Good Design Can Make the Elevator Pitch Futile

I had a five-minute conversation with an angel investor last week and described the product I’m working on. His response: “Similar things are being done by bigger companies with giant marketing budgets, so you’ll need a very clever marketing idea to succeed. What is it?”

There was an uncomfortable pause. On one hand, I haven’t thought up any great marketing ideas yet and wondered if that was a hole in my plan. On the other hand, I was pretty sure this investor and I had very different perspectives on product development, but I didn’t have the language to succinctly express that gap.

I did understand what he meant. A few years ago I managed a large online dating service. We radically updated the design and added great features, but it was the online marketing that kept the revenue coming in. Why? I believe that while the design was good, the product wasn’t positioned to differentiate it from the competition. By contrast, if you design a product that’s different and more exciting than the competition, like the Anki DRIVE, there will be a lot more free media exposure and word of mouth to complement paid marketing.

My downfall, I think, is that I was trying to tell this investor about the product rather than show him. If my new and improved positioning is a result of product design, I need to show the product. For example, if I verbally described the Anki DRIVE as, “a racing game that combines an iOS app with physical race cars” that’s sounds mildly exciting. Watching the video is so much better…

Uncertainty, Argh!

I just heard a talk at Lean Startup Machine NYC by Jonathan Fields, author of the book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance. It was only about 20 minutes but had maybe the highest useful content density of any talk I’ve ever heard. Here’s a few notes:

A startup at the beginning is filled with uncertainty about your product, market, everything. We experience uncertainty as pain. Usually we react by changing speed: we slow to a crawl because we’re paralyzed by imperfect information, or we rush to the end to make the pain stop.

As you conduct experiments, data replaces uncertainty; the process eases us down the uncertainty curve.

So, don’t freak out. Get data, Focus conversations on the data.

Other excellent advice:

  • We are not made to concentrate for more than 90 minutes. Our brain is wired to take breaks, that’s why ideas come to us in the shower. So, do 90 minutes of work, then 20-30 minutes of something unrelated. This reminds me of the Pomodoro Technique which helped me crank out several book chapters.
  • We can manipulate intelligence by priming the brain, either positively or negatively. You could say to a group of men, “Men do 50% worse on this test you’re about to take” and they will! So, create positive priming, e.g. start meetings with 60 seconds of a story about something cool that happened today.
  • Meditation and exercise are the two best innovation techniques anyone can practice, but ironically people in startups give them up first to do more work. Instead when we’re working hard we should double down on meditation and exercise. Spending quality time away from work improves the work, helping us do better work in less time.

Support for Innovation is Not the Same as Support for R&D

In case you’re wondering how to expose business leaders to the innovative power of design and design research without using those words, read how John Kay does it in the FT:

For years research and development scorecards have dutifully recorded how much pharmaceuticals companies spend on the search for new drugs and the expenditure of governments on defence electronics. But a Nesta report, presenting plans for a new innovation index has now recognised that most of the spending that promotes innovation does not take place in science departments. The financial services industry may have been Britain’s most innovative industry in the past two decades – perhaps too innovative – but practically none of the expenditure behind that innovation comes under “R&D”. And the same is true in retailing, media and a host of other innovative industries.

Support for innovation is not the same as support for R&D. Important contributions to commercial innovation come from new businesses such as Easyjet, which see opportunities that others have missed. Most of these opportunities do not actually exist and the innovations fail. But only a few such entrepreneurs have to be right to change the face of business. Other innovations come from successful companies, such as Apple, which may not be at the frontiers of science but are in close touch with consumers. Like all business success, innovative success is based on matching capabilities to market.

Though even Kay needs to mention Apple :-)

We Put the ‘No’ in Innovation

Here’s an ad that I saw in the May 1, 2009 issue of The Week magazine. It’s from Post advertising their Shredded Wheat cereal with creative from Ogilvy:

Progress is Overrated

Personally, I love it. Just as wrong-headed financial management is being righted in this economy, we can reclaim the oft-maligned word innovation to mean actual progress.

