Accelerator, Boot Camp or Lean Launchpad?

  

I was lucky enough to get the chance to go through a ‘boot camp’ style startup program recently. A really great experience, and it means in the last 12 months, I’ve been intimately involved in a boot camp, an accelerator and a Lean Launchpad program. So…what’s the difference, and which one was the best?Well, that kind of depends. These programs are all quite different in intent and outcomes, although they are all designed to take an idea and move it quickly through to the point where the startup has a good (or at least better…) ‘product-market fit’. So in other words, to make sure they’re not wasting money developing something that no one wants!

And I have to say that I don’t know what the people that put these programs together intended to achieve, I can only say what my experience was. And of course, they might be totally different things.

So! Here we go.

Program No 1 – the Lean Launchpad

I was involved with a university led Lean Launchpad program for an Australian research organisation (the CSIRO). In this case I was a mentor for several of the teams.

The great thing that the Lean Launchpad program had going for it was structure. The format that Steve Blank has created for this program really drives that product-market fit thing. There was a strong emphasis on customer interviews – the more the better, and no week could pass without showing progress. 

This led one of my teams to change their target market three times, and they hadn’t arrived at one that worked! How good is that? No time or money wasted building an idea for a market that didn’t want it! And even better, they saw a failure to find a suitable market as a success! Again, no wasted time or money going down the rabbit hole.

What the program didn’t do was really help develop a suitable business model – although that was an issue created by time, not the program; there’s only so much you can achieve until the teams nail that product-market fit.

As an aside, the next step for CSIRO was to put some of the teams through an accelerator, so that gives you an idea of where Lean Launchpad and accelerators fit together.

Program No 2 – Accelerator

The second program I’ve been involved with was an accelerator, again as a mentor. Now in contrast to the Lean Launchpad, this program ran for longer, and required a greater commitment from the startup teams. It provided a much deeper educational and mentoring experience and allowed for more in-depth mentoring and support.

So, my key observations on the accelerator was that it turned out more rounded teams. They pitched at the end and presented solid pictures of their ideas and how they would exploit them. There was an emphasis on hardware based startups in this accelerator, so while the teams also showed some great advances in their hardware design, the iteration process happens a little more slowly than for pure digital startups.

There was also funding involved for the teams, so that changed what they could do – including obtaining patent protection for their ideas.

It also incorporated customer interview work, but it wasn’t the focus of the program. 

Program No 3 – Boot Camp

The third program I’ve been involved in was a boot camp, but this time as a participant.

To some extent, my experience of this was coloured by the fact that my startup (‘WineMinder’) was already on market. So a lot of the boot camp activities forced me to refocus, rather than reinvent.

However, the boot camp was a much shorter and more intense process that the Launchpad or Accelerator programs. The final outcome was a competitive pitch, so while there was some customer discovery work, given the timeframe most of the effort went into filling any gaps in the business model. That ranged from basic market research (how big is the market), to who is the customer (product-market fit) and pitch training.

So my key takeaway from the Boot Camp was that you can achieve a lot in a short period of time, but it’s probably most useful very early in the process. A bit like the Launchpad, but with a sharper emphasis on getting a pitch together, rather than a better formed view of an idea prior to more development in an accelerator or even a Launchpad program.

So what does all that mean?

Well, which program suits a startup depends where it is in its development. Lean Launchpad is great when you’re early in the process and need to ‘get out of the building’ to talk to customers. Don’t do that, and you’ll get hammered in a Launchpad program! Boot Camps are probably better when you have done some of that work and need to rapidly prepare for a pitching opportunity. And an accelerator is better when your idea is relatively well formed and you need to literally accelerate your business to being on market.

However… Some more general observations are these;

  • All these programs are good; if you have a startup and get a chance to participate in any of them, do it!
  • If you do, leverage them as hard as you possibly can. Make contacts, challenge the mentors in the program to add value (because they should be challenging you!). It’s really unusually in business to get free access to such a range of capable, busy people. Make the most of your time there!
  • The key to any of these programs is structure, structure, structure. Startups need to move quickly from where they are to somewhere else – and structure provides the – well – structure to get there! Programs without a formal structure are likely to deliver lesser outcomes (in my opinion).
  • If you are lucky enough to have a choice, other than structure, look to the people involved. Their experience will tell you what you might get out of the program outside of the structure, and that can be as important, if not more, than the structure itself.

