Is It Really Still Possible to Be an Innovator?

May 25, 2015

10:00 am

Everybody wants to be an innovator. And thanks to companies like Facebook and Twitter, there’s a huge pool of entrepreneurial Millennials who dream of creating the next big thing that will make them world-famous billionaires.

But the industry doesn’t work like that. It’s not that simple.

Too many would-be entrepreneurs waste their time, money, and energy chasing big ideas that are unrealistic and underdeveloped. Instead, they should focus on solving everyday problems that get less press.

This is where the future of innovation lies.

Redefining Innovation

Today’s biggest and most successful companies aren’t reinventing the wheel. Instead, they’re master seamstresses who stitch together existing ideas and technologies to make them better.

Writing short sentences isn’t new, but Twitter created a platform to enable people to do it in a meaningful way. Photography has been around for generations, but Snapchat offered a way for people to communicate through disappearing images.

Modern-day innovation revolves around personalization and connectivity. The next wave of big winners will need to enhance life, not change it. Think along the lines of refrigerators that text you when your water filter is clogged. Entrepreneurs who put a unique spin on everyday products and processes will see the most success in the current era of innovation.

It is still possible to be an innovator. You just need to make sure you understand the current landscape and follow these three steps:

1. Stop trying so hard. You aren’t in high school anymore; why are you trying so hard to be cool and unique? Today’s best products provide simple solutions, not groundbreaking revolutions. Look at the recent ketchup bottle redesign. By simply flipping the bottle on its head, users no longer have to worry about squirting watery ketchup on their burgers. It might not be sexy, but it’s effective.

Uber saw that hailing a cab was a pain in the rear, so it simplified the process. Nest realized that thermostats were difficult to program, so it created a way for users to manage temperatures remotely. These are the little innovations that make people big money.

2. Become a student of the problem. In order to innovate, you need to possess an intimate knowledge of the problem you’re trying to solve. TRX Systems, a Dell for Entrepreneurs Founders 50 member, was founded to help track firefighters as they move through a building. The company tracks the real-time movement of individuals inside a building to geomap its structure.

Before creating this product, TRX Systems studied the shortcomings of the verbal system firefighters previously used. It was simply too risky and difficult to play a game of Marco Polo in a smoky and dangerous environment. Today, the company markets its sophisticated systems to public safety organizations, the military, and commercial businesses.

Most companies fail because they sell products that no one wants to buy. Learn about your target audience through interviews, ride-alongs, and side-by-side immersion. This grassroots approach will tell you whether there’s a market for your product and, if so, the best way to serve it.

3. Find your entrepreneurial spouse. I was recently at a conference and had the opportunity to meet a pair of founders. Watching them network was like watching an episode of “Silicon Valley.” One was a gregarious wheeler and dealer, and the other was an introverted techie who looked like he’d bought his polo-and-hoodie ensemble at Entrepreneurs “R” Us. At first glance, they looked as compatible as Kanye and Gandhi.

But their dynamic worked perfectly because they saw themselves as a unit. Instead of dividing and conquering the room, they developed a universal message that simultaneously appealed to investors, executives, and potential clients. Each founder possessed what the other lacked. That’s a really attractive combination.

You need a co-founder who balances your skill set. If you’re an abstract idea person, you need a partner who’s technical and methodical. If you hate crunching numbers, your partner should be a math whiz.

Finding the right entrepreneurial spouse leads to built-in accountability, and investors love seeing two complementary founders driving a company’s progress.

If you’re looking to start a business today, forget about fame, fortune, and high-profile investments — at least for now. Instead, focus on developing products that actually meet people’s needs. Notoriety will come later.

Even if you don’t become the next Zuckerberg, Jobs, or Musk, you’ll still have a profitable company that improves people’s lives. And that should be the true end goal of innovation.


Image Credit: Jakob Williams

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Allison Conkright Engel leads global marketing and operations for the Dell Center for Entrepreneurs. Prior to Dell, Allison worked for various startups, leading their Southwest expansion efforts. She has more than 15 years of experience in media and marketing and has worked for several iconic brands. Connect with Allison on Twitter.

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