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Entrepreneur and Futurist Charlene Li: ‘Don’t let amazing current customers blind you to future customers’

As part of our Breakthrough Builders podcast series, our Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal, chats with Charlene Li, entrepreneur, analyst, and best-selling author, about predicting the future, choosing how to show up at work, and finding your own voice as a thought leader.

Listen to the complete podcast episode of Breakthrough Builders with Charlene Li

Early reflections

Full Self Driving–FSD or “level 5” in industry jargon–has been promised for years. In 2019, Elon Musk promised we’d get it from Tesla in 2020, but a non-FSD beta version is all that has been released so far.  Meanwhile Waymo, Google-owner Alphabet’s FSD concern, seems to be making some real progress with a driverless taxi service already operating in the Phoenix area. Many other competitors are also encroaching on Tesla’s perceived lead.

Had Charlene Li been given the capital years ago, she might have beat Tesla, Google, and all the others to the punch–well, at least in terms of the idea of FSD as a real possibility.

“As a child growing up and as an adult, I've always been driven by this optimism, that things can always be better. I remember as a child growing up in Detroit that we would drive everywhere for hours. And I just wanted my parents to turn around and just talk with me instead of facing forward and driving the car. So I imagined that my little armchair had a little computer or something on the side. We didn't even have computers back then! But I could tell the computer to ‘just take us there’ and my parents could then talk to me. I've always been intrigued by the possibility of how we could make things better. The crazier the idea, the more intriguing it sounded.”

This is not the only time that Charlene has forecasted the future.

Behind the breakthroughs

When Clayton Christensen published The Innovator's Dilemma in 1997, the term “disruption” took on a whole new connotation for the swath of the population engaged in the business world. Disruption is now almost exclusively used in reference to a challenge to an incumbent product or business from a new market entrant who offers a better or less expensive way to serve the incumbent’s customers.  Along with this came the understanding that the future from a business perspective is fraught with disruption. While asserting that weathering disruption requires excellent systems, culture, and mindsets, Charlene points out that the reason this has become such an issue is because we think that disruption is something to be ”weathered” in the first place:

“We have been taught that disruption is a bad thing, that any sort of change is bad. I mean, we live in a Six Sigma world. The ideal of really good management and good business processes is that everything runs perfectly smoothly. And if things change from that, you're a bad manager, you're a bad leader. The reality is, if you stay in the same place that’s not necessarily a good thing. It's good to execute well. But the bad side of that is that things petrify and you're never open to anything because things are perfect now. The biggest mistake, I think, that organizations and leaders and businesses have bought into, is that we aspire to make things perfect rather than excellent. Those are two very different concepts. Perfect means there's an ideal and we have to aim for it. Excellence means no matter what the situation is, we are going to be the best we can possibly be, understanding that circumstances could always change. One allows for growth and one does not.”

Lest this sound like a trite recommendation to ‘embrace change’ Charlene explains that this posture toward inevitable disruption requires planning, process, and structure. Furthermore, the lens through which we must view the future is the customer lens. As Charlene points out, the most meaningful difference between a would-be disruptor and an incumbent is not capital, speed, or expertise:

“Imagine you're a startup or an alien from outer space or the competitor. How would they see the opportunity you're facing in your business? How would they see the future customer and how would they advance towards that customer? [Once you have answered these questions from that perspective] ask ‘which of these could we actually do?’ Then add on all the assets that you have. Oftentimes these big, huge companies go, ‘Oh, we can't compete against the startups in the space.’ I'm like, what do you mean? The startups have an idea. They have clarity of who the future customer is and that's about it. They don't have capital, they don't have talent, they don't have a brand. The list goes on and on about intrinsic values and assets that you have as an incumbent. The one thing that you have going against you is your current set of customers because they blind you from the future. These beautiful, profitable current customers are the ones that keep you from being able to see your future customers.”

Nurturing our disruptive nature

Charlene relates the story of one leader with the foresight to see those future customers and to boldly advance towards them, and this is a leader who doesn’t have the last name Jobs, Bezos, or Musk:

“One of my favorite examples is nowhere near tech. It is Southern New Hampshire University. It has 30,000 students on campus. And when Paul LeBlanc took over as president, he thought ‘OK, yeah, we got a pretty nice business here. But what's this group over here heading off in the corner?’ In another building is the online group. He looks at them and says ‘Wow, there's something here, potentially this is something that we could use to  serve many disenfranchised learners, people who are coming back from [military deployment], people who have been raising kids and want to reenter the workforce or want to make a career change, your nontraditional college or university student. Maybe we could serve them with this online tool’.

"Paul had gotten to know Clay Christiansen because they used to play pickup basketball together, so he was hearing these ideas about disruption. So he thinks, ‘maybe I could disrupt education’. So they grew their online education space now to the largest provider of online degrees from an accredited nonprofit university. They are going to serve over 150,000 students with revenues of over a billion dollars this year. And especially in this time and space, that has become even more valuable, being able to learn at your convenience and on your time. They have been doing this for 25 years, so they know how to do it right”

Charlene goes on to explain that seeing through the clouded present into the future applies in personal life as well, especially when encountering difficulties or failure:

“It’s actually a huge gift in some ways when you don't succeed. One of the things I've always said to my children is that–and they're grown now, they're in college and they're still making their way through life–whenever something doesn't go their way, they don't get that good grade, they get a very mediocre grade like a C or something: ‘Well, what did you learn about this?’ When they could see that they could make mistakes and that the consequence of getting a C wasn't, ‘I can't believe you didn't study hard enough. You should have studied more!’ but instead was,’what did you learn?’ It allows them to go through the process to say, ‘Oh, I could have been more clear what the assignment was. I could have worked earlier’ or whatever it is.

"I am so grateful that they had those early failures so that they could learn from them and build on those and become much more resilient and have that grit that we often talk about. I feel like, you know, we talk about disruption and failures and growth and all of these things as if you want it there to be an easy button. ‘Give me the easy button, let me push it and it'll just happen’. And I think the reality is that it is dirty, it is messy, it is painful, but that is how we get better at it. And unless we're ready to embrace that difficult journey, we're never going to go on it.”

Charlene likes to say “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” So perhaps Elon and Tesla are still ahead of everyone else. They, after all, may have the most failures when it comes to launching FSD. It may be that we’ll very shortly see that experience turn into the future we’ve been hoping for, one where a car ride is quality face-to-face time for driver and passenger alike.

Listen to Charlene chat with our Head of Brand Strategy, Jesse Purewal in a recent episode of our Breakthrough Builders podcast.

Breakthrough Builders is about people whose passions, perspectives, instincts, and ideas fuel some of the world’s most amazing products, brands, and experiences. It’s a tribute to those who have the audacity to imagine – and the persistence to build – breakthroughs.

Listen to our full conversation with Charlene