Talent Might Be the RFID Entrepreneur’s Biggest Problem

Being smarter than most of the people you've known can lead to overestimating your skills and making terrible business decisions.
Published: December 23, 2019

During a recent business trip, I settled in at my hotel room after dinner with colleagues and turned on the television. When I flipped through the channels, I found an HBO documentary titled Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching. I watched it because I’ve always wanted to understand why Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots, is much more successful than any other NFL coach in history. He has six Super Bowl rings to his name, which is a record. Nick Saban was part of the documentary because he won five national championships and is Belichick’s close friend.

Something Saban said during the show caught my attention: he tells recruits, on the day they arrive for practice, that their talent is their biggest obstacle to success. He says, and I’m paraphrasing here: “You’ve been the best on your team all your life. You didn’t have to do the little things well because you were so much better than everyone who could succeed without worrying, even if you didn’t have the best technique. But now you are playing against the best players in the country and that is no longer the case. You can change (and learn to do the little things) or fail (and be eliminated from the team).”

It caught my attention because it makes sense, and it was insightful for Saban to recognize the problem of these recruits and understand their mentality. It also caught my attention because it could be a problem for new RFID companies as well. Many of the entrepreneurs who started businesses were the smartest people in their engineering classes or at their company. They started their own firm with the conviction that they could build a better mousetrap (or a better RFID reader, tag or software product). And they may be right, but unfortunately, they also tend to assume they know more than anyone else about marketing, finance and production, which may not be the case.

I spoke with the head of a startup at last year’s RFID Journal LIVE! event. He was a Ph.D. student from a prestigious university on the U.S. West Coast, and he’d developed a patented form of RFID and had planned to target the retail industry. I told him I thought he had almost no chance of being successful in retail because retailers require open standards. They need their suppliers to label products, and suppliers would not be willing to put passive UHF RFID tags on most products and then use his tags on goods for only the few retailers he’d managed to convince to use his system (if he even could do so).

This young businessman looked at me like I was an idiot. The expression on his face said, “You are an ignorant fool. You have no idea how brilliant I am and how better my technology is.” I guess he’ll raise a lot of money from venture capitalists who are too talented to read Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm and actually follow Moore’s advice. Then, this entrepreneur will develop products for retail, and when that fails and the venture capital money begins to run out, he’ll look for other markets. Most likely, there will not be enough time or cash for him to pivot and achieve success. Maybe he’ll feel humiliated by his failure. Maybe not.

Fortunately, I am intelligent but not brilliant. I didn’t know anything about business when I started with RFID Journal in 2002. So I listened to everyone who gave me advice. I followed the advice I thought was good and ignored what I thought wasn’t logical. I asked many people their opinions before choosing a course of action. I was not a salesperson or a designer, so I deferred to staff members with experience in those areas. Perhaps a little humility, which is a good technique in football, is also part of the recipe for success.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal.