Innovation: It's All A Matter of Time

When we tell people about Vastari, the first response is usually “That’s such a good idea, why hasn’t it been done before?” Reading Steve Blank’s latest post on why founders should know how to code made me remember this comment, and think more about the reason why Vastari is the first – and only, as far as we know – company to be using technology to connect museums and object owners for exhibitions.


Innovation requires coming at a problem from a different perspective, as you can read in Naveen Jian’s post on dreamers versus experts. With Vastari, we weren’t just at the right place at the right time. We were also looking at a problem from a different perspective. We understood HTML, knew what could and couldn’t be done, understood the growing new generation of young collectors and could see where the art world was going, based on other industries.


In the way of what Jian calls ‘dreamers,’ we were naïve about the existing boundaries in a way that ‘experts’ of the industry may not be. We looked at a world where it is normal for a curator to travel miles to see one work of art, just to find that it’s not appropriate for a show, or where is it normal to spend months waiting for a response from an auction house about a past sale – and it was hard to understand why something different would not be possible. But as outsiders, we didn’t see that there are politics behind the museum requests for exhibition: that the most important works are requested so often that it takes real negotiation to secure a loan for an exhibition, that auction houses don’t have time unless it’s one of their top clients and that curators are seen as proponents of the museum’s brand to their most important patrons.


All of these things have indeed come up since we started building our product, and we discovered that it wasn’t as simple as we thought. To be honest, part of the reason why we are the only ones doing what we do is because we were patient. With a typical sales cycle of 4 years, and an industry that needs to take its time to minimise the risk on these multi-million worth loans, there is a lot of waiting. You have to investigate and be inventive on how to make the business move faster.


And, most importantly, we knew how to understand what can and can’t be done in code. At a team scrum last week, Angela and I had a discussion about the new layout of our collector interface (due to be live by November 2014). There were beautiful things we were thinking of doing, but completing them in code would have taken weeks to alter, with very little to show for it. “It’s like taking a brick out of a wall, and saying you want to put it in vertically,” we mused, “Do we really want to do this?”


The ‘brick’ has now become a metaphor for anything that we think we can do, but will require too much time relative to the value it would add. “I want to add more details to this field on the object description – is that a ‘brick’?” Imagine if you built the company from scratch without realising that you are occasionally asking to move a ‘brick.’ It seems from experience and others’ stories that this misunderstanding is likely to be a main reason for web-based innovation to fail.


Understanding what will take a long time is important during the development process, when you are thinking about developing something in the lean way Blank, Eric Ries and their colleagues promote. If you don’t understand that something takes time, and make a demand to your development team, then you can burn a lot of development hours (and cash) on something that will not have an important impact on your product.


So with Vastari, we had the right perspective to see that museums needed to speak more with collectors, and that the perfect way to link them way using objects. We knew that the Internet was going to grow as a tool for the art world, and that networking is a crucial aspect of it. We knew that it was possible to build something for this… so we did, trying to understand what would take a long time along the way. You waste enough time trying to get the product-market fit right; don’t lose time on things you don’t have to!