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March 29 2012

14:00

The Difference Between 'Invention' and 'Innovation'

Two and a half years ago, I co-founded Stroome, a collaborative online video editing and publishing platform and 2010 Knight News Challenge winner.

From its inception, the site received a tremendous amount of attention. The New School, USC Annenberg, the Online News Association and, ultimately, the Knight Foundation all saw something interesting in what we were doing. We won awards; we were invited to present at conferences; we were written about in the trades and featured in over 150 blogs. Yet despite all the accolades, not once did the word "invention" creep in. "Innovation," it turns out, was the word on everyone's lips.

Like so many up-and-coming entrepreneurs, I was under the impression that invention and innovation were one and the same. They aren't. And, as I have discovered, the distinction is an important one.

Recently, I was asked by Jason Nazar, founder of Docstoc and a big supporter of the L.A. entrepreneurial community, if I would help define the difference between the two. A short, 3-minute video response can be found at the bottom of this post, but I thought I'd share some key takeaways with you here:

INVENTION VS. INNOVATION: THE DIFFERENCE

In its purest sense, "invention" can be defined as the creation of a product or introduction of a process for the first time. "Innovation," on the other hand, occurs if someone improves on or makes a significant contribution to an existing product, process or service.

Consider the microprocessor. Someone invented the microprocessor. But by itself, the microprocessor was nothing more than another piece on the circuit board. It's what was done with that piece -- the hundreds of thousands of products, processes and services that evolved from the invention of the microprocessor -- that required innovation.

STEVE JOBS: THE POSTER BOY OF INNOVATION

If ever there were a poster child for innovation it would be former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. And when people talk about innovation, Jobs' iPod is cited as an example of innovation at its best.

steve jobs iphone4.jpg

But let's take a step back for a minute. The iPod wasn't the first portable music device (Sony popularized the "music anywhere, anytime" concept 22 years earlier with the Walkman); the iPod wasn't the first device that put hundreds of songs in your pocket (dozens of manufacturers had MP3 devices on the market when the iPod was released in 2001); and Apple was actually late to the party when it came to providing an online music-sharing platform. (Napster, Grokster and Kazaa all preceded iTunes.)

So, given those sobering facts, is the iPod's distinction as a defining example of innovation warranted? Absolutely.

What made the iPod and the music ecosystem it engendered innovative wasn't that it was the first portable music device. It wasn't that it was the first MP3 player. And it wasn't that it was the first company to make thousands of songs immediately available to millions of users. What made Apple innovative was that it combined all of these elements -- design, ergonomics and ease of use -- in a single device, and then tied it directly into a platform that effortlessly kept that device updated with music.

Apple invented nothing. Its innovation was creating an easy-to-use ecosystem that unified music discovery, delivery and device. And, in the process, they revolutionized the music industry.

IBM: INNOVATION'S UGLY STEPCHILD

Admittedly, when it comes to corporate culture, Apple and IBM are worlds apart. But Apple and IBM aren't really as different as innovation's poster boy would have had us believe.

Truth is if it hadn't been for one of IBM's greatest innovations -- the personal computer -- there would have been no Apple. Jobs owes a lot to the introduction of the PC. And IBM was the company behind it.

Ironically, the IBM PC didn't contain any new inventions per se (see iPod example above). Under pressure to complete the project in less than 18 months, the team actually was under explicit instructions not to invent anything new. The goal of the first PC, code-named "Project Chess," was to take off-the-shelf components and bring them together in a way that was user friendly, inexpensive, and powerful.

And while the world's first PC was an innovative product in the aggregate, the device they created -- a portable device that put powerful computing in the hands of the people -- was no less impactful than Henry Ford's Model T, which reinvented the automobile industry by putting affordable transportation in the hands of the masses.

INNOVATION ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH

Given the choice to invent or innovate, most entrepreneurs would take the latter. Let's face it, innovation is just sexier. Perhaps there are a few engineers at M.I.T. who can name the members of "Project Chess." Virtually everyone on the planet knows who Steve Jobs is.

But innovation alone isn't enough. Too often, companies focus on a technology instead of the customer's problem. But in order to truly turn a great idea into a world-changing innovation, other factors must be taken into account.

According to Venkatakrishnan Balasubramanian, a research analyst with Infosys Labs, the key to ensuring that innovation is successful is aligning your idea with the strategic objectives and business models of your organization.