So where does real progress exist? It’s in between the innovation hucksters and those too reluctant to strive to make things better. I think Barry Curewitz, managing partner of Whole-Brain Brand Expansion, advocates for a rational, balanced approach to developing new products in his article, “Innovate with Balance.” due out in the May/June 2009 issue of Marketing Management magazine.

In summary, Barry argues two major points:

  1. His research shows companies are chasing too many strategies in a time when there’s too few resources, with identifiable shortcomings in the operations of otherwise good product ideas. In other words, in this time of tight budgets, invest wisely by supporting only what has potential, and then invest with real commitment. His examples of market performance for common household products demonstrates the point clearly.
  2. Companies can benefit by balancing structured, analytical methods with less structured, creative methods. We need the former to execute development plans, and we need the latter to create unique products, e.g. collaboration between MBA’s and creatives; coordination of innovation methods with Stage Gate methods.

Disruption From the Bottom Up: Flip

Flip Video I think it’s fair to say the $100 Flip video camera is a disruptive play. I’m not too surprised it didn’t come from Canon or Sony, but instead from a company who established their capabilities by building even cheaper cameras

Pure Digital started out, in 2002, making a digital version of the single-use “disposable” camera, sold through drugstores. The company’s research suggested that there might be a market for a similar product that took video images, and it created a one-time-use camcorder. But a number of consumers who liked the camcorder didn’t like the one-use limitation (and at least some of them figured out ways to skirt that limitation).

So when the first version of the Flip emerged in May 2007, its roots were in the point-and-shoot-camera world. That meant the company was far more conversant in how to make do with cheap components and keep prices down than in dreaming up the newest innovation that motivates the bleeding-edge camcorder freak.

Surowiecki on Toyota

Toyota gets Surowiecki’d (a straightforward, insightful summary)…

…if Toyota doesn’t look like an innovative company it’s only because our definition of innovation—cool new products and technological breakthroughs, by Steve Jobs-like visionaries—is far too narrow. Toyota’s innovations, by contrast, have focussed on process rather than on product, on the factory floor rather than on the showroom. That has made those innovations hard to see. But it hasn’t made them any less powerful.

…Toyota’s approach: defining innovation as an incremental process, in which the goal is not to make huge, sudden leaps but, rather, to make things better on a daily basis.

…Toyota’s innovative methods may seem mundane, but their sheer relentlessness defeats many companies. That’s why Toyota can afford to hide in plain sight: it knows the system is easy to understand but hard to follow.

Not a new sentiment, but one that needs to be repeated and accepted more widely.

What’s Your Favorite Innovation Book?

Happy new year my readers and friends.

While I once wrote that everything written about innovation is useless (including my own writing), we continue to write about it because writing is thinking, and there’s a lot of problems to think through. The result is some writing that is truly insightful and/or based on hard-won experience, and other writing that is boastful noise. In the spirit of avoiding easy answers and helping us think through tough problems, I’d like to know…

What’s your favorite innovation book (a book that helps you be innovative)?

I’ll start with mine…

When Design Innovation Comes Down to Execution

Matt, formerly of Nokia, counters the notion that Apple alone has the best touch user interface ideas, but also that it’s not the idea that won that race, but execution…

In recent months we’ve seen Nokia and Sony Ericsson show demos of their touch UIs. To which the response on many tech blogs has been “It’s a copy of the iPhone”. In fact, even a Nokia executive responded that they had ‘copied with pride’.

That last remark made me spit with anger – and I almost posted something very intemperate as a result. The work that all the teams within Nokia had put into developing touch UI got discounted, just like that, with a half-thought-through response in a press conference. I wish that huge software engineering outfits like S60 could move fast enough to ‘copy with pride’.


Fact-of-the-matter is if you have roughly the same component pipeline, and you’re designing an interface used on-the-go by (human) fingers, you’re going to end up with a lot of the same UI principles.

But Apple executed first, and beautifully, and they win. They own it, culturally.

