People get jobs by solving someone’s problem. People build businesses with systemic ways to solve a problem shared by many others. Just knowing about a problem is not enough. You have to fix it. And, if you can build a repeatable way to fix it, then you can build a business.
Ted Schenberg and his business partner Travis Morgan initially invested in Strand Analytical Laboratories as a “small, underperforming company,” as they told me in a recent interview. It had “great technical capabilities, but had no adult supervision.” Its forensic DNA lab did great work for the law enforcement community, but was not able to move samples through the lab fast enough to make any money.
Job one was fixing the lab through process engineering. (How they did that is a different story. For our purposes here it is enough to know that they did it well enough to become cash-flow positive – giving them the opportunity to leverage their technical strengths in new ways).
Although Schenberg admits he “couldn’t even spell DNA,” he could watch television. He was struck by an October 2007 feature on NBC’s Today Show talking about how “because of a mislabeled tissue sample that led to a misdiagnosis, Darrie Eason had both of her breasts removed to save her from a cancer that she never had.” Schenberg and his partners realized that Strand’s forensic DNA matching technology could prevent this sort of mistake.
Schenberg walked me through the five-step process he and his partners used to get from that moment to a business expansion:
- Confirm your hypothesis: Schenberg called his colleague Dr. Peter Knapp who confirmed anecdotally that this type of mix-up occurred on a periodic basis. (Since then, a Washington University study has shown that there is a 1.9 percent incidence of undetected switching or contamination errors among patients’ biopsy samples).
- Solve the problem: By utilizing Strand’s forensic DNA matching capabilities and rapid turnaround of results, patients undergoing a biopsy for suspected cancer could be sure that their biopsy results are in fact theirs prior to any treatment. Here Schenberg and his partners got Strand’s technical people engaged. This was relatively easy since the idea of helping patients played to the same core values as provided by their forensic DNA work: doing public good – keeping bad guys (or bad cells) off the street and protecting good guys (or good cells).
- Prototype: This is the difference between a project and a business. Solving the problem once is interesting. Solving it on a repeatable basis is marketable. It’s also essential for getting licensed (to perform highly-complex medical testing), which Strand started pursuing at this point along with developing a sample collection system with help from Dr. Knapp.
- Test: The team conducted Alpha tests to get the bugs out and then Beta tests to prove their concept in the field.
- Commercialize: The important thing to remember here is that the strengths required to develop and test prototypes are not the same as the strengths required to commercialize them. Schenberg and his partners appointed lab industry veteran Ken Cerney as president. He “knew how to take our test to market,” branding their solution as the “know error® system” and helping to build the business.
Implications for the rest of us
- As a prelude, find an unsolved problem shared by many people.
- Build the strengths required to solve that problem. Solve the problem. Systematize the solutions to maximize the impact.
- Follow through to market that solution broadly.
This is an example of the heart of The New Leader’s Playbook: BRAVE Leadership
We’re all new leaders all the time. So remember all the time that leadership is about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. With that in mind, BRAVE leaders pay attention to their Behaviors, Relationships, Attitude, Values, and Environment – all the time.