruber: 01:41
Thank you very much for inviting me Ula. It is a pleasure to be here.
So, let's get started. Marc, I understand that you love art, can you tell me more about that?
Marc Gruber: 01:52
I'm a very visual person. That's why I think early on, I developed this love for art. You know, I like to go to museums, galleries, etc. and I think it inspired my research work, how I write, but also the tools that I develop for managers, for entrepreneurs… Because it should be visual. It should be appealing.
This is an interesting combination, because it combined somehow your love for the artistic, but also your research, you are typically very scientific, you are very rigorous and structured. And I think combining both worlds, it's actually quite an exciting journey.
Hmmm… Now, that's interesting. So, can you give me an example where your love for art has inspired your research work?
Marc Gruber: 02:35
Well, I … it's less that it would inspire my research work in the sense that I have a concrete research question based on it. But it's more like, whenever I write, you know, write a paper or article, I think I have this… it can be a nice paragraph. But I know that I could always improve on that.
It's more like a feeling that I have, that I think that there's an artistic quality towards writing research papers, that's where I see a lot of parallels. Because it's, in some sense, I when I write and there's a mistake, or there's something not so nice in the paragraph, I somehow view it, I see it, that's the link where art comes in… it can be improved. And same with music, you can hear if there's something that can be improved.
Now, that's an interesting analogy. I've also heard Steve Blank, say entrepreneurs are artists, and a good artist knows that the first instance of their work can never be the last one, there's always iterations.
Marc Gruber: 03:31
Exactly. And I think that’s when you write a nice research paper, or write any book or develop a tool, it should be the same type of instinct. You want to improve on it. You want to … not only do your best, but it has some intrinsic quality that you're trying to achieve that satisfies you.
Interesting, so do you paint also?
Marc Gruber: 03:52
Yeah, I should make more time for it. There’s no time now. I’m more of a passive art lover nowadays. When I go to conferences to give speeches, I like to go to the museums and galleries and check out the new artists, the established ones.
You know, so it's, this is kind of nice because once in a while you see a nice piece, and then you acquire it and then, it travels with you for life, because you have it. Being one of these people, I like to collect these things, I would never sell them.
Who's your favorite artist?
Marc Gruber: 04:24
My favorite one is Gerhard Richter from Germany. He's now 86 or so, he's a very accomplished person. He's one of the few who have truly shaped three, four different styles in art - coming up with them, you know. So you had Picasso with his different periods, but Richter has his very abstract art, and some photorealistic art, and so on.
So, you really shape three, four different types of art movements in that sense. And that's quite impressive, because most artists are happy and satisfied if they can do one thing, you know, one type of trademark art, and he has done multiple. That's quite unique. Then you try to, as someone who likes art, try to understand what's the intrinsic quality that cuts across all of them.
So, the feeling of knowing when something is finished, is it like a satisfaction or a sense of pride… is something you can describe with words?
Marc Gruber: 05:14
It's difficult to describe with words, but definitely, it's satisfaction - you like it. It matches your own aspirations. And you know it deep down and then you become immune to what reviewers would say.
So you think, ‘Ok, I’ve done the work that I enjoy’. It doesn't mean that I'm neglecting what the reviewers would say, that's an intellectual stimulus that you get then from the outside.
Now moving on to your book, Where to Play: Three Steps for Discovering Your Most Valuable Market Opportunities. So, you co-authored this book with Sharon Tal. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind this book?
Marc Gruber: 05:53
This book goes back… my research work… to about 2001 or 2002, when I started teaching that was back then at the University of Munich, about this early stage in entrepreneurship. And I had entrepreneurs in front of me who always struggled to figure out, not doing the prototypes, etc. They struggled to figure out for whom to do the prototypes, what is a good market to play in. And drive it in multiple ways number one to understand which market domains are out there for them, and which they could address in seconds and which one is might or may not be such a good one.
