There's No Such Thing As A Crystal Ball

Crystal ballImage via Wikipedia

I was asked to speak to a group of entrepreneurs later this week. I agreed to do it and asked them what they wanted me to talk about. I got this response:

this group would find it particularly interesting to hear from Fred about the technologies and technology strategies that he thinks will be especially significant moving forward.

I thought about that for a second and decided that I'd talk about the exact opposite. I don't know what the future will hold any more than anyone else. There is no such thing as a crystal ball and I can assure you that I don't have one.

So the title of my talk will be "There's No Such Thing As A Crystal Ball" and I will talk about what I do and what every great entrepreneur I've ever worked with does to figure out what bets to make. It starts with getting your hands dirty and engaging deeply with the leading edge products and services that are in your market.

I am fortunate that the leading edge products and services that are in my market are social media and web based services that are filled with people who are doing the very same things I am doing. And so I get to do this in parallel with all of you and exchange notes.

That process leads me forward and informs the bets I want to make and who I want to make them with.

I'll put together the deck tomorrow morning and post it on slideshare and let you all check it out.

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#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. Julien

    Are you saying that your “thoughts” on what will be hot or not in the next months are rather based on what the entrepreneurs show you when they pitch more than on “beliefs”? I guess it makes sense to let the “vision” stuff to entrepreneurs while VC focus on the execution. As a matter of facts, I believe that most VC are concerned about “rooting” the starting while entrepreneurs try to make it looking upward?

    1. fredwilson

      I guess that was a poorly written post because that is not what I was sayingFirst of all, I don’t think focusing on what will be “hot or not in the nextmonths” is what we should be trying to doSecond of all, I try to engage deeply in the market and with leading edgeproducts to see where things are headed and project from thereI hope that clarifies it

  2. Sylvain Carle

    One thing I would love to read is how you evaluate the market tipping point for new ideas/technologies, what early signals are you watching (if any)?It’s been quite a ride in my last few startups to get the product/market timing right, as a technologist I often get good “gut feelings” about what is up and coming (and important) but it took many years to refine my “reading” of how it would play in the market, leading to many early failures based on bad timing (waaay to early or misreading the potential adoption curve).I guess it’s the difference between following the alpha geeks to get an indication of “where” technology is going (à la Tim Oreilly) and timing where the market will be in two years when you start on your shiny new startup idea…My perspective is that if you do what you think is right and network and share a lot in your natural network and out of it, you get good indicators of “how far” your vision is, so the only fix for no crystal ball is: listen and iterate quickly, as long as your general roadmap/direction is sound (and you have enough money to execute) you have a good chance to hit it out of the ballpark.

    1. jakemintz

      Whether or not there are early signals is a very good questions. I wonder if it is already too late once there are signals? One of the interesting conclusions of an HBS study I read recently on successful entrepreneurs (full caveat: I think you need to take research on entrepreneurship with a grain of salt and dig into the statistics before deciding there is causation in addition to correlation) was that one of the most important attributes of a “skillful” entrepreneur was being able to consistently choose the right market at the right time (sure it sounds obvious but the data is interesting).link:

      1. Sylvain Carle

        “I wonder if it is already too late once there are signals”?Well, if you are really “tuned” to a market/technology opportunity, you see small signals that you can amplify/filter with your experience/expertise better than others. My challenge is making sure my perspective is not skewed by my desire to be right (obviously, investing time/money/efforts).That’s where I get most value from my (offline/online) networks, not to broadcast my ideas (sure you need to be present) but to listen to what others are saying/sharing/linking using the web as a virtuous circle to amplify the good signals and muffle the bad. So far, so good.

      2. fredwilson

        Think about catching a waveThe first thing you need to do is get your surfboard out and get into thewaterSo few are even in the water

    2. fredwilson

      The last point is the key. You have to talk about what you think is comingand have a debate with as many people as you can about timing. The blogformat is ideal for that.

      1. Ameeda Chowdhury

        Very true. The debate aspect is so crucial especially when working on an untested concept. The problem we had was how to have a constructive debate about a concept (Snazl) while it didn’t exist. A risk we took was to build a product and then test it out with a handful of people, but didn’t open up a blog until about 2 days ago.

