Earlier this week I was in a skull session at the Institute for the Future, hosted by Howard Rheingold and nominally about bite-size classes that could be held in real space or virtually in a multimedia network. As a reflection to the 'fast teaching' meme, I tossed out some ideas about 'fast learning' using the nets, largely personal observations since the VC trade repeatedly faces one with the need to get quickly acquainted with a market or technology, starting from general knowledge. It was suggested that I write it up, so here you are:
Caveats up front: This may not work for everyone. I'm a fast speed reader and skimmer, and have worked with (even written) text search engines for twenty years. In short, I'm a text head. As one participant at IFTF observed, if your primary learning modes are verbal or image input, this might not work. Second, this is a bit longer than my original riff. I've made it more complete by assuming a start point in evaluating an ongoing market, rather than jumping right into technology, as I did there. Third, I've framed it in VC terms, but substitute your own starting input and conclusion process and you're good.
There are two observations behind this methodology. First, every technology and market has a private language. It's built of terms of art, but also names of landmarks such as products, famous papers and projects, labs, and researchers and other experts. To begin to understand the market you need to learn this language. Fortunately, such a distinctive use of language and interlinkage of people and information artifacts is the very best thing you can have to feed Google or other modern search tools. The second observation is that the best way to learn a field is to watch experts argue about it.
So let's assume you've had a meeting with a new venture, claiming to be able to commercialize a new technology that will be significant in an existing marketplace. It could be a science project, it might have no entry barrier, the market might not care, but you like the team and their market logic seems sensible on the face. You want to dig deeper, and see if their arguments hold up, but you're not ready to lay down the cash for a consultant, and may not want their biases at this stage anyway. Now what?
1. Pull out the PPT or exec summ. Extract the following: Names of competing products and companies. Any apparent terms of art or catch phrases. Names of any domain experts or advisors cited.
2. Run searches on various combinations of the competitors. You are looking for reviews or survey articles, as recent as possible. Skim them. Make sure these guy's idea isn't obviously misfit or already common knowledge. But you're mostly looking for more names, particularly of analysts, technologists or researchers who are commonly quoted. Add these names to any you extracted from the PPT. Add any newly discovered competitors to the search list and repeat.
3. Track down the analysts, and technologists associated with existing competitors, using the net. Where do they work now? What else have they done? Read their output. Do they seem to know this field, or are they 'generic'? You're looking for competitive analysis, and also for corporate white papers. The latter will be 'spun', of course. What you're trying to extract are the key competitive issues, current and envisioned, and the code phrases used by the various competitors to tout their advantages and diss the opposition. You may strike out on the analysts if it really is a nascent area; Gartner doesn't follow $0b markets. With luck, you'll know someone on the list, or have a mutual friend. Buy a couple of lunches. While waiting for your schedules to align, do the following.
4. Track down the researchers, their labs, and any technologists not currently in play. What you want to find are survey level papers, or even better a graduate level course deck or project paper. These can be pure gold - loaded with definitions of terms of art, and without spin. Digest. Build your own little glossary of the technology and market. Pull out the key phrases from the original pitch, and compare. If they match, your candidate venture is using the consensus language of their field. Score one point. If not, they are in some way disconnected from the market, or they are inventing terms to make their positioning look good. Dig deeper. You now also have your initial list of diligence experts.
(3-4a. Did you run across any public policy reports or government sponsored lab work in the process? This is called 'free research', though it has its own spin. Use as a crosscheck on terminology, and on the qualifications and points of view of your experts list.)
5. Marketers argue through marcom. Engineers and researchers tend to have at it in more direct ways. Somewhere, there is a good argument going on in this field. Go find it. It may be on blogs, mailing lists, or at conferences, but it's likely to have an online presence and perhaps an archive. Read as much as you can handle, taking careful note of people and company names. If you're lucky, the same venues will also carry lists of positions wanted and available.
6. Get a big piece of paper, your various lists of terms, people, products, etc., and make a network graph, cluster chart, or whatever works for you, noting central issues and people. You're not an expert, but you've now got some of the fundamentals of the technology and the market structure laid out.
7. Reread the original pitch. Does it now make less sense, or more? If the former, either you're incapable of understanding this field, or the team is playing you for a naif. Either way, chuck it. If it sounds better given your learning, go ask for a budget to hire someone who really knows what they are doing.