In a recent article that appeared in Innovation Management, he offered five considerations:

1. Competitive advantage: Your innovation should provide a unique competitive position for the enterprise in the marketplace;
2. Business alignment: The differentiating factors of your innovation should be conceptualized around the key strategic focus of the enterprise and its goals;
3. Customers: Knowing the customers who will benefit from your innovation is paramount;
4. Execution: Identifying resources, processes, risks, partners and suppliers and the ecosystem in the market for succeeding in the innovation is equally important;
5. Business value: Assessing the value (monetary, market size, etc.) of the innovation and how the idea will bring that value into the organization is a critical underlying factor in selecting which idea to pursue.

Said another way, smart innovators frame their ideas to stress the ways in which a new concept is compatible with the existing market landscape, and their company's place in that marketplace.

This adherence to the "status quo" may sound completely antithetical to the concept of innovation. But an idea that requires too much change in an organization, or too much disruption to the marketplace, may never see the light of day.

A FINAL THOUGHT

While they tend to be lumped together, "invention" and "innovation" are not the same thing. There are distinctions between them, and those distinctions are important.

So how do you know if you are inventing or innovating? Consider this analogy:

If invention is a pebble tossed in the pond, innovation is the rippling effect that pebble causes. Someone has to toss the pebble. That's the inventor. Someone has to recognize the ripple will eventually become a wave. That's the entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurs don't stop at the water's edge. They watch the ripples and spot the next big wave before it happens. And it's the act of anticipating and riding that "next big wave" that drives the innovative nature in every entrepreneur.

This article is the seventh of 10 video segments in which digital entrepreneur Tom Grasty talks about his experience building an Internet startup, and is part of a larger initiative sponsored by docstoc.videos, which features advice from small business owners who offer their views on how to launch a new business or grow your existing one altogether.

January 09 2012

15:20

3 Keys to Naming Your Product

Two and a half years ago, I co-founded Stroome, a collaborative online video editing and publishing platform and 2010 Knight News Challenge winner. Considering the fact that "video" is one of the most searchable words on the web, our first startup challenge -- actually coming up with a name for our site -- proved to be extremely daunting.

Recently, I was asked by Jason Nazar, founder of Docstoc and a big supporter of the L.A. entrepreneurial community, if I had any tips for startups regarding choosing a name for their product.

A short, 3-minute video response can be found at the bottom of this post, but I thought I'd share some key takeaways with you here:

MAKE SURE THE DOMAIN NAME IS AVAILABLE

Let's face it: We live in a digital age. The fact that a record $35.3 billion was spent online this past holiday season is evidence of that. And in this digital age, the proverbial "open for business" sign that used to dangle in the front shop-window has been replaced with the search bar.

So the first thing to think about when naming your product is this: If the domain isn't available, you don't have squat (more on the concept of "domain squatting" in minute).

But finding an available '.com' is just the beginning. As the web becomes increasingly crowded, a myriad of domain extensions have emerged. A few of the more popular ones include: .tv, .me, .biz. And this doesn't even take into consideration domains for foreign territories.

With all these new extensions emerging, a natural question many entrepreneurs ask is: "Does a place exist that will check all the available domain extensions at the same time?" Actually, there are several.

If you just want to search the "big three" -- .com, .net, .org -- I suggest a site called Instant Domain Search. Just type in the name you want, and the website does the rest.

If you want to search all the extensions, give Check Domains a shot. Not only will it instantly tell you all the domains that are available, when you're done it even takes you to GoDaddy.com, a popular registry site that lets you purchase those extensions you've selected.

Because you never know which domain extension is going to be the next one to take off, my advice is to purchase as many domain extensions as possible. I know .cc (the domain for the Coco Islands) may seem completely unnecessary today, but the last thing you want to do is be held hostage by some domain squatter who had the foresight to buy your domain before you did.

YOU DON'T BE EXACT; YOU CAN ALLUDE TO YOUR PRODUCT

As your business grows, chances are your product line will expand as well. You want to make sure your name grows with it, too. It's okay to leave something to the imagination of your customers. In the "name game," being allusive can be a powerful attribute.

Take the word, "Amazon," for example. For Jeff Bezos, books always were just the beginning. From the very outset, the forward-thinking entrepreneur saw his company expanding well beyond the written word.

Don't kid yourself. The selection of the name "Amazon" was hardly happenstance. Bezos deliberately chose a word that alluded to the business he saw downstream, rather than the actual entrepreneurial waters he set out to navigate in 1995.

Inspired by the seemingly endless South American river with its countless tributaries, the notion of a continuous flow of consumer goods feeding into a massive marketplace perfectly aligned with Bezos' vision to create the world's largest e-commerce site.

Today, when we think of Amazon the first thought that pops into our mind is retail, not a river in South America. Apparently, the Googleplex agrees. Just search the word "Amazon" (preferably after you're done reading this blog).