So did all these help me? Absolutely! You can read all the books you like, but there’s no substitute for experience. I’ve done lots of the former, and now some of the latter. I like all these programs, and they’ve all been run by great people. 

If you’re in the mind to create a startup, find you way into one of these programs if you can. There’s never been a better time, so take the plunge, and good luck if you do!

Help! My startup’s not disruptive!!!

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It’s terrible, tragic even.  My startup’s not disruptive!  It won’t change the world, or even an industry.  It won’t lay waste to the antiquated detritus of 20th century business, even by accident.  What am I to do???

Ok, that’s a bit tongue in cheek, but as you can appreciate, the impact of companies like Uber, Airbnb and even Apple can make it look like disruption is an indispensable part of the new economy.  Disrupt or perish, right?

In my view, a lot of what gets thrown up as being disruptive is nothing of the sort.  If you take Clayton Christensen’s’ original work on the subject, you can mount an argument that disruption can’t be planned anyway, so why bother?  It’s a serendipitous outcome of an innovation, not something that can be planned in advance.  No one is prepared for disruptive innovation; if they were, it wouldn’t be disruptive, right?

One of the reasons that disruptive innovation is such an influential idea is that it suggests that there’s a shortcut.  A shortcut to massive growth that avoids the need to carefully plan and execute a business idea over a long period of time.  Who wants to spend 30 years building a successful business when disruption offers the change to do it in five?  It gets around the pesky issue of eking out progressively larger market share based on well-honed strategy, tight cost control and incremental product development.

And of course, it’s even more appealing in the startup space.  Want to compete with Microsoft?  Hell no, we’ll just disrupt them!

But of course, disruption has become part of the new orthodoxy.  If you’re not disruptive or not aiming to be, you just don’t fit in quite as well as you might have in the past.  Want investment for your startup?  Be disruptive!

If you’re not disruptive, it makes it just that little bit harder to obtain capital then if you are, because most early stage investors want high returns in relatively short periods.  That doesn’t mean that non-disruptive startup don’t get funded, but it’s a lot easier to make the case for rapid profit if you can grow unencumbered by traditional market completion.

I’m a bit of a contrarian at heart, so I tend to recoil from the hype surrounding disruption.  But I think it’s important to remember that there are lots and lots of very successful businesses out there that aren’t disruptive and never will be.

There was a good article in Harvard Business Review last year that made just this point.  The author pointed out that “the vast majority of profit from innovation does not come from the initial disruption; it comes from the stream of routine, or sustaining, innovations that accumulate for years (sometimes decades) afterward”.  As a case in point he offers Intel, who has made about $287 billion from the series of chips that built on the original X386 chip introduced in 1985.  Not bad for a non-disruptive business, huh?  Then there is Microsoft with Windows ($325 billion) and even Apple with the iPhone ($150 billion).

I also read a piece recently (also from HBR) which talked about why bootstrapping a startup is the most successful approach to a new business in terms of raw numbers.  They criticise the ‘big money’ model that gets all the headlines for startups and point out that most of these business are better off taking it slowly – working out their business model, tuning their product to the market, and learning to get by on less, rather than more.  This article was published before the Innovator’s Dilemma, so you could argue that things have changed and maybe they have.  But I’d wager that the companies that will dominate the world in 20 years’ time are likely small and humble at the moment and will take all that time to ‘disrupt’ their competitors!

Returning to my own startup, what does this mean?  Having recently completed a modest Kickstarter campaign, we’ve been asking the question of ‘what’s next’?  One answer to this question is to ‘go big’ by raising money and taking the idea global.  That’s entirely possible, but some water needs to go under the bridge yet.

And of course, most people get the idea of what we’re doing with WineMinder, but it doesn’t immediately bring forth visions of global dominance.  Which makes it that little bit less attractive compared to rapidly scalable, potentially disruptive ideas.  And that just suits me fine, to be honest.  But occasionally it can make you wonder if its worth bothering with all the hard work and worry (and of course the fun and occasional euphoria!) if you’re not going to disrupt something – other than your family life and your bank account!