Blue Oceans for Little Fish

I recently finished my first three-week session at Stacy’s Boot Camp, a calisthenics-based workout class held for one hour, three times a week, for three weeks. Sometime during the class when I was trying to avoid thinking about the pain I was in, it occured to me this is a wonderful example of a Blue Ocean strategy on a small scale.

  • The classes take place in New York City parks, so the costs and kept low and the savings are passed to the student
  • The unique offering requires no gym, and therefore no knowledge of equipment, no signup fee, no long obligatory memberships, etc.
  • It’s a very intense workout, using the latest understanding of body-weight strength training, three times-a-week whole-body workouts, and circuit training. Some simple content expertise makes this possible, and there’s no doubt that at the end of the session one is in better shape than at the beginning.

The kicker is that this doesn’t have to be a small business; Stacy could expand to parks all over the world, much faster than a gym chain could.

Having the API Rug Pulled Out From Under You

John Hagel observes how “the large Internet players are wearying of the high acquisition premiums for attractive Web 2.0 companies and are increasingly deciding to grow their own copy when they see an interesting venture.” So if you’re a start-up, what’s your new exit strategy? Hagel says…

The only sustainable edge in Web 2.0, as in all businesses today, is to get better faster by working with others…

There are basically two ways to do this. First, you can accelerate the innovation in the services you offer so that you are constantly one or two (or more) steps ahead of those tempted to copy you. Second, you can find ways to use your service offerings to build trust-based relationships with your users, ideally with some powerful network effects that will make it very difficult for later entrants to pry these people away from your service.

Free MIT Sloan Article: Clay Christensen on Product Dev

For a limited time only you can download the full text of Finding the Right Job for Your Product by Clayton M. Christensen et al. The article itself isn’t revolutionary — they essentially mirror the transition that marketing research has undergone in moving from demographic to affinity customer segmentation. Christensen and his colleagues describe that transition in terms of product development. It starts to get a little muddled as they come up with their own interpretation/strawman of user-centered design and then critique it, but the intentions seem noble.

Jeneanne Rae Attacks Idea Management

Jeneanne Rae spanks innovation efforts that are little more than idea-management systems…

Collecting random ideas may be an interesting exercise, but unless distinct energy is directed against solving a vexing corporate problem or exploiting a complex opportunity, you can count on low-level noise that won’t get senior management very excited. Lack of enthusiasm on the senior management front ensures sponsorship but little support, as well as attention deficits, long cycle times, and high frustration levels all around. Maintenance is high while reward levels can be very low.

Amen, sister. We can extend this criticism to consulting firms that hype idea generation as the foundation of innovation rather than those vexing corporate challenges.

Jack Welch on Green Products

Jack Welch and his wife, former HBR editor Suzi, were at the 92nd St Y in New York last night in an on-stage interview with the editor of BusinessWeek. It was great seeing them in person, and Jack’s persona was especially refreshing: large doses of common sense spoken with brutal honesty.

One point he made stood out. Because his politics are “right of center” and he’s obviously pro-business, he’s not quick to believe in global warming without more evidence; he took the time to cite scientists who have refuted Al Gore’s statements. So for anyone taking an intellectual position on the issue, he said, it’s very difficult. But for business people the strategy is clear: stop denying this might happen and prepare for it by developing products and manufacturing that are cleaner and greener than the competition. He was emphatic that this is the only rational way to proceed, and ended up sounding like a stronger voice for green innovation than someone else with an obvious bias.

Wilson on Change

It was recently the birthday of former American president [[Woodrow Wilson]], someone who knew about trying to be innovative and bringing about change. He pushed major legislation through Congress, entered World War I, and sought to establish the League of Nations. He said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.

Old School Scrappy Innovator: William Norris

Thomas J. Watson Jr., the head of I.B.M., which was famed for its militaristic corporate culture, was incredulous over Norris’s operation. So lean, so ragtag, so bafflingly humane. In a 1963 memo, Watson wondered how Control Data achieved with just a few dozen people what he had not with several thousand. Control Data later went on to defend its supercomputer innovation in an antitrust suit against Big Blue. It prevailed and won a settlement of $600 million.

A good example of agile innovation, from The Bleeding-Heart Rationalist.