The first mention of a river or rain forest doesn't appear until page three.

CREATE A NEW WORD THAT CAN DEFINE YOUR COMPANY

Google ... Yahoo ... Facebook ... Twitter ... These words may have existed before they found their way into the pantheon of contemporary popular culture. ("Googol" is the digit 1 followed by 100 zeros; a "yahoo" is a rude, noisy or violent person; "Facebook" is the nickname for the student directory at Phillips Exeter Academy, where Mark Zuckerberg went to high school; "twitter" is a short burst of inconsequential information.)

But the brilliance of the entrepreneurs behind the companies that bear those names is that those words are now so far removed from the original meaning associated with them that they are effectively new words altogether.

Yet just coming up with a catchy name isn't really the trick. The real magic is coming up with a word that's connected with your product in such a way that it becomes both a noun and a verb -- at the same time.

Let me give you an example from my own experience--

When we were coming up with the name for Stroome, we wanted a name that would work as both a noun and a verb. Much in the same way people now say, "Google it," we wanted people to say, "Stroome me," when they had some great content they wanted to share. Of course, we didn't have the word "Stroome" yet. But the Dutch did -- "Strømme."

It means "to move freely," which is exactly what we want our site to facilitate -- the movement of ideas, points of view and content freely between people. We played with the spelling a bit, but the name was perfect.

A FINAL THOUGHT

Without question, naming your product is important. But it's also a great opportunity. The right name can distinguish you from the competition, as well as differentiate your product from seemingly similar offerings.

So when naming your product here are three things to remember. First, make sure the name you chose is available across as many domains extensions as possible. And if the domains aren't available, don't get discouraged. Instead, get creative. Second, come up with a name that alludes to who you are, but doesn't specifically say what you do. And finally, if you do have to come up with a entirely new word, don't be afraid to really think outside the box.

Who knows, you might not just be naming your product. You may just end up defining an entire new product category.

This article is the fourth of 10 video segments in which digital entrepreneur Tom Grasty talks about his experience building an Internet startup, and is part of a larger initiative sponsored by docstoc.videos, which features advice from small business owners who offer their views on how to launch a new business or grow your existing one altogether.

July 05 2011

16:11

The New News Paradigm: 'Pivot or Perish'

At the recent MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, I had the pleasure of speaking to 16 of the most promising thinkers in the area of digital news. Culled together from myriad of disciplines and backgrounds, some had already established themselves as pioneers in the digital space.Others had come from legacy newsrooms. A few had found their voices in the field.

But regardless of their backgrounds, they all were united by a drive to innovate, inform and empower. In short, these 16 new news entrepreneurs had come to Cambridge, Mass., with a plan: Reinvent the news business.

But if I had just one takeaway I wanted to impart in my talk to the newly knighted 2011 News Challenge winners, it was this: Those carefully crafted plans are about to change.

uturn.jpg

Being Open to Change

There's an old axiom in entrepreneurship, and it goes something like this: Pivot or perish.

"Pivoting" -- the ability (and perhaps more importantly, the willingness) to change your course of action when you realize the ground beneath you is shifting -- isn't just the essence of entrepreneurship, it's the only way you'll survive.

Trust me, we've been at it for just a little over a year now with Stroome, and in that time we've had to pivot plenty.

Now let me be clear -- having a plan for the future is just as important as a good, solid pivot. Looking two, three, even five years down the road is critical, not just because it places your idea in a larger context, but because it forces you to realize that no one really knows what the future has in store. In the end, the best we can do is play the hand that's dealt us. And this is precisely where the concept of pivoting comes in.

When we set out last June to build the next iteration of Stroome, a collaborative online video editing platform to simplify the production of news and video, we sat down and diligently drew up a list of goals. The exact number was just short of a dozen or so, but the three key ones included: increase adoption in journalism schools, forge strategic allegiances, remain open to unforeseen uses.

It didn't take long before those goals started to come to fruition. Within four months of receiving our grant, Stroome was being used by a class of aspiring digital journalists at Columbia College Chicago to comment on the importance of voter registration during the highly anticipated mayoral election. In April, we partnered with USC Stevens Institution, relaunching the site at the third annual TEDxUSC conference.

And who could have possibly foreseen that we'd have found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Egyptian revolution? But that's exactly what happened this past January when protesters began using Stroome to get their video out of the country when the government shut down Twitter and Facebook.

More than a 'to-do' list

Remarkably, in less than a year we had accomplished nearly every goal we had set for ourselves. But our goals had became more than just a list of "to-dos'' to be ticked off one-by-one. Instead, they became "listening posts." And by listening to our users, we were able to gain valuable insight into what is truly important to them.