      2. Idit Harel Caperton

        Fred, I agree with your notion as expressed in your slides and talk that it is essential to “get your hands dirty” or “jump into the water” in order to catch the waves of the future, and blog/talk about “what you think is coming” with many people. Did you see the movie Dirty Dancing? So you are talking about “Dirty Learning” (my colleague Seymour Papert’s term).AND it’s not just about talking. For me, what’s even more necessary is talking while designing and building a DEMO (or Prototype) for your big idea or your vision of what’s coming. It’s Demo or Die.Because, often, new inventions or ideas, especially the ones that are far-out revolution type, must be EXPERIENCED by yourself and others, not just imagined and discussed in text. So regular my tip for entrepreneurs is to move fast into creating an “object to think with” and capture their “signals of the future” in a concrete demo (plus text or PPT). You also learn A LOT as you build it; you learn A LOT by explaining and teaching others about your thinking. Idit.

        1. fredwilson

          I like demo or dieThat’s a great way to put it Idit

  3. Stefan

    “the technologies and technology strategies that he thinks will be especially significant moving forward”That’s kinda funny, because of how general the question itself is. That question is equally at home in 1812 as it is today. And you certainly don’t need a crystal ball to see the answers, just eyes…What technologies? The Web and mobile devices.What strategies? Leverage what the Web and mobile devices can do, that nothing else can do (well).

  4. Peter Fleckenstein

    I really like your post here Fred. I think there’s too many people searching for that crystal ball – searching for the future and that’s not how it works.My apologies in advance if I seem a bit metaphysical. The future is created by being present in the now. By living and breathing and being aware of everything around us. Engaging in the flow of human interaction with all things, we then become aware of what could be possible and thus have a “window” into what the future might be.You said it yourself – “It starts with getting your hands dirty and engaging deeply with the leading edge products and services that are in your market.” I would change the last word of your sentence here from market to life.You and others use leading edge products and services that drive value and meaning into and through your lives. You don’t live in some alternate reality or a different plane of consciousness. You merely engage in the present moments of your life and that is becoming increasingly hard for quite a number of people.So I believe your spot on – there is no crystal ball, there is only the crystal present.Best,Pete

    1. fredwilson

      Great comment peterI am going to use a line from it in my talkWith attribution, of course

      1. Peter Fleckenstein

        Thanks Fred, feel free to, and I’m honored.

    2. val_popov

      Crystal Present – couldn’t agree more. Great ideas are born when you look at the present and identify a problem or ask a question that no one else has asked. That’s the hardest part – having a crystal clear vision of a problem that no one else has seen or put it in terms that boil it down to its essence. Once you know what questions to ask, the solutions will come easy and natural. Google is the perfect example: Sergey and Larry saw the core issue with online search – search results were based on what websites said about themselves, which is unreliable and open to abuse. They saw the essence of the problem, and the rest is history.The good news is that our Present abounds with problems, big problems – which mean big opportunities for those that have a crystal clear vision of the present!

  5. jakemintz

    Looking forward to seeing your deck. Any chance you could videotape some of the talks you give? The thing I like most about “There’s No Such Thing As A Crystal Ball” is that the more I learn about the process of innovation, the more I believe it is a result of being an expert or researching something to the point that you realize you can connect technologies or concepts before anyone else does. Eureka moments are a myth; even if your brain subconsciously makes a connection, it could only do so because of everything you have exposed yourself to.

    1. fredwilson

      I don’t want to be videotaping my talks unless the people I am giving themto are doing that for me

  6. GlennKelman

    Great post Fred: your usual combination of humility and insight. I’m always at a loss what to tell people who want to know how to manufacture a new idea for a business, and will use this advice in the future.Many years ago, I went off the grid for a little while and was shocked at how completely helpless I felt for months after my return. It’s the worst feeling. You’re like an athlete who can’t react to the ball, simply because he doesn’t know where the other players are on the field. I pursued good ideas that had already been funded and built, and abandoned others assuming they must be taken.Sooner or later, most entrepreneurs I know get stuck listening to the music of their 20s, only to be shocked one day when it shows up on an Oldies station. You have to keep trying the new stuff.