And this is a very interesting process that relies a lot on creativity etc. And we'll probably talk about this later on. But there was a paper by a very famous entrepreneurship researcher called Scott Shane. He studied 3D printing from MIT, how it was commercialized - as shown very nicely in his paper - that this technology, this innovation was commercialized by a couple of different people. But all of them basically applied it to the industrial domain, they knew best. Which basically meant, well, there were some people who applied it, maybe to print architectural models, others applied it to dentistry, etc. What was quite interesting for me was, the question while all of these people identified at least one opportunity, but there were some that were extremely valuable opportunities, some that were not valuable at all.
So, in that sense, what I asked (in) my research was, you know, could an entrepreneur who sees more opportunities actually benefit from this choice that that he or she would generate? And this is a question that when you look at it, it's a very fundamental nature to entrepreneurship, because the market you choose shapes, not only the profit potential, the value creation potential, but it chooses, it also shapes the identity, in a way, of the company.
So in that sense, I got intrigued by this question. I collected some data, then had the pleasure of having a research day at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, when I met Ian MacMillan, one of the very famous entrepreneurship scholars. It turned out that he grappled with the similar ideas that I had grappled with and I had data to investigate to analyze about these early stages in the entrepreneurial process. And we sat together, discussed it, and we have been working on this topic, as scholars ever since the first few papers came out, then end of 2008.
This was a very rewarding journey that took a couple of years, then Sharon, my co-author joined the team, where she did her PhD on the topic, collecting data mainly in Israel. And after she was finished, you know, there were now more than a handful of papers. There were other authors who had started studying this topic, knowing this from the research side, but on the other hand, also seeing that there's a lot of interest by startups, but also then from large companies and understanding this early stage process better. And then Sharon and I said, ‘Okay, let's write a book.’
‘Let’s solidify this; let's make sure that others can understand it and get it get access to the information because we cannot answer so many phone calls or write so many emails, always explaining the same thing.’
So, in that sense, a book is a convenient tool to multiply yourself. And that's how it (the book) came about. But it happened over 15 years of research that then culminated in an effort to write a book. We initially thought it was three months’ effort to write a book, it took us two years.
Oh, wow! So, 15 years of effort, of research and it took you about two years to now put together the outcome from the research.
Marc Gruber: 09:19
Yeah, we thought you know, we’ve done the research so we should be able to write it down easily… develop a tool, a business framework around it. But that was the hard part, to write something where know the depth, where know it from the research side, you have seen thousands of cases, and then being true to yourself as a researcher and say, hey, it should be simple but not simplistic. And this is a fine line to walk for any author. Because the tool will be applied when it's simple (and) easy to use, but it also will only be applied if it delivers real value. Everyone can dumb down any question as much as one wants but then it's not useful anymore. Finding that fine line between having a simple tool but that is still useful, valuable. So, it took some time to iterate, develop different visuals, develop different explanations.
After all, it I think it turned out nicely. It was just a journey that is common to anyone developing a prototype. So, in that sense, what we did there with the tool is nothing less, nothing more than developing another prototype. If you want to do it, well, it's not like a simple task.
I have read the book, it's so easy to read, very simple to understand, but not simplistic, as you’ve said. Why… it's quite easy to miss the amount of work it takes to make things easy and accessible.
Marc Gruber: 10:36
After the fact it always looks (like) it’s simple. That's exactly the reaction we want to have; that’s what a framework needs to do. It needs to boil down… guide you to the main issues, help you ask the right questions and give you good answers. Great admiration for everything Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur did with the Business Model Canvas book, because that's a fantastic book to really enjoy.
I have read that, yes. Could you tell us a bit more about the Market Opportunity Navigator? Because that seems to be the centerpiece of the book Where to Play.
Marc Gruber: 11:09
So, the book is called Where to Play as you say. It addresses this very fundamental question, ‘Which market domain should I enter?’ This is a question, if you break it down analytically, you can say, ‘Hey I first want to understand (the) playground, you know, my opportunity landscape. It's not straightforward to figure this out. Some people might think oh, I can only play in one domain but I am yet to meet an entrepreneur who actually is trapped in one domain only. Normally entrepreneurs can play in multiple domains using their competencies.
Let me give you a simple example. It's a drone company out of Lausanne (Switzerland), Flyability - that Steve Blank also featured in his blog post about the book. This drone company that has created a drone in a cage, of course for such a company, they were inspired by market needs in the nuclear energy domain, but then realized there might be better market domains out there. And they did it early enough to avoid any costly pivots. Oftentimes, companies realize that only after a couple of months, maybe even years that the market domain that they had originally identified is not as performant as it could or should be. Then they need to pivot.
We wondered - with our practical work with startups, with innovators and established firms - how to make this process a bit more philosophical. This doesn't mean you have a crystal ball and exactly know what the future will bring; this is not at all the idea. Quite to the contrary, in innovation, we all know that you cannot predict the future. But what is particular is that you can also already in advance, try to understand some basic features of your markets. You know, some are highly congested, some are not, some are growth markets, some are shrinking markets, etc., etc. So, there are parameters where you can say, ‘I can make an informed choice.’
Second, what you can do by having this from a bird's eye view is to bake agility into the DNA of your staff. Just think about the brand name you're gonna choose. If you have a company that is doing drones, you know, this company in Lausanne that I was talking about called itself Flyability. With this name, you basically can enter any type of domain. They could also have called themselves Drones for the Inspection of Nuclear Energy Plants. This would lock them in even more into this domain and would make a pivot even harder if it should become necessary.
So, in short, what we want to do with the method is to provide you with a tool to figure out what are your potential domains out there, your opportunities.
And second, provide a tool that allows you to become a more agile star. And both together I think, are a winning combination that allows you to navigate this difficult and uncertain process of startup creation, of early stage innovation.
Thanks a lot Marc for that. In your book, you summarized the Market Opportunity Navigator framework as consisting of three steps. Could you let the audience know what these three steps are please?
Marc Gruber: 14:02
With pleasure! The Market Opportunity Navigator has a main dashboard which depicts the three steps. The first step is the opportunity bag, you know, it's a little bag where you collect all the opportunities that you identified. The second step consists of a matrix that allows you to evaluate the attractiveness matrix. And the third step is to enter a focus, could we say, hey, that's where I focus and these could be good plan B's, in case my plan A doesn't work out or a good growth option in case my plan A works out.
These three steps are depicted on the main navigator board, but behind each step is a worksheet that helps you to walk through these questions and address the main question.
So, the first worksheet is dedicated towards helping you understand the different playgrounds you have, you know, the different opportunities that exist for you. It creates, therefore, the opportunity landscape.
The underlying idea is that you delink your existing competencies from a concrete application. You know, also in the case of this drone company, they should think about the drones, the capabilities, the competencies they have in their own right without really linking it to any domain. And then have a creative brainstorming session internally and externally with external people to understand what is really the scope of my activities. And this is the first worksheet that helps you to figure out the opportunity landscape.
The second worksheet is a worksheet that helps you to evaluate these options that you identified. This is a worksheet that builds on 50 years of venture capital research. Most of your listeners will probably be familiar with the venture capital domain and know that one of the core tasks of a venture capitalist is to understand the prospect of an early stage venture. Venture capitalists have developed a rich set of tools basically to analyze the attractiveness of potential ventures that are presented to them. And we drew on 50 years of research in this domain, and this was really hard work to bring them together into factors that shape the attractiveness, and factors that shape the challenge level in ranking an opportunity, which will combine to provide you with an assessment of how good or not so good these opportunities are.
