In Defense of Invention

on October 21, 2015

Innovation is not invention and, similarly, all inventions are not innovative. Innovation can, and often does, include iterations or re-packaging of existing inventions in ways that make sense for broader groups of consumers to use. Interestingly, I came across this article which describes how people don’t necessarily want something new but rather, something familiar done differently. The article highlights how Japanese restaurants’ “sushi breakthrough” with American consumers was when they made the California Roll, which packaged familiar elements into a sushi framework. On the surface, this article is exactly correct. We can think of many examples where the familiar and repackaged gains traction in mainstream consumer markets. I consider something like the California Roll an innovation. But there is a fundamental point about invention that needs to be made on top of this observation.

Packaging the Familiar

Taking something existing or understood by many is surely the fastest way to reach a tipping point in consumer volume. The incredible and rapid success of the iPad can be explained by this process. The iPhone was familiar and the iPad was the iPhone repackaged into something new that enabled a new set of use cases built upon the familiar. In similar ways, the iPhone capitalized on this by taking elements of the familiar, the phone, the internet/web browser, and the iPod and using that as a base to spur adoption. Apple may be the best tech company in the world at this process. This concept is duplicatable and one that is the tried and true method to grow adoption. Many existing apps use this process and many that don’t, should. It is the best way to attract users and grow. However, as important as this process is, there is a case to be made for invention.

In Defense of Invention

It is much more risky to create something new. Something wholly unfamiliar to the public mindset. It is also very rare. We don’t see true invention as frequently and we certainly see true invention commercialized even less frequently. While I may get push back here, I’ll use the Apple Watch as a first example. The Apple Watch is something new. It may be Apple’s first attempt in a long while to truly bring something new to the market. Smartwatches, and the Apple Watch, in particular, are not re-packaged iPhones. The Watch has features of the iPhone unbundled and put on the wrist, notifications for example. However, in my mind, the Apple Watch is more “new” than the iPad was, which is a big reason I’ve been adamant the adoption cycle will be slower. Robots, drones, maybe even autonomous cars, all fall into this bucket. It takes time for the market to understand the new. This is a primary reason many companies will shy away from it. However, it needs to happen or our tech future will be quite boring. I’d like to propose some theories on the types of companies who can and should successfully work to commercialize inventions.

Commercializing Invention

I’d argue it takes three things to commercialize invention. The brand, a focus on design and the user experience, and great marketing. I know I just described Apple for the most part but, when it comes to consumer tech, those pillars are essential and few companies do them well. I don’t say all three are necessary but a focus on user experience is the essential starting point, followed by great marketing — those two things can lead to a great brand. However, companies who start with a great global consumer brand, like Apple, already have a strong footing to commercialize invention. Consumers will default to trust. Apple also has nearly 500m loyal customers, they focus on user experience, and can tell the story with marketing. They also have a lot of money, another reason not to write them off as they commercialize inventions going forward.

It sounds super bullish on Apple, and readers should know I am, but their template is sound and can be used or strived for by other companies looking to build global brands and bring new classes of products to market. Hopefully, other companies will not shy away from invention and commercializing those inventions, particularly hardware companies. Tesla is another solid case study. While we may argue they are innovating more than inventing, their emphasis on the user experience is a core part of their draw. We desperately need new global hardware players in many consumer tech categories looking to push the envelope and prioritize user experience.

My concern is the hardware companies of tomorrow either aren’t willing to take the risk on invention or these companies are not being funded because VCs don’t want to take the risk. We need these companies to exist and push the industry forward. Hopefully, the fundamentals above encourage them to be bold and take risks but understand what to focus on to help them succeed.