Again, being a contrarian, I wonder if a lot of profitable – but not disruptive – opportunities are being left unaddressed in the rush to creatively destroy the status quo.  And maybe my startup is in that space.  And if it is, I’ll gladly make decent returns on my efforts while watching some more disruptive ideas burn through other people’s money, before being disrupted by the next wave of, well, disruptive innovation!

In which case, I don’t really need help at all…at least, not because my startup isn’t disruptive!

Kickstarter success – what I learned!

Kickstarter

What I learned from my Kickstarter compaign

I recently completed a successful kickstarter campaign for a consumer electronics product called WineMinder (www.wineminder.com.au) and I think I’d have to say that I learnt a few things along the way!

Firstly, it’s incredibly rewarding to have your idea validated, and not just by people who know you and the project intimately.  That’s probably a given, but worth saying none the less!

More interestingly, there were a couple of unexpected outcomes from the campaign, which didn’t get much coverage in the Kickstarter guides and commentary that I looked at before launch. These were;

  • A massive increase in brand awareness.  Just going on website traffic alone, we had as much traffic to our site in the first day of the campaign as we had for the entire 3 months prior, and increased total new visitors to our site by a factor of 6!
  • We had two approaches for investment in the business and one from someone offering to be our agent in northern Europe.
  • Our top pledge was the biggest mover, even when it ran out and I created another, similar pledge for the same reward at a higher price level!

Many would argue that we could have found out this last point if we were following a lean startup process, but it hadn’t come up in any previous discussion – maybe because we hadn’t been forced to develop varying offers before the campaign.  So a lesson there is to get really creative with offerings, even if you are following a lean startup methodology.

Of course, many of the other things I learnt were much more commonly discussed, like;

  • The euphoria of the first day or two, where early pledges really get things going – followed by the nail chewing when this drops off temporarily!
  • The need to prepare early and well to make sure you hit your targets, because very few people are likely to stumble upon the project via the Kickstarter site itself.
  • The fact that you’ll spend the last week of the campaign mailing, texting and ringing people and just generally making a pain of yourself until all those people that said they’d pitch, get off their backsides and actually pledge!

I’d definitely do it again.  The funding we raised will be extremely useful, the brand awareness we’ve developed we simply couldn’t buy at this point and the validation of the product and insights into pricing structures was unbelievably valuable!

And, of course, it was just straight out fun!

Encounters with the Mythical Man Month

Train wreck “Question: How does a large software project get to be one year late? Answer: One day at a time!”  Frederick Brooks, 1975 (The Mythical Man Month).

I’ve been run-over by the mythical man month recently.  It’s been slowing down my startup, and it’s driving me crazy.  None of the start-up books or blog posts talk about it, but its as effective at slowing down my attempts to get to market as anything else I can think of.  Not familiar with the ‘mythical man month’?  I bet you are, you just don’t know it by that name.

As an example, some time ago, when I was working in well funded tech start-up, a consultant said to me that getting a successful product into the market would take twice as long and cost twice as much as the company thought.  It certainly seemed to be taking longer than management said and that would also certainly lead to more costs.  But twice as much?  No way!  The company had lots of great people, working really hard to get the product out the door.  It had well credentialed management (although in retrospect, perhaps less well credentialed at running that particular type of business) and was very well funded – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in the bank.

As it tuns out, it took much longer than twice as long to get the idea to market – in fact, six years after I left the company, they the technology has yet to be fully commercialised.  So maybe that consultant was right…

Fast forward to the present day, and I’m facing the same problem again, only this time on a much smaller scale.  I have gathered a small group together to bring my idea to market, and the clock is ticking.  Why is the clock ticking?  Well, my idea is a consumer product, so Christmas sales loom large in the calendar.  I start every email to my business partners with “X weeks to Christmas!!” just to make sure my sense of urgency isn’t lost in translation.  But despite my best efforts to push things along, the mythical man month keeps biting me on the you-know-what.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of the mythical man month, it’s an idea coined by Frederick Brooks in his 1975 book, the Mythical Man Month (go figure..).  Brooks was a software developer and after some analysis he observed that  “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. What resonates with me more than that is the quote at the top of this post which points to the fact that it’s often not the major disaster that makes a project late, but the accumulated effect of lots of small delays.  Fred was sick on Monday, the photocopier was broken Tuesday. Wednesday the courier company was on strike and Thursday the computer network was down… Again. You get the idea.