Again, under uncertainty which means while you’ll need to maybe adjust your information over time etc. (because these are six factors in total), it had to give entrepreneurs and innovators a more complete view of the factors that matter. Because you might have realized that yourself when you talk to the entrepreneurs, they always excited about the opportunities they’re pursuing. Usually they focus on one dimension, you know, think about market size, ‘Wow, that's a big market - that's great!’ … or competitive advantage, ‘Hey, we are ahead of the competition. That's great!’ But normally what they don't have (is) a pluralistic view of all the key challenges that could hinder the development - time to first revenue, which is a key metric, as entrepreneurship has shown and how long it takes to make these sales, how difficult it is to make the sales, how big (the sales are), and so on.
So, you have a couple of metrics that in combination are giving you a more rounded picture of how good or not so good the opportunity is. And if you do this, not only for one opportunity, but for multiple ones, you will quickly realize that not all opportunities are alike. You know, some are high growth, some are low growth, some are highly congested, some are not so congested. With some you have a high margin, with some you have a low margin. And in combination, you have the matrix, which is then the second step in the (Market Opportunity) Navigator that allows you to assess each opportunity, but also the portfolio that you have.
The third step is then building on this one, where you can say, ‘Now that I've seen multiple opportunities, (I) have a portfolio in my hands, what should I actually do?’
And there, the tool is non-prescriptive, you choose what you want to do, you know, we have in the matrix, the gold mines - low challenge level, high potential; we have moonshots which have a high potential, high challenge, we have the questionables - which have high challenge but low potential; and the quick wins - which have low potential, but also have low challenge level.
So, you might want to say, ‘I’ll start with the gold mine’ or you might want to say, ‘I feel I am the next Elon Musk, I want to change stuff with a moonshot.’ Others might say, ‘You know, I’ll start with a quick win and use this to develop another opportunity; I’ll earn money quickly but then I’ll use the proceeds to do something bigger.’
And still others might say, ‘Hey, I love this other domain so much. It's a questionable (domain) but, there's another dimension of pleasure that I get out of this.’
So we're not prescriptive, but what we say is, ‘Look, you pick your favorite opportunity’, but what we advise you to do is to say, ‘Hey, there might be a second opportunity, a third one that is closely related, so that you have growth options that you can efficiently exploit over time.’ Or you have - if the first opportunity doesn't work out - you have a good plan B.
That's actually quite an interesting concept. It's not something where you invest a lot of time, but in case things go sour, don't materialize, with your first choice… you know, you want to have a pivot that is not as painful as it could be. If you have to pivot, you want to have one that doesn't consume all your energy, your resources, your time or financial resources. Pivoting could be easier, if you have good foresight.
I like the illustration in your book, that's around having a backup plan that would help with a seamless pivot where required when you showed two mountains, and there was a bridge. It’s kind of you know, depicted that when you have all these details, and you know what your backup plan is, you also would be working consciously to make sure the infrastructure is there, and you are not starting from ground zero again, if you need to pivot.
Marc Gruber: 19:35
You can make it more flexible. Look at this drone example I gave you two minutes ago. This is something where you can say, ‘I know that the drone can be applied to inspecting bridges as much as it can be applied to inspecting silos, farm equipment, etc.’ What you do is to build a drone that is going to be more flexibly adjusted.
And this is like picking a great brand name that you can choose to use for these different domains. As much as that takes initially with a little bit of foresight, some agility into your venture that can make a big difference. When we talk to venture capitalists, they said, ‘Okay, this is a great tool, we wish every startup would come up with a Market Opportunity Navigator to (show) us, because it can clearly tell us that they have figured out what an attractive market is.’ ‘They know what they do, they know what they don't want to do. They know what their plan B could be and they know that they are not a one trick pony that can only grow in this domain, but can grow in other domains.’ This is creating an exciting value creation journey for the startup but also for the venture capitalists.
Also, when you think about it, the little force that you can give to the entrepreneurial venture that is affordable under conditions of uncertainty, this little foresight that can get you a long way.
It could be the difference between success or massive failure really.
Marc Gruber: 20:48
Absolutely, you know, I’m still yet to meet the first startup that really said, ‘I enjoyed pivoting.’
