Just because something is innovative, does that mean commercial success is assured?
If you listen to most politicians, you’d think the answer is “yes.” Innovation is good, they tell us. Innovation is what drives the American economy, makes us different, makes us want to see what’s just around the corner or over the next horizon.
In a sense they are correct, innovation is responsible for much of the success this country has enjoyed in its relatively short lifespan. But innovation alone is not a guarantee of success. This is something entrepreneurs and business leaders know best. An innovative product or service, absent an audience or demand for that item, is only something different, not necessarily something any one wants or needs.
Back in the 1990s, Microsoft pioneered the delivery of TV over the internet with WebTV. Trouble is, connection speeds were slow, offerings were slim, viewing technology was in its infancy, and users were not all that tech savvy. Consumers simply didn’t want WebTV and didn’t understand it; even Microsoft grew not to want it, finally pulling the plug in the late 1990s.
Was WebTV innovative? Definitely. It was a decade ahead of its time, but it was no success. It was not what the marketplace wanted.
The same goes for Apple’s “Newton.” Don’t’ remember that one? Don’t feel bad. Developed in the early 1990s, it was the precursor to the smartphone and personal digital assistants. It was a true innovation, but without a market and without the technological infrastructure in place to support it, the Newton went nowhere . . . fast (well, not 3G or 4G fast, more like dial-up fast).
Recent history is replete with innovations that have died quick deaths, such as laser discs, Betamax, even HD DVDs.
It’s clear then, that innovation does not guarantee success. Having said that, you may now be wondering, “What is Paul thinking? We have to innovate to move forward. We should be encouraging innovation. Is he nuts?”
Of course we should be encouraging innovation and creativity, but we should not rubber stamp every product or service idea simply because it seems innovative. Trash receptacles are full of good and even great ideas for which there was no demand or practical application.
For example, you might build the most innovative coat hanger imaginable . . . but will anyone care? Or will people just figure their regular coat hangers work just fine, thank you very much. Unless the thing cleans and irons their dress shirts, I’m thinking new coat hangers won’t be very high on anybody’s must-have list.
What we need to encourage is innovation and commercial viability.
A recent example of a failure to commercialize innovation is Kodak. I bet you didn’t know Kodak is considered a pioneer in digital photography, with patents galore. So why did Kodak fail when digital photography became the new norm? Kodak failed to connect with the marketplace. Kodak seemed determined to keep one foot in the traditional film realm, while pawing about tentatively in the digital world, seemingly unsure which “winner” to pick and to promote.
A recent example of successful commercialization is Apple’s Steve Jobs and the iPod. The iPod debuted in 2001 as an Apple-only device, created some buzz, and by 2002 was supported on Windows systems. It was a classic example of technology creating and satisfying demand in the marketplace . . . with a dash of Steve Jobs’ “coolness.” Jobs seemed to have an knack for intuiting what the marketplace wanted, sometimes even before the marketplace knew.
So what sets a successful innovation apart from a flop?
You simply need to go back to some product/service development basics:
- What problem or pain point does this product or service solve?
- Is there, or can we create, demand for this product or service?
- Will there be resistance to change?
- Are there technological/cultural barriers to overcome?
- Is there growth potential?
- Do people (consumers) care?
- Can the product or service be delivered profitably?
Clearly, innovation for innovation’s sake, just doesn’t cut it, not if the marketplace is not asking for a change . . . or if the change is deemed too costly or unprofitable. Never has, never will. (Can you say Solyndra? Can you say New Coke?)
But innovation with an eager market primed to embrace a new technology or a new way of doing things can be golden, provided the company or entrepreneur creating the innovation knows how to commercialize it and make a profit . . . and that’s where forward thinking business leaders and entrepreneurs come into the picture.
Are there new products or services you or your company can pioneer? What does your entrepreneur’s intuition tell you? Do people care about this particular product or service? Can you convince them to care?
Share your ideas and experiences here.