In my case, the issues are things like aligning calendars, days of delay responding to email, family issues and many more.  Individually they don’t really matter, but I can feel time running through my fingers every time one of these little events occurs.

Is there a solution for this?  Well, good planning and agreed ways of working never go astray. Having everyone signed up to the project and business timelines also helps (going back to the start-up I mentioned above, the challenge of getting everyone to sign up to goals was so problematic, that the company’s internal slogan one year was ‘delivering on our commitments’…). But much like the problem is no single event, the solution isn’t one either.  And that’s where good management and leadership come in.  It takes a consistent and persistent effort to make sure everyone responds to emails (or use the phone!), to organise meetings well ahead of time, and putting some slack in the schedule so that time risks can be effectively managed.

This sort of discipline often gets missed in discussions of innovation, pivots, minimum viable products and the customer discovery process.  But it’s an important discipline to have or to develop when you’re in start-up mode.  Because as sure as VCs will want more than you want to give (!) there will be a range of things that you can’t control that will slow you down.  So when there are things that you can, you’d better make sure you’re on top of them, or you’ll end up being a lot more familiar with the mythical man month then you are at the moment!

Open Innovation – Crazy Brave, or Just Plain Smart?

Lego design

I finished reading Henry Chesbrough’s book Open Innovation recently, and I have to say it makes sense.  But it’s also a little bit scary.  Here’s why.

Innovation is a balancing act.  It’s a balance between creating a great idea that could change the world with creating an idea that can actually be implemented.  It’s about spending cash to develop that idea, with preserving some of that cash for the long and winding road that’s yet to come.  And it’s a balance between keeping an idea secret for a time and sharing it so that others can help make that idea even better.

And it’s this last balancing act that can lead to problems.  I’ve been in a number of situations where the balance has tipped too far towards the secrecy side of things that there is a real reluctance to bring new people in on the idea at all.  Perhaps even worse is the situation where the innovator has become so convinced that they are the only ones that can solve the problem that they actively discourage ideas from others, even within the same company.

I guess another motivation for not wanting to bring others in on an idea is that it’s much easier to innovation in private, where no one can see you fail.  It’s pretty well recognised that failure is a big part of learning, particularly when it comes to innovation, but it’s not always an easy thing to accept that as an individual.  Your competence is on the line, perhaps your reputation and definitely your pride.

So the idea of Open Innovation can be a bit scary.  If you’re not familiar with the concept, Open Innovation involves partnering with others to give life to an idea.  Among other things, this can involve sourcing ideas from the outside, on the basis that not all the smartest people work for you.  It takes a really pragmatic view of the creative process and promotes an agnostic approach to sourcing ideas.  That is, it doesn’t matter where an idea comes from: if you can find it, and use it, then don’t bother creating it yourself.  And you don’t need to totally own an idea to benefit from it.  There’s lots of other ways to extract value from the ideas of others.

Open Innovation is often contrasted with the process of industrial innovation that dominated the 20th century.  In that distant past (!) large corporations owned ideas, from basic research all the way through to commercialisation and sale.  It resulted in some truly brilliant outcomes, but it also restricted the range of innovations that could be created.  After all, when innovation involves the combination of existing ideas in novel ways, why would you restrict the range of ideas to the ones you can generate yourself?  If we all behaved that way, Steve Jobs may never have breathed life into the mouse (amongst other things) by licencing the idea from Xerox!

So Open Innovation makes sense.  Why recreate the wheel when you can licence the idea from someone else?  And you see some great ideas coming out of this approach.  My favourite is Lego.

Lego has had its ups and downs, but one turning point for them was the release of the Mindstorms range of modular, programmable robotic Lego.  When they released Mindstorms, they found that people started hacking the basic code.  Initially that concerned them, but they soon realised that this hacking was creating features that Lego’s development team hadn’t even thought of themselves.  And it made the product better!

This was a serious learning event for Lego and led to some really interesting approaches to innovation.  At one stage Lego would let anyone create a new Lego design and they would build, package and ship it to you.  That was probably unsustainable, but what that program morphed into was the Lego Ideas program. This program allows anyone to design new Lego products based on existing Lego pieces.  These designs can be posted onto the Lego Ideas website and if they receive 10,000 votes, Lego will put the idea into production.