This is often a task that creates not only financial inefficiencies, but a lot of worry in the team. You know, one of the founders firmly believed in a domain and that turns out to be not so great and the need for (a) pivot arises. It's also loss of status maybe within the team; there are quarrels, there are fights, there are redirections.
This is not a pleasant period and if you can make this at least smoother by baking this agility as I called it into the DNA of your venture, a lot is gained. And if you maybe can avoid, like on average, not every startup, but on average, a significant number of startup can avoid pivoting then I think the process is also one where that is more rewarding.
You have explained the first two steps: searching broadly assessing deeply. And this all leads to the Agile Focus Dartboard. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Marc Gruber: 21:52
Yeah. So, you can picture in your head a dartboard actually with three layers… You have the focal element - that's the opportunity to focus on. And we are big supporters of the idea that you should focus on an opportunity, especially in your startup. When you have three, four people, it's nonsense that you chase too many balloons; you focus on one, but you keep others open as a secondary. Say, ‘Hey, I passively observe, I read newspaper reports maybe once in a while. So, I have a passive knowledge about these markets and keep myself current, because I realise that these might be interesting, additional options for me.’
And then we have the third (outer) ring, which we call the storage where you say, ‘Look, there are some opportunities we studied, and they don't work out for us. So, we put these ideas away.’
And this is actually more helpful than one might initially think. Because when I talk to entrepreneurs about this third step, they say, ‘Hey, look, this putting away is as valuable for us as the focus, because it helps you to keep what you might want to call mental hygiene.
You have so many things constantly to address, to worry about in your venture, (so) if you can put something away, that's actually a relief. And that's why this third ring is actually much helpful to entrepreneurs. With the tools, you come from something unstructured, creative where you have a lot of opportunities, lots of options to something where you have evaluated them to a third step where you say, ‘Hey, that's where I should focus.’
And that's then the focal point where, and I'm sure we talk about other tools later on, like a business model canvas, customer development, customer discovery, minimum viable product. We would say, ‘Hey let's learn with additional tools, whether this market domain that I selected is actually a good one.’ So big picture of the tool is providing you with some kind of meta learning. You say, ‘Okay, that's what my company could potentially do.’ I create (enable) agility. Now, let's learn about the ‘how to play’ - the business model that works in your domain; the ideal prototype that you could develop for your target customers.
So, the ‘where to play’ and the ‘how to play’ then form, the yin and the yang, if you want to call it that way.
You’ve nicely segued into the next question I have, which is about other business tools that the Market Opportunity Navigator can be used with? Can you go into more details on this, please?
Marc Gruber: 24:10
So, when we designed the tool, we actually were careful in saying, ‘Hey, we know that there is a unique aspect to it that none of the other tools addresses. Let's design it in a way that’s plug and play with the existing tools - so, it's non redundant. And actually, when we discussed with Steve Blank, he loved the idea so much that he'd said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna write a blog post about it, and integrate your (Market Opportunity Navigator) tool into my Lean toolset because it's missing some additional valuable learning that is critical for entrepreneurs and innovators.’
So, it's non redundant with the other tools, but it forms a more complete tool, and therefore delivers value for the question but delivers that additional value to the other tools and vice versa. There's a nice blog post by Steve Blank called Stop Playing Target Market Roulette; a New Addition to the Lean Toolset.
Yes, I've read that.
Marc Gruber: 24:57
Wonderful blog post, and it teaches this Flyability drone example, if you want to look at it.
We'll put it in the show notes. Yeah.
Marc Gruber: 25:04
And there he explained actually how the tools work together. If you think big picture, you can say, well, the market opportunity navigator helps you to understand where to play, what is a good starting position for your venture. And then you would say, ‘Hey, for this starting position, for this domain, I now try to develop a business model that is appealing. And in order to develop a good business model, I need to figure out product-market fit.’