    1. daryn

      Great analogy Glenn, I always knew there was a correlation between Fred’s good taste in music and his success as a VC 🙂

    2. fredwilson

      “you have to keep trying the new stuff”So true

  7. example

    Well, the opposite would have been to talk about what technologies were popular in the past. Or to talk about what will not be popular in the future.

  8. Camilo

    Fed, Sure, “There’s No Such Thing As A Crystal Ball” but few people have great insight of what are the technologies that will shape the future in whatever industry. I think you are one of those people and your audience values your analysis of what is coming and your gut feeling. It is a talent you have and we enjoy. You have given us some good insight on the potential future of TV or Education. So I am sure we will all appreciate if one of the slides in the deck talks about future technologies and trends. (It is fun to let your imagination go wild)Best of luck on your talk!

  9. Nicholas Davis

    Fred, great post and idea for the speech.We were just discussing in our team how it seems that most people, when they decide a course of action in life or business, are actually not choosing an option today – rather, they first decide what the future will look like and work backwards, letting their idea of the future be the key determinate of what they should do now. But, as you say, given that we definitely can’t know the future (and the number of bad predictions out there), that’s almost the equivalent of abdicating decision-making to pure chance. Your audience want you to help them make decisions by reinforcing a particular view of the future that cannot be known.A better approach, as you rightly point out, is to firmly bring the decision-making into the present, and decide what you will do know, and in that way learn about how the world is working. If long-term decisions still cause worry, one can focus on considering the fact that multiple futures could evolve based on key sources of uncertainty, hedge positions, create maximum optionality (small investments and many decision-points), but remain aware that a major event could still wipe everything out and it wouldn’t be your fault. The world is uncertain.Investing in being robust, understanding uncertainty and learning from the now are much more important than trying to second-guess the future in my opinion, but I don’t see many organisations or people operating that way. And, given I work in the scenario field, I see a lot of people who want to try!Looking forward to seeing your slides, and good luck.

    1. fredwilson

      Great points. I am going to post my slides today and hope to get some suggestions. There is so much great knowledge in this community

  10. mydigitalself

    Hey Fred,I was thinking about this a little, I’m not sure of the nature of your audience as entrepreneurs need not be in tech, but I think you underestimate just how far into the future one can see.Don’t forget, what you might see as obvious, other people see as a crystal ball. Often our vision of the next 2 years actually only happens (mainstream) in the next 5 years.The mobile internet, for example, if you think that’s already happened, you’re wrong, it’s only emerging; hell we’ve only *just* got browsers and form factors and data services that can deal with it. Mobile in 5 years looks very very different to mobile yesterday. Similarly, the mass market are only just getting to grips with functionality in Facebook and Twitter that’s been around for years and so social media too is only just approaching the crest of the wave. Robotics and automation (think self-driving cars, or just really advanced toys) are a little further away, but will certainly shape a future 10 years out.A LOT of people don’t see this yet and so to paraphrase one of your other comments: Our crystal present is the mass market’s crystal ball.

    1. fredwilson

      To paraphrase a snarky t-shirt I’m familiar with:”I like the stuff you’ll like in five years”

  11. next2us

    Do you worry that a high degree of involvement with leading edge products, services and maybe even ideas may cause you to miss new opportunities? Sometimes focusing on where the crowd is going obscures new paths. Many new and important developments occur by approaching problems from a new direction.As example, new products in location based services appear to be focused on ability to see where friend’s are located. In part, I believe this may be due to most entrepreneur’s preoccupation with social networks — important for sure, but not the most important application of location based services for consumers.How does one wade into the popular stream without drowning in it?