The brilliance of this approach is that it leverages the creative minds of millions of Lego fans around the world, a much more powerful proposition than the limited capacity of their own design teams.  It also ensures that there’s a market for a new idea before it goes into production, really de-risking the product development process.  Quite frankly, that’s both incredibly smart and just outright cool!

But that sort of approach is also pretty brave.  You need to be able to acknowledge that you aren’t the smartest person around (ouch!), that you don’t have all the answers (ouch!) and that you may need to share your idea to really give it wings (scary…!).  To a lot of people that may not sound like a big problem at all, but let me tell you, I’ve seen plenty of examples where that kind of openness to outside ideas simply wouldn’t only not be accepted, but it would be actively discouraged!  Even worse, I’ve seen situations where a company actively rejects the ideas of new employees, simply because they thought they had all the answers already.

As always, I try to think how these ideas would work if I were in the driver’s seat.  In this case that’s pretty easy, as I have a start-up and there’s no way I can bring the idea to market without using other people’s ideas. But it’s still a little confronting.  But open innovation makes sense to me (and to Lego!), but sometimes it can feel crazy brave to share your idea with the world before you’re convinced it’s even ready for to be released into the wild…

My Startup Journey, Episode I

I have a start-up.

Well, it’s sort of a start-up.  More of a pre-start-up start-up really, but a start-up none the less.  It’s a very part time gig, but I have a novel (i.e. innovative!) product idea that I’m developing with a co-founder and we intend to bring it to market some time in the next 12 months or so.  The vehicle for that effort is “Smart Sensor Technologies” and the reason for that name will become clear in future posts.

The purpose of this particular post is to flag an intention to blog about my own, personal start-up journey with Smart Sensor Technologies.  The reason for this is that although I know a lot about a very small slice of innovation (I did a doctorate in the area, after all…) there’s a lot to know outside that small slice of innovation.  In an effort to improve the chances of my start-up succeeding, I’m trying to learn as much as I can about what goes on outside my slice, while also placing that learning within the context of what I already know.  I thought that others might be interested in that journey, as what happens to my initiative might be instructive to others.  Hopefully it’s not the learnings you get from the train-wreck kind of experience, but that would be useful too!

So I’ll interweave my start-up experiences with my other blogging to show what I’m learning and the lessons I’m drawing from the journey.  I’ll put that logo at the top of the page at the start of each start-up blog entry, and tag the posts with ‘start-up’ as well, so you can see the whole, unfolding journey in all its magnificent glory.

In discussing that journey, I’ll be a little evasive on exactly what the product actually is, at least until it’s advanced enough that we’ve got a firm launch date in mind.  Hopefully readers will understand the reluctance to not completely open the kimono at this stage of the game!

Given the nature of these posts, I would also invite comments from readers, as many of you will have experiences that are vastly different to mine, including many in the start-up space.  In that way, I can learn from you too.

So here we go.  An experiment in starting-up, as well as blogging about it.  Can’t wait to see where it goes!!!

Good at your job, but bad at innovation? Here’s one reason why.

Man & anchor

Innovating can be a challenge for established firms.  Some the reasons for this range from inflexible management structures, to unsuitable organisational design to inappropriate systems of incentives.  I can’t speak to all of those, but what I can speak about is the constraint that being really good at your job puts on your ability to innovate.

One of the things that makes people successful in their field is their mastery of the rules of that govern that field.  These rules can be technical in nature, for example engineering or accounting standards.  These are ‘hard’ rules that are usually written down and are relatively easy to identify.  Alternatively rules can be ‘soft’ in nature, for example collective organisation behaviours.  These unwritten rules often define what needs to be done to get ahead in a business, for example, expectations about the hours spent at your desk (as opposed to the quality of your output!).  In all cases, learning and mastering these rules tends to go hand in glove with a rise up the ranks.

While there are some obvious downsides to that, there are upsides too.  Mastering the rules means that a lot of behaviour becomes automatic, freeing you up to deal with more complex tasks.  This is one of the things that distinguish more experienced practitioners from the less experienced ones.  By being familiar with the rules, mundane activities can be completed much more efficiently as you don’t have to sit down and think about what needs to be done – you just get on and do it.  This allows you to add more value in a context where productivity is important.  So mastering the rules is a valuable capability in most business environments.