So, I do customer discovery, I do a minimum viable product - we all know Osterwalder/ Pigneur’s Business Model Canvas, you know. Steve Blank’s tools about minimum viable product, customer discovery...
The Lean Startup…
Marc Gruber: 25:39
…Exactly! The Lean method that is then extended and say okay, there's another layer to the lean that method. That's how he features it in the blog.
So, what you have is basically, a nice suite of business tools that work nicely in conjunction. Each one adds value to the other one.
And that's why I like to use them in my own classroom and my work with startups or with large enterprises. I like to apply them as a suite of tools because then people understand the logic behind each of them, but also get much more utility out of them if they combine them.
Hmm. So, it sounds like you know, the Market Opportunity Navigator gives you a view at a higher level, a macro level. And then once you've gotten those details and you've narrowed down on where to play, you can now drill down into you know, developing the business model canvas and testing your hypothesis using the Lean Startup method.
Marc Gruber: 26:34
If you look at the Lean Startup tools, Business Model Canvas, as well… they don't really tell you where to play, you know, they assume that you have a market.
Also, if you look at design thinking, you know, it's an important method nowadays and (needed) in the toolbox of any innovation manager, but it assumes you have a target market that is useful to investigate, to spend time before doing design thinking. But the question is, might there be a better target market out there where it's even more valuable to apply design thinking that is not addressed. Also, the Market Opportunity Navigator helps to address the question therefore, makes the design thinking method for that business model canvas all the other tools we have talked about, more valuable because it's more promising to do (use) them.
Do you so far, the focus of the conversation has been on how this market opportunity navigator framework is useful for startups? Can large organizations get some use out of it as well, if so, how?
Marc Gruber: 27:33
That's a very good question. The book is written mainly from the perspective of startups. If you apply it to established companies, you know, I've done that multiple times now in workshops, this can be applied extremely smoothly. Established companies typically use the other tools. For the established companies, the where to play question is extremely important nowadays, because you know, you have all the new technologies that provide new competencies.
And with the tool… I’ll give you a very concrete example. You know, an established watchmaker can understand that when by putting sensors into the competence set, they could actually become a medical device company. Because they say, oh, we now have a watch that can measure your blood pressure, that can measure maybe your sugar level for diabetes, whatever it is, you know, and that's a where to play question. And technology enables so many new uses; AI, put AI into your established products, and you can become a different animal as a company.
When you look closely what the very successful Silicon Valley companies are doing, they are not bound by their initial turf. A prime example is Uber. Uber moves wherever it can grow. Uber moves, wherever it can grow based on competencies, you know, and acquires new ones on the way to make the opportunity space even larger. I think we are living in an exciting time because technology enables so much that you can become as a company, a very different animal, that doesn't mean that you have to lose your first initial market domain. But it means you play in additional markets. And Rita McGrath, my colleague from Columbia Business School, she's very nicely depicted this in her book, The End of Competitive Advantage, where she says, look, we used to live in a world dominated by industry, we’re actually nowadays living in competing arenas. That means, you know, wherever firms move, wherever they can grow, their measure of success is the share of the potential opportunity space. But that’s a fluffy concept. What is an opportunity space? What's the share, you can get out of this one? That's a very pertinent question. And the virtual playbook gives you basically, the tool that helps you to understand what's your opportunity space, this doesn't fall out of heaven for the companies. If Apple moves into car manufacturing, this is an entrepreneurial step where they say, ‘okay, that's an opportunity that we identified’. Among many opportunities that they identified that this is one that they’ve deemed worthwhile to get into.
And then there's managerial questions about how to exploit this opportunity to hire away people from Daimler, partner up with Fiat… whatever, you know, those steps are to explore this opportunity. But initially, there's the where to play question for Apple, for Uber, for Google, for any type of company, out there, and you can close your eyes to that and say, hey, we are only in our home turf, but then others might have set their sights on your home turf.
