On Innovation


I’ve recently been invited to speak at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business at their Innovation Club in the spring of 2010. The question that was posed to me was How do I innovate? How do I come up with innovation? What is the thought process? That’s a really hard question for me, and I wanted some help from my readers here.

Some of my proof of concepts or demos such as the 3D Desktop and the virtual corkboard could be thought of as innovative. However, I’ve really struggled with this question and wanted to really put some thought into this question and put it out there to stimulate a discussion.

Everyone wants innovation these days. It is seen as a key component to disrupt the market and defeat the competition. Companies are spending money on “labs” programs, innovation workshops, and innovation centers. Everyone wants to know the secret of being innovative and the question was posed to me and some of my colleagues.

I’ve just recently read a really good book called “Inside Steve’s Brain” by Leander Kahney which explores Steve Jobs’ thought leadership. Apple is seen as a very innovative and disruptive company so I thought this would be great to include some excerpts in this post. Here’s Job’s response to the question by Rob Walker, a New York Times reporter, if he ever consciously thinks about innovation:

No. We consciously think about making great products. We don’t think, ‘Let’s be innovative! Let’s take a class! Here are the five rules of innovation, let’s put them up all over the company! … [it's] like somebody’s who’s not cool trying to be cool. It’s painful to watch…

In many ways, that’s been my mentality. I’ve never really thought: be innovative. Usually my thought process is, What’s the best/easiest way to solve this problem? I also think a lot of making great products. I never think this product needs to have some innovation juice injected into it. However I do think: How can I make this product better than anything else out there.

A great example of this is the visual document search. When I was at Accenture Technology Labs, I created a really awesome product which was document search on steroids visually speaking. The use case was this: Accenture being a consulting firm has lots of Powerpoint presentations. Analysts can’t take a crap without creating a Powerpoint deck. That’s just the reality of big consulting firms. At the time, we had something to the effect of 300,000 Powerpoints in our corporate document repository which comes to about 2 per employee. Search was a pain because you ran search, clicked on the document you THOUGHT was the one you wanted. This opened up the document in Powerpoint. Then you realized this wasn’t the one you were looking for and you started the process all over again.

So what we created was a visual interface that replaced the results. Instead of seeing a list of the returned documents in Google-esque SERP (search engine results page), we see a list of thumbnails of each document returned. Clicking on that showed you the actual slides for each deck WITHOUT you having to download the document and open it up in Powerpoint. It was a huge time saver. In fact we did studies that showed that people browsed 4 times more documents from 4 to 16. Some of the feedback we got was awesome:

This is very close to what I have ever dreamt of in KX search. Fantastic! Please continue to support and enhance those tools.

I just took a look at SABLE. Great thing keep up that innovative work. It alreadz looks like Minority Report / Neuromancer experience. Is there any chance to get this kind of frontend/browsing tool to work on a desktop/local file system?

When we were thinking about that problem, we weren’t “being innovative”. In my side of the labs, I was trying to solve the problem of how we visualize large datasets. On the other side of the labs were the machine learning people who were solving the problem of analyzing all our documents in the corporate repository. Somehow we came together and put my visual interface onto their better search engine.

So I think that’s what innovation is all about. When two or more seemingly unrelated solutions come together, and the result is greater than the sum of its parts, that’s innovation.

One of the great things about the Apple Macbook is the magnetic power plug. For you Windows people, the Macbook’s power plug is not “plugged in” to the laptop. Rather it is held onto the laptop by a magnet. This has saved many a Macbook from ending up on the floor because someone tripped over the power cord. This “innovation” actually came from Japanese rice cookers. They had this feature so that little kids wouldn’t trip over the rice cookers and burn themselves over steam and boiling water.

If I were to sum up my thoughts on innovation, I say that it most often comes from outside. Outside your industry, outside your office, outside the box. To that end I try to see my world through outside eyes. I’m a software developer by trade, but I subscribe to tons of online publication that are not at all related to my world. I read a lot on web design, industrial design, scientific research, marketing, and other topics totally unrelated to my industry in hopes that I might be able to apply stuff that is taken for granted or common knowledge in some other industry and apply it to mine.

With that in mind, I’d like to hear what some of you think about this and what your thoughts are around innovation. Thank you.

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How To Make Ideas Stick

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For those of you who have not yet read the great book “Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”, here’s a 10 second recap of the book. It’s a great book and I highly recommend studying it. However if you are just lazy and/or don’t have time – this quick presentation will give you a gist although it does not do it justice to say I’ve summed up the entire book in 10 simple slides.

Here’s the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Made-Stick-Ideas-Survive-Others/dp/1400064287?&camp=212361&linkCode=wey&tag=httpfiresnake-20&creative=380737

Popularity: 4% [?]

Adobe Max 2008: Unconference Flex + Papervision

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The Flex + Papervision Unconference talk was given by Vic Cekvenich CEO of PointCast Network. His company provides software solutions based on opensource packages but also provides services and additional libraries to facilitate development.

His talk was an intro to Papervision, so I won’t cover some of the material that’s pretty much all over the web. What I found interesting was that he uses FlashDevelop to do Flex development. His opinion is that it’s smaller, leaner, and much faster. He just has the Flex 4 SDK installed and when he builds, he targets the Flash Player 10 runtime, and that’s pretty much all he needs.

His talk was also geared towards people who want to build great experiences online that rival consumer apps like what you see on CNN, or the Xbox360 interface. His argument is that web experiences fall short of other experiences even though the PC is a much more powerful medium because developers are too lazy. His other focus was Papervision for online game development.