Where it falls down though, is where the environment is uncertain and non-standard behaviours are required to be successful.  This is one of the reasons that a transition from a large, established corporate environment to an entrepreneurial one can be difficult.  Predictable action based on established rules can be totally at odds with the dynamic, undefined and unstructured nature of small, start up endeavours.  Conversely, the transition from a fluid, open environment with unformed rules into a highly structured business can be traumatic as well.  What makes you successful in one isn’t likely to make you successful in the other.

This problem is even more evident where innovation is the name of the game.  Those ingrained rule-following abilities that are fused into minds over the years can be a real barrier to developing truly innovative ideas.  This is largely because follow a set of rules provides a predictable set of outcomes; this is the point of having rules in the first place.  However, innovation involves the deliberate use of uncertainty which can mean breaking the rules.  But really successful people have embedded these rules into their behaviours and make them part of their habits, habits which are difficult to because people are no longer consciously aware that they govern their behaviour and thinking.

A couple of recent experiences highlighted this problem for me.  Firstly, I had an engagement where a client had asked an engineering firm to come up with some cost savings on a new technology.  A group of engineers were gathered around the table to brainstorm the issue, and the discussion centred on optimising the engineering of the current solution.  That was great, but it wasn’t going to bring about the step change in costs that the client needed.  Refining a design based on ‘normal’ or ‘good’ practice wasn’t going to be enough.  The rules had to be broken.  Eventually we came up with an innovative solution, but it took time to break the team out of their engineering habits on what was a relatively simple piece of work.

A second experience involved a tender for significant piece of engineering infrastructure.  Upon reviewing the preliminary design provided by the client, the (very experienced) engineering team decided that it had been well designed.  However, to win the job, the business needed to bring innovation to the table.  By agreeing that the design was done well, what the team was saying was that the rules that they use for designing this type of work had been effectively applied to this project. This was a great validation of our systems of education – it had produced a cadre of skilled engineers that could efficiently design large infrastructure projects in a similar way, despite their differing organisations.

However, drilling down into those comments it became clear that a whole range of assumptions weren’t appropriate for this particular project.  The high standards normally applied to public projects of this type weren’t mandatory for this work, meaning that far more radical approaches could be taken.  Old rules could be abandoned in favour of (in this case) better ones.  Once the veil of familiarity had been lifted from the team, a whole range of innovative ideas were thrown into the mix and the challenge become one of narrowing them down, rather than coming up with them in the first place.

Both of these examples highlight that part of the challenge to coming up with innovative ideas is finding ways to see what is taken for granted.  It’s a forest for the trees type of problem, but there are tools that can help the process.

One is to get someone involved who is completely unfamiliar with the task at hand. They ask the ‘really stupid questions’ that can allow a team to see what assumptions are being made without even knowing that they are being made.

Another is to use the questioning technique outlined in the recent book by Warren Berger, called A More Beautiful Question.  This book is focussed on asking questions rather than moving straight into solutions.  Berger defines A More Beautiful Question as ‘an ambition yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change’.  His basic framework for achieving this is start by asking ‘why’ something is as it is at the moment.  This is followed by asking ‘what if’ and then ‘how’.  To get a feel for how that works, you’ll need to read the book, but I like the process because it forces a rethink of assumptions that underpin how things are today, providing space to think about innovative ways to approach old problems.

Another good reference is Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macunufo.  The book is a collection of techniques for idea generation and development aimed at creating breakthrough innovations.  The book is particularly useful because it presents a wide range of tools to choose from, all of which are set into a context of creating change.

Above all of these though is the explicit recognition that the things that make people successful in the past won’t necessarily make them successful innovators in the future.  The things that make someone an engineer, accountant, technician, IT guy or programmer are also the things that can constrain their imagination and ability to generate out of the box solutions.  The good news is that it doesn’t take much to turn that around.  Breaking the habits of a working lifetime can actually be relatively easy once you recognise where you’ve come from and how it shapes your thinking.  The most dangerous course of action is to assume that what’s served in the past will serve in the future.  Once that hurdle is overcome, what makes you good at your job today can make you even better at your job in the future, as it opens a whole range of possibilities that the rules simply don’t anticipate.