Now think about what happened to the cellphone manufacturers, you know, they were attacked, they didn't die, because the second one, Ericsson took over Motorola and became bigger than Nokia. Now, it was the computer manufacturers who said, hey, we can play in the cellphone domain. And see, and that's where this arena concept is extremely pertinent. And therefore, tools that help you to understand what your competitive arena is - where to play - become important. That's where the book becomes important. What usually larger or more resource rich firms can do is to not only exploit one opportunity, but they can do multiple ones.
So, the third step is one where they can focus on a handful, maybe a dozen opportunities in parallel, create an interesting pipeline. But even then, when I talk to the large companies, they don't want to waste money. They want to understand where they could play and what could be a good plan B if my first option doesn't work out.
They also want to be lean and agile.
Marc Gruber: 31:13
If you can achieve a higher innovation outcome … strong innovation outcome, with less effort, with less resource consumption, of course, that's a winning formula.
Hmm. That's true. Do you then have any other books in the pipeline, will there be a sequel to Where to Play?
Marc Gruber: 31:34
At the moment is no sequel plan because the book has been out for two years. When you look at how long it takes until books are known to people, understand and apply them… It takes some time until a tool actually is diffusing into the market.
And a good example is Steve Blank’s books. They were extremely successful, but it also didn't come from Sunday to Monday. But it took some time until people heard about them, saw them, saw the usefulness, they create a following. And then the same happened with Osterwalder and Pigneur’s initial book, which was the Business Model Generation book, which took several years until it hit mainstream.
That's why the Where to Play is a book, which was launched, people adopted it, it got translated into multiple languages, Steve Blank featured it as a part of the Lean Startup toolset in May last year.
So, I think the journey is still on the early side. And so, I prefer setting my sights on helping others to apply it, understand its value, because I firmly believe in the value and how it can help people become more successful entrepreneurs and innovators. Maybe, at some point I’d say it's time for a second one. But you know, not yet, not quite yet.
No problem at all! Right!! So, are you a reader? Would you say you like reading?
Marc Gruber: 32:47
I love reading. I like reading and I actually can read quite quickly - that's the benefit. But some of the stuff you don't want to read quickly and that's the annoying part, because then you don't have the time to read it slowly.
What would you say, are your two favorite books and why?
Marc Gruber: 33:02
There is a book from 1959 from Edith Penrose. She's one of the eminent academic scholars. She has written a book called The Theory of the Growth of the Firm. This is an extremely insightful book in the sense that many of the things we're discussing nowadays are actually foreshadowed by her, half a century earlier. And it's a very nicely written book, it basically says, ‘Look, if you want to understand the growth of firms, you just have to look at the imaginative power of its C-suite and that is a function of their education and experience in print.’
And it's just one element of the book, which makes it exciting because it foreshadows a lot of the diversification literature we see; the growth literature that we see nowadays. And it has very powerful patterns of explanation that help you to understand why some firms are growing very strongly, while other firms might be very constrained in how they think about what they could do. Ultimately brings it down to a very intriguing level of understanding because it connects the cognitive element to the resource base of a company. So, I recommend that definitely to everyone.
Another one that I like a lot is The Entrepreneurial Mindset by Rita McGrath and Ian MacMillan. This came out in 2000. And it's one of those books that combines a lot of entrepreneur insights. It's based on a couple of HBR (Harvard Business Review) papers that MacMillan and McGrath had authored in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. They put them all together in this book with a lot of added new content, and a lot of new theorization, examples, etc. So it's one of those books, you read it and say that was a milestone, too, when you read the book by Steve Blank and by Alex Osterwalder, from Eric Ries, the more recent one, but you begin to understand the intellectual roots that each and every book has the heritage of the thoughts, how the fields developed, how we nowadays think about stuff, but also where it has its roots maybe 20, 30 years ago, or in Penrose’s case, more than half a century ago.
It is interesting, because you find out that there are connections and no field kind of suddenly springs up on its own, there are connections.