One insightful comment that he had was that people have this silly notion that you build great applications, then some magic happens, and then you become rich. The web world has convoluted that second step, that magic step. People think they out to give things away for free, and somehow they’ll get rich. He says charge for the damn thing. For the Flash games that he develops, he provides a free version with limited options, and if you want to use better guns, or have better clothes for your avatar, you pony up cash. Magic.

The other thing I learned from the talk which I will be trying out soon is adding lighting to my Papervision scene. Basically you use a Phong Shader which you apply to your material and specify lights for it, and voila – lighted objects. Look for a tutorial in the near future.

Popularity: 3% [?]

Book Review: “Buffet – The Making of an American Capitalist”

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As of this moment, Warren Buffet is the richest man in America, surpassing even Bill Gates at a whopping estimated net worth of $62 BILLION dollars. His company, Berkshire Hathaway is currently trading at 113,000 with a market cap of over $175B. He makes Dr. Evil look like a lemonade stand. I wanted to read more about this enigmatic investor from Omaha who is an anomaly by any stretch of the word. Frugal and thrifty doesn’t even begin to describe him. He lives in a small 3 bedroom house he bought over 50 years ago. His car at the moment is a 2001 Lincoln Town Car. He likes hamburgers and Cherry Coke. I wanted to know more about this man. This book however is a biography and in no shape or way did Warren Buffet had anything to do with it. In fact, he told the author when he wanted to write about Warren that he was not going to give him anything.

This book starts off in his early years, covering his family life, his relatives, siblings and their relationship. Even as a child, Warren’s fascination with numbers and his comfort in consistency were apparent. He enjoyed the accumulation of money and did not enjoy parting with it any more than he enjoyed parting with any aspect of his life. Warren was a hard worker even early in life. I think that exemplifies what makes him so great. It was never about luck of fortune with him. It was just honest hard work and an in depth knowledge of the facts he needed to know about what he was interested in. In this case, most of the time it was money and companies. He would be able to regurgitate out the financials of any company he was interested in backwards and forwards. He probably knew more about the companies than the people who ran them. And when the emotional stock market would value great companies that were valued much less than the actual value of the company, he would scoop them up. He’s basically made a living being a bargain hunter of stocks. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it’s the best way I can put it.

This book is chock full of stories of Warren’s life. I especially appreciated learning about his formative years. He started delivering papers at a very young age and took on more and more routes and optimized them so he would make the most money. Before the age of 15, he had 5 delivery routes delivering over 500 papers each morning. In 1945, at age 14, he was earning $175 a month, basically what a young man was earning as a full time wage at the time. In his senior year, he and his buddy Donald Danly invested in a pinball machine that rented out to a barbershop. They expanded their operating adding more barbershops and pinball machines, and soon were making $50/week. Warren was just very entreprenurial from the very beginning.

The book also mentions Bill Graham, Warren’s mentor and his great influence on his investment style – of finding a great value. Bill and Warren were never fad investors but stuck to their guns in long term investment strategies. He prefererred to think of his investments as long term relationships and as such refused to sell much of his holdings. Anybody who didn’t fit his view of investing were discouraged to invest with him.

I won’t say anymore about this book. If you like what you read so far, you definitely should go and get it. I thouroughly enjoyed it. I garnered some insight in to the man, learned a great deal about his life, and took away valuable lessons.

Popularity: 2% [?]

Why Zappos.com is a Great Company

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Zappos.com is an online store that sells shoes and is slowly adding more and more products. That may not sound very impressive but they are on target for doing $1B in sales for 2008. For an 8 year old company, that’s not too shabby. I only first heard about Zappos.com at SXSW. Tony Hsieh the CEO gave a presentation on Top 10 Lessons Learned in E-Commerce. Below is the slide.

I was very impressed by his talk. It had nothing to do with technology or fads or tricks. Rather his talk was about good old customer service and treating the customer right. Very few companies go above and beyond the way Zappos does. Nowadays, companies want automated machines to be the first line of defense, with an actual human being the last thing they want their customer to interact with. He had many stories about Zappos customer service reps, who on their own, went out of their way to help customers. He’s instilled a culture of excellent service that has generated great word-of-mouth for Zappos.

Just to set the record, I have yet to actually BUY anything from Zappos. As much as I like shoes, I also enjoy the process of trying them on, touching and feeling my merchandise before I make a purchase. I know I can do that by ordering a whole bunch of shoes from Zappos and sending back the ones I don’t want for free. That just seems kinda wrong somehow.

Anyways, all I know from Zappos comes from my episode at SXSW and from various blogs and sites about startups and entrepreneurs. Which takes me to my story. I read somewhere that Zappos publishes an annual culture book for their employees. That book is available for purchase on their website. And since they had such happy customers as well as employees, I wanted to learn more about that by reading their book. Well, I spent a few minutes on the site and could not find it. Since I follow Tony on Twitter (cuz that’s how I roll), I decided to message him to ask where I could find his culture book. A couple hours later he messages me back asking my mailing address so he can mail me the book for free. We email each other back and forth for a bit and he invites me to take a tour of Zappos if I’m ever in Vegas. I was just in awe. This guy probably gets flooded with tweets and email all day, but he’s taking the time to personally respond to me. I’m not even a customer. I also get an email from Zappos saying that the book has been shipped with a tracking number. Having heard stories of their overnight deliveries, I was not suprised to see the book arrive at the office in the morning the next day.

I’ve briefly read bits of the Zappos 2008 Culture book which is basically a collection of every employee’s thoughts on the Zappos culture. It’s my impression that everyone sincerely loves being there. It’s both awe inspiring and contagious. With so many people working at jobs they either hate or have no feelings for, it’s refreshing to see a company that makes people excited to work there.

I want to end with a video that is currently featured on the bottom of the Zappos homepage. I’ll probably have to try buying something from Zappos.com now, but it probably won’t be shoes.

Popularity: 2% [?]

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