Selling Wine Before Its Time

Illustration by Luisa Jung

Once upon a time there were just a few destinations, hotels, and restaurants readily identified as iconic. These descriptions usually flowed from their unique atmospherics, their commitments to superior service, and consistently delivering culinary delights that earned them a truly enviable reputation. In essence as well as substance, iconic enterprises are characterized by fidelity. Faithful patrons have learned the quest for authenticity is only rewarded along a critical pathway that leads to full satisfaction. As if by contrast, the experience gained by not paying attention to the road ahead or where we’re going, typically yields a fleeting gratification at best, , , if at all.

The entrepreneurs of yesteryear usually identified a need within the community and then worked diligently; rising to meet that need. Today, the business plan often starts with a cool looking icon drawn on a cocktail napkin. In true style over substance fashion, identifying and delivering on promises made to the ultimate consumer can be an afterthought. The brainstorming sessions focus on the aspirational while the essential functions are relegated to an oft neglected category as backfill. Such an approach to entrepreneurship often gives short shrift to even the most foundational considerations.

Consider the promise of personalized medicine and, specifically, the recent Theranos experience. The marketplace is crowded and delivering on the promise of personalized medicine can be lucrative. Even disciplined business professionals usually have to compete with the ruffles and flourishes of forward looking statements contained in their rival’s fundraising prospectus. The idealistic goals put forth are probably yet to be realized. However, the legal consequences for damages, when others rely on such statements, are mitigated through disclaimers.

We have become acclimated to the current reality dynamics. Rightly or wrongly, we’ve come to accept a simple fact: When competitive pressures are on the rise, the line between potentials and actuals can become blurred. As more and more attention is devoted to the next raisin’, less and less mind-share is made available to focus on the fundamentals.

Theranos was not a lemonade stand. It was a highly complex startup with many moving parts. The idea that the skill-set required to be a tech industry entrepreneur, are somehow comparable to that of a custodial CEO riding a mature legacy business, puts the value proposition and the global competitiveness for our country on a plane of unreality. The future focused visionary is an essential component, as is the custodian. And, complementary relationships, with compatible talent, do not just occur independent of time. They are carefully and methodically forged.

In the mid 1980s, I served as one crazy-assed visionary for a Fortune 500 company that manufactured computer, television, broadband network, and cable television products. My job was to do product development in a way that leveraged such a unique product complement during a time when computer based imaging was considered to be too specialized an application to have any real market potential. While there were others in the company that shared my team’s enthusiasm for such an intrepreneurial effort, I was not an engineer. The company assigned an electronics engineer, who just happened to be a vice president, to my case. His job was to remind me of the laws of physics while also insuring that I was properly provisioned.

As a product development guy, foremost in my mind was what the customer wanted. It was way too easy to step in sumthin’ when your main customer was the Federal Government. So I was grateful that I was teamed up with a VP that was also a double E. In federal contracting that line, between actuals and potentials, was extremely important if you wanted to avoid jail time. And so, maintaining a timeline that accurately reflected the likelihood of product availability was key to survival. To this end I also made sure the government agencies I worked with had, in their possession, prototypes of my products so they could see the true functionality at any given time within the product lifecycle.

There are always things you can do to protect your enterprise from any claims of misrepresentation. The discipline required to actually do them, in the face of unrelenting commercial and political pressures, requires focus and persistence. For most entrepreneurial efforts the leading edge in the marketplace is seen as the bleeding edge because you are typically hemorrhaging money at the outset. Tesla was an exception. By selling the first Roadsters to the wealthiest individuals among us for $109,000, the company was able to recoup most of the development cost for its early prototypes. By early 2021, you could buy a standard range Model 3 for under $42,000.

Clearly Theranos could have and should have done things differently. Somewhere between the vision and the implementation, investors were misled. And while there is always a cost associated with full disclosure, that company might have survived after working out the kinks in their production chain in a more forthright manner. Unfortunately, we’ll never know. But one thing is certain. Personalized medicine will become real just as surely as I’m able to watch a movie on my computer-based handheld imaging device.

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