Marc Gruber: 35:13
Yeah, that’s it. If someone has a bit of reading time over the next few weeks, months, over the summer on the beach - this is definitely a set of books that you can take with you and you understand management and entrepreneurship, innovation management, in their very fundamental and intriguing manner.
I already have some of the books in my library, I now have some recommendations for new ones. So that's much appreciated.
So, given how much you've accomplished over the years, what would be your advice for someone who is starting up and who might aspire to walk the path that you're on currently?
Marc Gruber: 35:53
For me, it was important for my own career as a professor to understand where to play. In the sense that I always had more paper opportunities - articles or research opportunities than I could possibly do.
So, I basically had my own portfolio of opportunities, and I had to discriminate where I thought this might be a better research question. This might be a more intriguing question than another one. So, I think I applied basically what I early on, you know, in my research what I later on said in the playbook. That's number one.
Number two, you can always push harder. If you think your paper is nice, you can make it even nicer. That's like 110% level; you push yourself and try to understand what your limits are. I think that's an interesting aspect to discover within yourself and not to be too satisfied too early. Which makes you grow, basically a recipe for growth, because you say, ‘I push harder, I tried to learn more, I tried to write it even better’ and then you push yourself over your own limits. And that's the satisfying part that leads to what I've just said earlier, when you know, I was talking about art and the implications for art. A good artist doesn’t give up early, a good artist pushes himself to understand the new frontier. And I think as scientists, we are pushing the frontiers and, you know, in that sense, giving up too early is not a good recipe. You always can do better, because that's the way you learn.
And that brings me to my third advice as to being a professor, being an academic. You get paid for pushing the frontier, and then you get even paid for talking about how you push the frontier.
So, it's never boring, you know, because you try to push the frontier. It's a wonderful experience to learn more and to say, ‘Okay, I understood something that maybe other people have not yet understood’, and or at least from this perspective, have understood, and then you talk about it, and you get feedback. It's a process that keeps you young as well.
It's important to enjoy the process as well, don't you think?
Marc Gruber: 37:50
Yeah, but don't tell it to my employer because he is paying me for doing this job you know.
I wouldn't. Okay, right. So how can the audience reach you Marc?
Marc Gruber: 36:27
The audience can email me at email@example.com. We have an interesting website that you might want to check out, it's called wheretoplay.co, www.wheretoplay.co. There, you can register for our newsletter. So, we every other month, we update the latest news, latest slides that you can download all this stuff for free.
You can get webinars about the method. You can, if you're a trainer, a coach or consultant, you can get the material there for free to apply it in your activities. So, worksheets are in the open domain download. We have basic slides that you can use for teaching the method, for doing your consulting. All of that up on the website, check it out, wheretoplay.co. You just have to register and then all this material is available to you.
Oh wow. All for free?
Marc Gruber: 38:52
All for free
Wow, that’s impressive
Marc Gruber: 38:56
You know, we’re currently also working on an app - so that what I described as a process becomes more of a very playful exercise.
That's great. Are you on social media?
Marc Gruber: 39:04
All on the usual suspects except for Instagram. Marc B Gruber on Twitter, it's on LinkedIn, on Facebook - you find me with my name. That's about it, you know?
Is there anything else you want, the audience to check out, or do?
Marc Gruber: 39:19
You know, if people (would) send us emails about how useful it was? If you have the chance to apply (these concepts) please do and let us know your experiences. It’s so rewarding for Sharon and myself to just listen to your stories, how it helped you, etc.
You know, we get many stories of entrepreneurs saying ‘Oh, we wish would have applied it when we were young…’
‘…We could have avoided some mistakes’, you know. Then they still applied and they are a bit progressed in their careers and that's exciting to hear as well. Please share your stories, email us, leave them on the website. We want to hear from you.
Great! Well, thank you so much for your time, Marc. It's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.
Marc Gruber: 40:02
It's my pleasure entirely. Thank you very much, Ula.