Entrepreneurs ignore history at their peril

Even the most innovative of us stand on the shoulders of giants, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 16 Jun 2017

In the late seventeenth century, Isaac Newton famously said ‘if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ He recognised a profound truth that ideas and innovations are seldom born in isolation; more often than not, they are simply iterations of those that came before them.      

Dreams of the Future

It was Thomas Jefferson who boldly asserted, ‘I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,’ but unfortunately too many of today’s innovators have taken this sentiment too far. Digital start-ups are particularly notorious for writing off decades of business history and making hubristic statements about destroying entire industries through some brand new app or state-of-the-art gizmo.    

There is little doubt that we are living in the Digital Revolution, akin to the Industrial Revolution in its significance to human history. It’s easy to forget, however, that this movement first started to gather momentum over two decades ago at the turn of the millennium. Ideas and innovations have been layered upon one another, month on month, and year on year – together, they have led to today’s hyper-fast, app-controlled, I-want-it-now digital economy. 

The Hardware of Property

As a property man, I can see the same thing in my own sector. Zoopla could not have existed without Rightmove. Airbnb wouldn’t be the $30bn global behemoth it is today without the ideas of Casey Fenton at Couchsurfing.

To fully appreciate the development of the property industry, one has to go back to some of the earliest, ‘analogue’ innovations. A crude version of concrete, for example, was used as early as 5,000 years ago in the pyramids of Egypt. Thousands of years later, the ancient Romans perfected the material and used it to build marvels like the Coliseum in Rome.

Innovations such as plumbing, which was invented by the ancient Greeks, hugely decreased the spread of disease (not to mention the stench) in populated areas, forming one of the cornerstones of the modern city. The city itself is arguably the most fundamental of innovations, creating the environment for bright minds to converge and thousands of new ideas to emerge. 

From Hardware to Software

Concrete, steel, elevators, and plumbing in many ways make up the hardware of the property industry. By the 1980s, with the hardware already quite advanced, innovations started to emerge in the software world. AutoCAD (computer-aided design), a forerunner of the Proptech movement, was first released in 1982 and allowed engineers to spot structural problems before they even arose, transforming the construction industry.

At the turn of the twenty first century, the high street estate agency was a British institution. Agents held all the cards by acting as the gatekeepers of information – before RightMove came on the scene, that is. In the post RightMove era, the estate agents’ ‘secret drawer’ of properties for sale had been published online for all to see. This shift in the business process has led to the advent of online estate agents like emoov and PurpleBricks that have the entire sector embroiled in the ‘man vs. machine’ debate that has gripped the property industry in recent years.

Before airbnb, hotels held a monopoly on the inventory of places to stay and could hike up their prices at will to capitalise on surges in demand. Airbnb solved for this by creating a global peer-to-peer marketplace. But airbnb’s solution was incomplete; hosts have had to lean on start-ups like AirSorted, which has borrowed lessons from traditional hotel chains to offer professional hospitality to increasingly discerning guests.

In reality, innovation isn’t as linear as the shoulders-of-giants analogy would suggest and is in fact far more like a complex web, where the ‘new’ challenges and improves the ‘old’, but importantly, the ‘old’ still sets an example and provides a reservoir of knowledge for the ‘new’.      

Final Word

History matters. From the elevators that many of us take on a daily basis, to the centuries-old concrete buildings we pass every morning, to looking at the latest Z-index on Zoopla to see how much your property could be worth, each day, the inventions of the giants that came before us continue to make our lives easier.

At Pi Labs, we meet entrepreneurs with great potential every day. We are inundated with business plans about revolutionising the process of buying, selling, financing, managing, improving, and servicing property. Meeting these visionary entrepreneurs and debating their dreams of the future is what gets us up in the morning. But what gets us to put our hands in our pockets is measured maturity, humility, and the openness to learn from those that came before them. For those of you who, like Jefferson, prefer the dreams of the future to the history of the past, I leave you this, from Martin Luther King Jr: ‘We are not makers of history. We are made by history.’

Faisal Butt is founder and chairman of Pi Labs.



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