Bob Metcalfe’s career traces the trajectory of innovation. He started in the academy, as an undergraduate at MIT and a graduate student at Harvard. In his doctoral dissertation he laid the theoretical foundations for a novel method of boosting the power of personal computers: network them. At Xerox PARC, he turned that theory into something called Ethernet. Xerox wasn’t particularly successful at exploiting Ethernet commercially, so Metcalfe decided to try himself, founding 3Com to do the job. After many incarnations at 3Com, he cashed in his chips and became, in his words, a “technology pundit,” who writes a column for InfoWorld, organizes some of the information world’s best conferences, and sits on the board of Technology Review. TR asked Metcalfe to tell us what he learned as he followed the trajectory of innovation from the lab bench to the boardroom and beyond.
Why should you listen to me about innovation? Maybe you shouldn’t. (Especially if what you need is gentle encouragement.)
True, I lived for eight years in Boston’s Route 128 high-tech innovation zone, back when it was working. True, I lived and prospered for 22 years in Silicon Valley. True, I invented Ethernet, a computer networking technology that now connects more than 100 million computers to the Internet. True, 20 years ago I founded 3Com Corporation, which now does more than $5 billion in annual sales. And true, my personal fortune is a significant fraction of a milliGates.
But Silicon Valley-style high-tech entrepreneurship is certainly not the only way to innovate. It’s just that, right off, I can’t think of any others.
Before sharing a few lessons I’ve learned from inventing and innovating, I’d best disclaim a bit. Consider the fact that today we have computers fast enough to compute the trajectory of a thrown rock in real time. If you wanted to gather the equations to compute the rock’s trajectory, the last thing you would do is interview the rock.
Most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met have no idea about the reasons for their success. They were thrown-like rocks. I had the good fortune to be thrown into Silicon Valley. My trajectory was a mystery to me then, and only a little less so now.
Another disclaimer: I’m a sample of one. My experience is not statistically significant. So you’re going to have to read a lot of lessons learned by many different innovators before you can put together something that holds up. And even after you do that, keep in mind that after 40 years of tennis, I can tell you to get your racket back early, move your feet, and step into the ball. But then you’re going to have to spend a lot of time on the court practicing before you can put it all together and beat me.
Enough disclaimers. Here are some lessons I think I’ve learned.