    1. fredwilson

      By using the stuff. I report my whereabouts to the web in real time. And I am constantly looking for ways to make that live feed useful to me

  12. David Semeria

    I start from the perspective that even though we think of ourselves as being unique and individual, in reality we’re all quite similar. This explains, for example, why many people can hum Beatles songs, or would not complain about watching Star Wars again. Both the film and the songs appeal to this collective part of our psyche.So when I’m faced with a new product or technology, I just shut my eyes and imagine myself using it on a daily basis. If this mental image is good, then I’m comfortable extending the potential appeal to the world at large.On this basis I got quite excited about the first MP3 players and digital cameras. I got REALLY excited about mobile telephony, but I was a big bear on mobile video telephony from day one – I just couldn’t visualize myself holding the phone in front of my face rather than to my ear.It’s important to keep an open mind though. Two years ago I couldn’t visualize myself twittering stuff like ‘I am waiting for bus’ or ‘Have headache today’, so I was a Twitter bear and didn’t use it. But when people started using it for microblogging, I tried it again and this time the mental image was good, hence I’m now a bull.So basically: if you can’t imagine yourself using a product or a technology, chances are that few others can either.

    1. fredwilson

      Exactly.The day I got my first mp3 player (I forget the brand) back in 1998 I stood up in front of a room of about 100 ppl I was presenting something else to and I just couldn’t bring myself to talk about what I was supposed to talk aboutI took the mp3 player out of my pocket and held it up over my head and said ‘this is revolutionary technology. It is going to transform the music business’I couldn’t think about anything else for days

      1. David Semeria

        In 1987 I was an IT intern for a large UK company. I was asked to write a comparative report on Lotus 123 vs Excel, the very first release of which had landed on my desk a few days previously (20 white diskettes). The 50 page report was very detailed and came out massively in favour of Excel.My boss pinned it to the wall and the whole department laughed about it for weeks. Apparently I had exhibited levels of naivety which were exceptional even for the most goofy of students. Was I really not aware, they asked, of how much money the company had already invested in Lotus software and training? Had I any idea of how much it would cost to switch? On which fucking planet did I believe I was living?I replied that Excel would kill 123 and the longer they waited the more the transition would cost. I based my analysis purely on the fact that even my mother could use Excel to create cool WYSWYG spreadsheets, whereas achieving similar results in 123 required a lot more IT skill.Moral: always trust your gut rather than what the smart money is saying.Even if it means getting laughed at.

        1. fredwilson

          Getting laughed at is important. It means you are doing something right

          1. kidmercury

            now that’s what i call droppin’ truth, boss!!!

      2. Doug Kersten

        I bought the Rio MP100 (i think). It was the very first MP3 player on the market. I still have it, the box, software, etc. I remember taking it home and showing it to my god-son (a teenager at the time listening to CDs) and telling him it was the future of music. He still remembers that to this day. Every once and a while I use it, just to remember what it felt like to hold something so revolutionary for the first time and to remind myself how cool and exciting technology is. This attitude about always seeing what is out there, trying new things, and experimenting with new concepts is also why I sometimes find myself unable to relate with peers my own age, because I have kept up and they have not. I don’t feel sorry for myself though, I feel sad for them. They are already living in the past and haven’t realized it yet.

        1. fredwilson

          That’s what I had. Thanks so much. I’m gonna add a picture of it to my deck!!

