If you want to innovate, you don’t necessarily need to be in Silicon Valley. And if you are already in Silicon Valley, try to consider looking for partners or solutions from outside the Bay Area.
When it comes to creating anything new, the hardest part is always the beginning. In order to start, you often need a handful of resources: talented people, compelling ideas, and, most importantly, enough working capital to do proper consumer research and feasibility prototypes, and then enough left to take you to commercialization. You also need partners who believe in you, support your dream, and will stick with you when you reach hurdles and failures along the way. In Silicon Valley, there is an abundance of all three—which is why conventional wisdom often encourages founders, investors, and growing startups to move to the Bay Area.
But in 2020, talent, ideas, and capital are everywhere. And many of the Valley’s most accomplished companies—Twitter and Square, for example—have opted to “work from home” forever. Before we know it, physical proximity might become a thing of the past. It really shouldn’t matter, as long as you have a company culture of trust, empathy and collaboration. If you have team members that feel they need to have the greatest idea in the room, you may want to rethink their involvement in your mission.
We see this “new normal” as a good thing. But we do want to flag potential long-term challenges with permanent remote work. Teams or Zoom calls still cannot satisfy those “Ah-Ha” moments at the water cooler or from the random run-ins in the hallway.
Innovation is all about breaking down preconceived notions about how the world works. And while Silicon Valley has birthed some truly remarkable tech companies, it has had a much harder time thinking about people in America, the real America, when it comes to other types of innovative products like consumer goods. And so finding partners who can complement your mindset with deep domain experience without over-validating a one-sided point of view of the world is crucial to creating hyper-scalable, highly relevant products for a wide range of people.
If you’re thinking about how you, your partners, and your ventures can innovate in 2021 and beyond, here are a few principles we have found worth keeping at the forefront of your mind:
1. It’s better to create something quickly (and iterate based on feedback) than something perfect.
V2 can be better. And any ideas left on the “cutting room floor” can always be applied to the product’s next generation.
What’s important is getting V1 up and running. Sometimes, “good” is better than “perfect.”
Company leaders often forget that the biggest impediment to innovation is making the executive decision to get started. We like to say, “Pause is Death.” What paralyzes teams is feeling the idea itself has to be perfect, and validated, and completely “risk-free” before it’s worth putting any resources into making it real. In reality, these days you can create a minimum viable product (MVP) very easily—or at least find creative ways to test the market with soft launches, pre-orders, etc. But we should first define what a true MVP is. It is first a 2D concept and consumer feedback on that concept. The next several MVPs need to be prototypes. They don’t have to be pretty. They just need to prove feasibility. You will most likely do several prototypes until you can see them as the “real thing.”
A great example of how a soft launch can dramatically impact the trajectory of a product is the story of how Nottingham Spirk helped create the first mass-market, battery-powered electric toothbrush, called the Dr. Johns SpinBrush. When the SpinBrush was launched as a new and innovative product, we first had a “soft launch” in a small market area. We quickly identified quality issues with some of the plastic components. We stayed close to consumer feedback and we were lucky to gain this insight early on. When we gain these “emergency insights,” we make a running-change, making material and sometimes engineering changes to fix the problem. Then, after we change modular components, the updated version of the product will have this issue resolved. We focused on incorporating learnings from the soft launch to make key improvements before hard-launching to the general public. The strategy is to have the ability (if needed) to fail small, then scale big.
A year later, the company sold 50 million toothbrushes.
The year after? 100 million toothbrushes. And then the rest was history.
Until eventually, the SpinBrush became so widely accepted that P&G bought the product for around $475 million.
Remember: If you’re so concerned about a perfect launch that you never actually launch, your innovation will simply be a concept.
2. “Running changes” can help you move faster and maintain momentum in the market.
To elaborate further on the strategy of “running changes,” it’s like an “app update” but in the physical sense, with molds providing the ability to be switchable down the road as needed. You’re anticipating something might need to be modified, and so instead of needing to build another hundred-thousand-dollar tool from scratch, you build individual pieces that can be switched and iterated on as time goes on.
When it comes to quickly creating and iterating on CPG products, “running changes” are a great way of maintaining momentum in the market and conserving company resources. As much as possible, you want to avoid big launches, big feedback loops, and big stretches of time between the product that had some issues and the next version of the product you plan to put in people’s hands.
The more you can reduce the amount of time within these feedback and improvement loops, the better.
3. Innovation is not an individual sport.
There is always someone else smarter than you—and that’s a good thing.
When it comes to creating anything truly different, you are far better off engineering situations in which you are not the smartest person in the room. A friend of mine, Ranndy Kellogg, President and CEO of Omron Healthcare, says it best: “If you are the smartest person in the room, you may be in the wrong room.” You benefit exponentially by being around people who have done what you’re trying to do, or people who have solved similar types of problems, or people who just have different backgrounds and see the world differently from you.
For example, America is much broader than just Silicon Valley. Give the “North Coast” of Cleveland a try, where Nottingham Spirk is headquartered. With best-in-class healthcare institutions like Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals, you find that innovations backed by “real science” are a great place to start. Gone are the days of the “theoretical medical device tech.” It needs to be proven and for medical, clinically proven.
The trap a lot of startups have fallen into on the West Coast is trying to create a lot of unscalable products. Not every business needs to be the next Facebook or Google. In fact, America is built on small businesses, and small towns, and regions of the world where the next trendiest tech startup in San Francisco most likely makes very little sense in more rural areas and less densely populated cities. The best part of the pandemic is that the playing field of “location” is even. It really doesn’t matter where you live. Find the right team and get started!
Arguably the biggest benefit to living in SF, LA, NY, etc., has been talent density. But if you are open-minded, there are lots of regions in the US, from the auto design expertise of Detroit, to the technology found in Boston, to some of the up and coming tech from Austin, Texas. With distributed workforces and Zoom meetings becoming more and more popular, density can now be found over the internet. You can connect with design and innovation firms outside of your local area. You can connect with other entrepreneurs, designers, and thinkers from anywhere in the world. And, most importantly, you can connect with customers from all walks of life, gathering information about how a wide range of people perceive your new product. If you are starting a company, remember that you are not the customer. You may be one customer but your opinions are just one of many needed for your product to be a success.
At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what the customer thinks. And then once you find success, you will realize that you will need to do it all over again, because there will always be someone else developing something new that may change your market.
Innovation is a marathon and not a sprint. And the race never really ends.