Innovation is a word tightly knit into the language of success. Tech sites run highly anticipated round-ups of the year’s most innovative businesses, companies like Google have established elaborate processes to foster new thinking, and Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and other tech leaders are idolized, written into history as thought leaders and visionaries.
But how is innovation achieved? Amidst the hype, the process of innovation remains stubbornly fuzzy. Industry behemoths long associated with innovation are second-guessing old norms. Google recently eliminated its “20% rule” famous for giving employees 20 percent of their workweeks to devote to creativity. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams went a step further when he recently questioned the concept of innovation itself, implying that the Internet does not have limitless possibilities. At the same time, tech startups are popping up all over the globe. They are challenging traditional modes of thinking, but as the market grows more and more crowded, the process for making a lasting impact can feel strikingly unclear.
Pioneering a tech startup since 2009 has led us to believe that smart innovation—innovation driven not just by ideas, but by real solutions—is the key to success in today’s tech landscape. As Steve Jobs once famously remarked, “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” What smart innovation involves is deciding which 1,000 ideas to shed and which few to nurture. As we quickly approach our company’s fifth anniversary, we took a moment to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned and wanted to share these three in particular:
1. Listen for the Rumbling:
The vast majority of innovative startups address a tangible market need. In Portland, Oregon at the XOXO Conference in September, Evan Williams touched on the concept of convenience as a commodity. It’s a simple truth – make people’s lives easier and your solution is bound to find success. Uber was an instant hit because the app took cab-hailing mobile, putting power into consumer’s fingertips. The app catered to society’s newfound appreciation for the ease of mobile transactions. Similarly, Square grew popular because it solved the cash-only problem for small businesses and consumers alike, offering seconds-quick mobile credit card transactions.
One entrepreneurial trap is building a product without thoroughly sousing out market need. You can spend years fine-tuning what you think will be a sensation, but if you’ve lost touch with consumer demand during the process, need for your product could be less than anticipated.
So how can you avoid this fate? We found it helpful to imagine ourselves as sponges during the early stages of problem solving. Our team jumped at opportunities to meet with potential clients, setting up meetings with experts who could give us feedback on budding ideas. We walked them through decks featuring our product plans and outlined our ideas, realizing that the questions they asked would reveal where to focus our attention—and how to avoid hidden pitfalls.
2. Assess Your Assets:
Steve Case, former CEO of AOL, recently said that the primary battle in today’s hyper-competitive tech world is breaking through the clutter. Multiple companies are vying to solve similar problems. Those that leverage their unique assets to gain a competitive advantage stand out.
Take Nike as an example. Fast Company rated it the world’s #1 most innovative company this year, and its new Fuelband product has attracted a lot of attention. In Fast Company’s interview with Nike executives, they spoke at length about leveraging their assets to build Fuelband: they modeled the product on carefully measured data from previous releases, galvanized their pre-formed creative team to pore over Fuelband’s design, and used their company culture of “top-secret information” to create internal buzz about the product. Nike took stock of the tools it had – design experience, creative expertise, and company culture—to maximize its natural advantage.
The same applies to startups. When we built our latest mediation product, we had an established client base already using our previous mobile monetization solutions. We knew that these relationships would give our next release a competitive boost. By activating our external network of developer clients, we not only received great advice for building new services, but also ensured that there would be clients awaiting our product at the other end.
3. Embrace Feedback
Dennis Crowley, co-founder of FourSquare, noticed something strange in March 2011: users had stopped checking in with FourSquare. Instead, they were using the app to search for and discover local recommendations. He and his co-founders hadn’t anticipated the shift, but realized that they had to listen and respond to their users.
They channeled these insights back into the product, reversing FourSquare’s mission. Rather than pushing a “check in first, search second,” mantra, they emphasized local searches as the app’s main feature and encouraged check-ins as a secondary activity. When FourSquare released the next version of its app with these changes reflected, usage doubled.
FourSquare’s anecdote highlights a common practice among smart innovators: monitoring user behavior and continually reiterating products based on feedback. The feedback loop is so valuable that powerhouses like Bally Technologies, a casino gaming company awarded, hosts regular consumer panels to hear their customers’ voices.
For us, continuing the conversation with our clients involves debuting new products with a soft launch three months prior to the actual release date. We give a number of our clients early access to test-builds of products, sometimes going so far as to run test integrations of alpha versions on clients’ platforms. Developers on both ends chat over Skype to exchange ideas, quality improvements, and suggestions on how we could more accurately describe the functionalities of our product. These sessions strengthen partnerships and help propel our products forward after release.
While our experience has shown that innovation is filled with uncertainties, one fact we know is certain: the tech landscape is ever changing, and innovation is its expansive force. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but feel fortunate to have learned these lessons through the years—and can only hope that each new lesson makes the fuzzy front of innovation a little clearer.