  13. Kjell Nace

    Not a comment on crystal balls as it pertains to your coming presentation but rather your prior thoughts on Obama’s speech, in particular regarding immigrants and immigration. As reported in the Financial Times earlier this week:BofA withdraws job offers to foreign MBAsBy Della Bradshaw in LondonPublished: March 9 2009 00:07 | Last updated: March 9 2009 00:07Bank of America has become the first US bank to withdraw job offers made to MBA students graduating from US business schools this summer, citing conditions laid out in its bail-out deal as the reason.The recently passed $787bn stimulus bill in effect prevents financial institutions that have received money from the government’s troubled asset relief programme from applying for H1-B visas for highly skilled immigrants if they have recently made US workers redundant.EDITOR’S CHOICEBofA accused of interfering with bonus probe – Mar-07MBA 2009 – Mar-08Merrill Lynch probes $400m trader loss – Mar-07Ask the experts: Jobs clinic – Mar-06International students get loan aid – Mar-04BofA, which has received a total of $45bn in Tarp funds, is in the process of digesting two large acquisitions – Countrywide, the mortgage broker, and Merrill Lynch – which will see thousands of jobs lost.A spokesman for the bank said: “Recent changes in legislation made it necessary for Bank of America to rescind job offers it had made to students requiring H-1B sponsorship.”The number of international students affected by the BofA move is thought to be no more than 50 but business schools are concerned that other banks could follow suit.Traditionally, about a third of MBA students at the leading US schools have taken up finance and banking jobs on graduation, with about a third of those MBAs coming from outside the US.Some supporters of freer migration have criticised the Tarp measure for threatening to cut the US off from foreign talent and encouraging tit-for-tat retaliation by other countries.One concern for business school deans is that students who have traditionally studied in the US may go elsewhere. “There might be an inclination for people from around the world to vote with their feet,” says David Schmittlein, dean of MIT’s Sloan school of management in Boston.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

    1. fredwilson

      That sucks so bad

  14. peter zaballos

    The crystal ball comments always seem to come from people furthest removed from the process of creating interesting new businesses built on new technologies. It’s generally only with hindsight that the general population, or even people “on the inside” recognize what then new “new” innovation has become transformative (for reasons you alluded to in your post about the yawn factor).No, working in the tech startup landscape is the modern day version of working during the industrial revolution, a lot of hard, sweaty work being done by many. It’s the essence of “quantity time” applied in areas where there are large shifts in the economics or efficiency (or both) of a market, and you’re pursuing where that is taking you, letting gravity guide a lot of your actions, but at the end of the day, you’re not predicting anything. You’re rapidly pursuing an vaguely bounded opportunity, to see what you can make of it.

    1. fredwilson

      I really like the last line in your comment. So true

  15. scandelmo

    Look forward to your presentation Fred. I agree engaging deeply in the existing market really allows you to understand value and unmet needs. Your surfing analogy is right on…you have to be in the water to see the swell beginning to form. Its that intersection of understanding, timing and your response in capturing that value in a meaningful and noteworthy way that positions you to succeed.

  16. dteten

    General Atlantic has an article on their website on “Looking at Growth and Growth Opportunities”, which I think is very pertinent: http://www.generalatlantic….I’m now leading a research study on precisely this issue, tentatively titled “Best Practices in Venture Capital and Private Equity Deal Origination.” For a preview, you can see the slides from a presentation I deliver at VC and private equity conferences on this topic, at . You can also download there a webinar I delivered on this topic.

  17. hypermark

    Another way of looking at this one is scenario planning, which basically says, “We can’t be sure what exactly plays out over the coming months and years, but we can construct 2-3 plausible macro scenarios, and based on same extrapolate what each of those scenarios would mean in terms of strategy, winners and losers.” A great book on this is The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.

    1. fredwilson

      Imagine if I was reading this on a kindle and one click and I had the book. Blogs and social media can drive book sales when its end to end digital.But that’s for my friday talk at random house

      1. hypermark

        A sidebar on that point is that I can not for the life of me figure out why the music and print media haven’t glommed on to bundling logic between analog and digital (i.e., buy the physical CD, and for $2 more download the digital version to your iPod; buy the book, and for $2 more download the digital version to your Kindle). Things and bits can co-exist, and there is a segmentation strategy that juices margins accordingly.

        1. fredwilson

          Some are doing it. I particularly like buy the vinyl record and get the mp3sfor free.

      2. Reid Curley

        At $1.99 per month per blog, it is going to be a long time before I start using my kindle to read blogs. This despite my affinity for both blogs and the kindle

        1. fredwilson

          That is my big issue with kindleThey (Amazon) asked me to put this blog on kindle before the first versionlaunchedWhen I heard about the $1.99/month fee, I refused on principalThat’s nuts

  18. Keenan

    This goes well with your Yawn Post. Having the fortitude and strength to make the bets against all odds is a critical component, not addressed enough. Conventional wisdom can act as one heck of a barrier to entry.