Last weekend of January, I was invited by Business World and SparkUp to give a talk to students from Far Eastern University on Investing in Innovation. It was a decent sized event, where about 80 students were in attendance as well as other members of the faculty and media. But more importantly it was an opportunity to inspire young minds to live #ForeverCurious, the mantra by which Mobext as a digital agency lives by.
Asking Google: Not Very Innovative
So what IS innovation. If you ask Google for a definition, it’s not very helpful (and not really the best place to seek innovation). First, there are over 300 million results with thousands of definitions. Even Google’s own definition is vague: “the action or process of innovating”. Second, the definitions cut across several industries and categories, making it all the more frustrating to define.
But as I delved deeper into the articles I found that there were a few words that kept popping up. So logically speaking, these words must mean something, or to be more specific, contribute to the true definition of innovation.
In fact, according to Nick Skillicorn of Idea to Value, he interviewed 15 “innovation experts” and came up with this conclusion: every one of these experts have their own views on what innovation is and that we shouldn’t be looking for a singular definition. (1)
He did however, say that there are definitely some underlying themes that crop up again and again. So what are these recurring themes?
Recurring Themes that Define Innovation
First and foremost, Innovation is about having an idea. It can be as simple as a way to do the routine things you do differently, or as far-flung and over-reaching as a plan to save the entire world from global warming. Whatever its size and scale, chief characteristic of Innovation is the idea.
But more than just having an idea, the idea itself should be borne out of the need to address a challenge or problem. So therein lies the next characteristic of Innovation: that the idea should try to solve a problem.
Could be that every morning you can’t bend over to tie your shoelaces anymore, or that daily traffic on the way to work is getting worse, or you read on the news about more and more sea creatures washing up on shore with tons of plastic stuck in its stomach. The more you can clearly identify a problem the easier it is to generate an idea that can address it—self tying shoelaces, flying cars or instant teleportation, making plastic biodegradable.
But what good is having an idea if you can’t execute it. So the next trait of Innovation is executing the idea. Or, at the very least, having a roll out plan or trying to figure out how to get your idea off the ground.
Most innovative ideas remain as intangible solutions because they couldn’t take off, or worse got stuck in the early ideation and prototyping phase and were left in limbo. For example, you can probably imagine how long it took Seth Wheeler—the father of modern toilet paper—to decide which way the roll should go on the dispenser, until he said “PAPER ROLLS TOWARD THE USER” and therefore, ‘the over position’ in the patent diagram. (2) (Of course that never stops anyone from using the UNDER position, that is an entirely different debate altogether). Regardless of how you decide to put your TP on a roll, the fact remains, Mr. Wheeler had an idea to solve bathroom woes, and provided a proper execution.
Next—and possibly the most important common denominator for innovation—the idea itself must add value to the intended audience and stakeholders. It makes no sense to invent a glass of water that automatically refills itself when the water you put into it is still and unhealthy. Sure it refills itself, but I wouldn’t be able to drink it. But then again, using the same logic, it becomes useful for something else, like watering plants instead.
How This Translates to the Digital Space AKA ‘Disruptive Tech’
I’d rather actually not call it disruptive technology, rather, ‘human-centric problem-solving’. What do I mean by this?
Just take note of the situation in the Philippines now: rising costs of commodities, overpopulation and congested streets. It’s great to own a car, sure, but if the traffic was this bad and gas so expensive, recent consumer data found that we’d all rather just leave the car at home or not go out at all.
On a snowy Paris evening in 2008, Uber founders Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp had trouble hailing a cab. So they came up with a simple idea—tap a button, get a ride. (3)
Problem, Idea, Execution, Problem solved? In a fashion.
How many times have we, in the years past, had to line up for hours on end for a taxi or a tricycle, jeep and bus? And when successful in hailing a cab, only to be turned down for many an excuse such as “too far”, “too traffic”, “I need to eat”? Or had a chance to finally get into the MRT only to have it breakdown midway? Or worse, how many stories have we heard of people getting mugged or assaulted while in a public utility vehicle or taxi?
All of these problems plus the congested streets of Metro Manila became the perfect storm for startups Uber, Grab and yes even Angkas to suddenly flourish. Why? They addressed all of those problems and gave the country’s commuting, working class a better option. The only reason these apps became so disruptive was because they addressed the problems the current status quo could not.
App Developer Beware
However, in today’s cluttered digital landscape, where there are over 3M apps on the Android store alone, (4) you can just imagine how difficult it must be to get your app noticed, let alone downloaded and installed onto a user’s mobile device. Grab, Uber and even Angkas were lucky to have such great exposure because their apps became very relevant to the issues at the time, making their growth more organic / fueled by word-of-mouth.
But remember, Grab and Uber had been around for a while already (Grab and Uber were already available in Metro Manila as far back as 2014 IIRC) and it took them quite a while to build up a decent base AND become the disruptor that they are today. Imagine how much faster they would have grown had they additional funding to bolster their user acquisition. Or worse, imagine if they didn’t have enough funding to continue operating before they became a hit…
Sadly that’s the last bit that innovators should be on the lookout for—even if you fulfill all the characteristics of innovation listed above, it won’t matter as much if you can’t get a decent amount of users involved. I’ve seen it happen so many times already—great app ideas, executed well onto a mobile device, hoping for lightning to strike… but it never does. Investing in user acquisition is just as important as the innovation itself.
After a short photo op session, I left the auditorium wondering, actually hoping that at least a handful of those kids in the room already great ideas brewing. For the rest of us, I hope that when the time comes that we’re presented with these great ideas, we find the means to invest in them.
After all, that’s the root of investment—to build a better future. Now go out there and get to innovating! And good luck!