In the startup world, big ideas have the potential to become big moneymakers. Good ideas — especially if they’re executed well — can change the world.
But revolutionary ideas scare people. They often fail because the world isn’t ready for them yet.
As startup investors, we regularly evaluate how much risk we’re comfortable with. Part of that evaluation process involves determining how a disruptive, potentially revolutionary startup fits into the present and the future. Is the world ready to accept this idea today? If not, will people accept it in five, 10 or 20 years — if ever?
It can be difficult to invest in a disruptive startup if we’re unsure of the answers to those questions. But sometimes an idea that’s ahead of its time can still make an impact.
A Legendary Disruptor
Surya Bonaly is the perfect example of a disruptor.
Bonaly (now retired) is a highly decorated competitive figure skater. She’s a three-time World silver medalist and nine-time French national champion. She was the first woman to ever attempt a quadruple jump at the Olympics in 1992. (Only now, 30 years later, have we seen a new crop of female skaters successfully land quads at the Beijing Olympics.)
Over the course of her competitive career from the late ‘80s to the late ‘90s, Bonaly became known for her incredible jumping ability and strength. She also pioneered a new look for figure skating. She often wore colorful and flashy costumes that stood apart from the more muted styles that dominated at the time. She didn’t fit the mold of an “ice princess” that the figure skating world had come to expect. She was more powerful and athletic. She was disruptive.
Despite her undeniable talent, Bonaly’s explosive style was not accepted in her time. Judges tended to favor skaters who displayed a more graceful finesse — even if those skaters didn’t perform the same number of jumps or have the same technical skills that Bonaly did. And the competition was fierce. In the 1994 World Championships, Bonaly finished second despite performing all of her jumps and spins perfectly. She removed her silver medal in protest and the crowd booed.
But four years later, Bonaly cemented her legacy as a disruptor. And she didn’t need to win a medal to do it. At the 1998 winter Olympics, Bonaly became the only Olympic figure skater to land a backflip on only one blade.
It was an incredible feat of fearless athleticism. And it was a bold statement, because the move was banned in competition and she chose to perform it anyway.
Bonaly had suffered an injury that kept her from completing her planned routine. She knew she wasn’t going to win a medal. So she decided to make a statement to dazzle the audience. And in doing so, she blazed a new path for the future of skating.
Envisioning the Future
Bonaly is a true pioneer. She took big risks. She made efforts to improve when she received critical feedback. But she always stayed true to her own unique style. And she changed the figure skating world as a result. Her push for more acrobatic jumps planted a seed that led to changes in the sport’s judging system. She expanded the possibilities of her sport.
And her impact on the skating world continues to this day. She coaches young skaters. And she has inspired many to make the sport more accessible to children of color (who are often unable to participate in figure skating due to its hefty costs).
Bonaly didn’t win gold. But she changed her sport. She changed her industry. And people who invested in her vision of the future are the big winners today.
Startups and investors, take note.
Startups need to take risks. They need to carve a place for themselves in highly competitive markets. They need to be open to change, quick to adapt and consistent in improving their product. They need to create their own unique brand — and stick to it.
As investors, we have to think about the future. And that may mean giving up the chance to make money today in order to reap bigger rewards years down the road. It might take years for a particularly disruptive startup to catch on. But if the startup has a truly revolutionary idea, it’s well worth the wait.
So the next time you have the opportunity to invest in a Surya Bonaly startup… it’s probably worth taking a chance on.