From Maps to Mania: Three Innovator Contradictions in Pokémon Go’s Success

In the mid 1990s, John Hanke launched his first online video game. Twenty years later, John Hanke is the entrepreneur behind an animated gaming app that has pushed augmented reality into mainstream use – Pokémon Go.

From Maps to Mania

Two decades of entrepreneurial activity set the stage for Hanke’s success. Here are three ways he used Effectuation to position himself to create a new market.

  • Hanke started with what he knew. And he stuck with his strengths. He had an interest in technology. In mapping. In coding and software development. These skills were foundational, at the heart of all of his projects.   

  • Hanke experimented. Not everything he created was a success. But Hanke wasn’t fearful about putting new ideas out into the world. He placed bets with beta versions and test runs. And then he watched what happened. He paid attention to how people were using or not using his inventions and made adjustments. He took action.  

  • Hanke cultivated partnerships. Starting with his team at Keyhole, he pulled others in to add their ideas, skills, and networks. Eventually, this willingness to partner contributed to Hanke's success at Google when they purchased Keyhole. It also laid the groundwork for his ability to navigate more complex corporate relationships when his Google spin off, Niantic Labs, developed relationships with other large stakeholders, including Nintendo.    

None of these things happened overnight. They were skills Hanke began practicing early and often. He learned from failures and missteps along the way. And he strengthened his ability to navigate increasing complexity.

What Innovators Can Learn

Innovation is not a linear path. It is rife with ambiguity, complexity, and nuance. The success of Pokémon Go shows us three contradictions that innovators have to balance in pursuit of creating new markets.  

1.) Have a big vision. Take small steps. 

Hanke saw geospatial data as having a wide range of uses. He broke his big vision into small steps. Twenty years ago he didn’t have the team, the funding, or the knowledge to bring all of his ideas to fruition. But he figured out what he could do with what he had. And he did just that.

Many entrepreneurs struggle with this. They have the big idea and immediately want to acquire each resource needed to make it happen. Instead, breaking the idea into smaller, more feasible actions allows the entrepreneur to get real world input. With each subsequent validation, people ask to contribute to the idea. No longer does the entrepreneur have to convince stakeholders to give something up. Now stakeholders willingly offer to participate.     

2.) Start with you. Grow with others.  

Hanke certainly had the skills needed to launch his first online video game. And if he wanted to innovate alone, he probably could have put out more and more advanced video games overtime.

By partnering with others, Hanke was able to take those small steps he started with and turn them into giant leaps. Each new stakeholder brings new connections, resources, and expertise to the team. The culmination can be an innovative force.   

3.) Persist. And pivot.  

Did Hanke look into a crystal ball twenty years ago and see people of all ages scurrying through the streets looking for brightly colored monsters? No. But he did see value in technology and mapping. And he pursued it.

Hanke shifted between online game design, a maps focus, and an interest in mobile technology. Pokémon Go incorporates components from all of these ventures. But the Nintendo partnership brought new means to the table, and a cultural icon – Pokémon. This presented a chance to pivot beyond the ardent gamer community and into the mainstream. And it worked.

Finding the right balance between these contradictions can be tricky. But so is tracking down a flying Dragonite or a Zapdo in Pokémon Go. That isn’t stopping millions from trying. So what’s stopping you?   

--Written by Sara Whiffen, Founder & Managing Partner, Insights Ignited LLC