In most instances, their revelations were consistent with our expectations. Yet at times, what we heard was completely incongruous with what we thought we should be building. And when that happened, we had to evaluate which comments to implement, which to set aside for the time being, and which to dismiss altogether. Said another way, we had to pivot.

Because while we may have had many goals, at the end of the day we only had one objective: Create the most intuitive user experience possible. But without those pivots, that objective would never have been achieved.

And as I looked out across the room and into the faces of this year's Knight News Challenge winners, I could see an unmistakable determination, an undaunted doggedness, an unrelenting sense of resolve. There was no mistaking it: Reinvention of an industry many have written off as outdated, archaic and obsolete is a goal well within their grasp.

They're just going to have to pivot to get there.

If you're interested, Los Angeles angel investor Mark Suster has written a great post on the importance of pivoting. Read it here.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Stacy Lynn Baum.

April 25 2011

15:12

R.I.P. Flip Cam: The Smartphone Did It (Not Cisco)

Over the last three years, I've attended all three TEDx conferences on the idyllic campus of my old alma mater, the University of Southern California. And it's been my experience that TEDxUSC is where you go to be inspired, not have your dreams relegated to the heap bin of "what if..."

But for a brief, fleeting moment last Tuesday, I was certain that all the hard work done by myself and fellow Stroome co-founder, Nonny de la Pena, was about to go the way of...well, the Flip.

ripflip.jpgThere I was sitting in the audience along with my fellow 1,200 TEDxers patiently waiting for Krisztina Holly (affectionately known around the USC campus as 'Z') to announce the rules for a TEDxUSC-themed video scavenger hunt that would re-launch our newly designed site when all of a sudden a hundred cell phones (all muted of course -- TEDxers are "disruptors," but they're not disrespectful) suddenly came to life. The news was spreading like wildfire across the web: Cisco had discontinued the Flip!!!

Now, the fact that the popular, pocket-size camera had been shuttered probably wouldn't have prompted such a profound sense of panic except for the fact that I knew precisely what 'Z' was going to say next: "And now it's time to make something together. So pull out your smartphones, your digital cameras, your Flips..."

And there it was. I'm told 'Z' kept talking. I didn't hear another word she said.

Causing Trouble for Stroome

As the co-founder of Stroome, an online video editing platform built on collaborative content creation, creativity may be the fuel that fires the engine; but without a device that can get that content into a centralized place where people actually can do something with it, you're in trouble. For the last few years, the Flip had been that device. We were in trouble.

When the Flip was introduced in 2007, it had been hailed as "the easiest way to make and share videos." What once had required thousands of dollars to procure, and an instruction manual the size of a phone book to operate, had been reduced to a single, red "record" button on a small black box the size of a pack of cigarettes that fit perfectly in your front pocket.

Flips.jpg

And while the Flip wasn't the only game in town when Cisco acquired it in 2009, by all accounts it was a game changer. Overnight, it seemed the way we documented our lives changed forever. Birthday parties, dance recitals, high school graduations -- all could be captured on a moment's notice.

But the Flip didn't just give us an easy and accessible way to preserve the defining moments in our lives; it let us do it in dazzling HD! And the best part? All this could be ours for the low, low price of $129!

And now it was over. Like some didactic Middle Eastern dictator able to cut the people off at the knees at his capricious whim, Cisco had pulled the plug on the whole damn thing.

But as I sat there in the darkness, the last 18 months of my life playing themselves out in front of me, an incredible thing happened -- a hundred incredible things, actually.

Killed by the Smartphone

As I looked around Bovard Hall -- a hundred iPhones, Androids and Evos twinkling on and off like stars against a dark night -- I suddenly realized it wasn't Cisco that had killed the Flip. The smartphone had.

iPhone4.jpgNot 15 minutes earlier I, along with my fellow TEDxers, had watched slack-jawed as former USC film grad student, Michael Koerbel, showed us a film he had shot, edited and distributed entirely on the iPhone 4. And it was in that instant that I again began to feel inspired.

But my inspiration didn't come from the fact that a 4.5" × 2.31" piece of perfectly buffed black chrome and circuitry had effectively replaced an entire film crew. My inspiration came from the fact that in the end, shooting, editing and uploading a film on a phone -- as incredible a feat as it is -- isn't enough. You still need a place to watch your 4-minute masterpiece. And if you want to watch it with others, then work together to collaboratively create the next iteration of your idea, you need a place to do that. Right now, the only place on the web you can do that is Stroome.

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