Monday, March 26, 2012

Visionary Thinking

Roger Byford founded Vocollect 25 years ago. Today, we look at the Talkman(R) device and think, "It's just another wearable computer." We have smart phones that do 100 times more than this little thing, cost less (albeit for much less rugged use) and work in such a user-friendly way. But imagine what it took to start this company 25 years ago.

Just to remind you, this was the age in which Steve Jobs was just leaving Apple to start NeXt Computer. In which Robert Tappan Morris was just unleashing the first major network-crashing virus. In which people were jazzed about IBM's new Silverlake line of midrange computers. In other words, not an era in which many people were thinking about wearables and the future of the supply chain.

In fact, I told Roger today that if he had come up to me in 1988 and described his business, I would have probably thought him a complete crackpot. "You're going to design a computer that you wear that listens to the worker in the middle of a noisy distribution center, understands what he says, and then tells him what to do and where to go on the basis of that speech recognition?"

The success of this company just shows me what "future vision" really means. I stopped by the third floor display case today that contains one of those first Mercury wearable device models. It's impressive, both because of its size and because of the audacity of its vision. And here we are two decades later talking about the shrinking market in our grocery business... because Vocollect already has 80% of the Supermarket Top 75 using our product.

What's your vision of the future? Automated guided vehicles that pick full truckloads and then drive them (driverless) to the store? Self-guiding packages that move themselves into position in the supply chain? Because if you're thinking about something like recently purchased Kiva Systems, I believe you that may be looking too near into the future. The big winners are going to be products from the visionaries like Roger who see the possibilities more than two decades ahead and then have the audacity, persistence, skills and sheer guts to fulfill those possibilities.

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