A surprising fact about innovators is that what makes an innovator tick also makes him less likely to succeed. An innovator is usually driven by originality and novelty; he is often in pursuit of something new and cool that will wow everyone. But too much novelty turns consumers away and make the innovation harder to succeed. That is the Achilles’ heel of a true innovator.
The Sonos Example
I often make this point to my MBA students in sessions on innovation. I pose a question – “has anyone heard of Sonos?” 7-8 years back one or two hands per class used to go up but now I see a few more hands each time I ask this question.
Then I ask the person who knows about Sonos to explain what it is to the rest of the class – in 60 seconds or less. After sixty seconds I ask someone in the class to explain what he or she understood about Sonos. The explanation usually points to the fact that it is a music system and the fact that is a wireless speaker. Most often people do not grasp the value proposition of Sonos by just listening to another user explain it. I then ask people how many of you want to pay $300 – 400 for such a player? Very few hands go up.
The Problem of Truly Novel Innovations
This exercise shows to the class that really new to the world technologies suffer from the problem of value articulation. This is not different from many other examples. Consumers found it hard to grasp a slingbox as a space shifting device and a Tivo as a time shifting device when explained for the first time. As a result, people think of truly new to the world ideas in terms of what already exists; a Tivo is a VCR is what the consumer gets. Why pay a monthly subscription fee for a VCR?
Consumers like to pay for something that they understand and when a new to the world concept is not explained well a consumer tends to think of it in terms of existing concepts for which a premium may not be justified. How do you solve this problem? It can be done either through excellent articulation or through direct experience.
Apple vs Blackberry Choice
Around the first iPhone launch, I was in the market for a new phone and was leaning towards blackberry. Blackberry was the most popular smartphone back then. I remember going to an AT&T store in Boston to find out which phone I wanted to buy. Instead of talking to the salesperson, I played around with both an iPhone and a Blackberry and was sold on the iPhone after that experience. I had heard about the iPhone but wasn’t sold until I personally experienced it.
This brings us to a powerful lesson for innovators. They need to understand that a normal copy process may not be adequate for selling a truly new to the world product. And at the same time, direct experience may be too expensive for smaller companies to offer to their consumers. So what is an innovator to do? The more innovative your idea, the more you need to work on value articulation. Also, do more show and tell and if possible give a direct experience to your consumer.
In short, paradoxically, Innovativeness is the Achille’s heel of an innovator. The more innovative your concept, the harder you need to work on value articulation. How much effort do you put on your innovation versus its value articulation?