Over the weekend I saw the Dark Star Orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with the band, they’re one of the leading tribute bands out there and they play the music of The Grateful Dead. I’ve seen them several times and oddly enough each time I do it reminds me of a few business thoughts.
I played in several bands as I was growing up. We always felt we were a cover band. We were playing someone else’s songs but doing so in our own way. Most tribute bands go beyond that and attempt to recreate the sounds and often the appearance of the original artists. If you’re any sort of fan of The Dead you know that their performances were very hit or miss. The DSO is way more consistent and they sound just like The Dead on a great night each and every time. So what does this have to do with business?
I think imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery. I think in many ways it’s better than innovation despite the fact that we often hear of the “first mover advantage.” Innovation is great, but by not being first the flaws in the original product or service become way more clear. The fact that you’re building later lets you correct for those flaws and get beyond the original. That usually is something you can do much more cost-effectively too.
What do I mean? The iPod was not the first music player, just the most successful. Anyone who looks at Instagram knows both that they weren’t the first of their kind and that most of their “new” features these days come right from Snapchat. You could video chat someone long before Skype came around and Amazon was not the first retailer on the web. Each of those companies, and other such as Spotify and eBay, were not first movers. They were imitators – tribute bands if you will, who took the best of the pioneers and made it better.
Is it easier to get funding for a copycat? Probably – the business model has been proven and, therefore, investor risk is reduced. Japan, and now China, built economies on imitating successful products and making them better and/or cheaper. A tribute band has a pre-built fan base. If you’re a Beatles fan or an Oasis fan or a fan of The Band, you have no chance to see the original but you can spend a night with their music. If you’re a business, you don’t have to be the original if you can make the original better and capitalize on their fan base. The DSO do it brilliantly. Can you?
I came across something this past week that I knew immediately would have to be our Foodie Friday topic because in a flash my reaction went from “duh” to “brilliant” to “life-changing.” It is a coffee filter. That’s right: the thing into which you put the coffee as you prepare your morning cup. It actually can remind us a lot about business.
I was visiting my sister and went to make the morning coffee. As I opened up a filter to place it into the conical thing that holds the ground coffee, I saw something on the white paper of the filter that I’d never seen before: lines. That’s right – pre-measured markings to delineate the levels of ground coffee, much as you probably have on the coffee pot itself for water. I literally giggled with glee. No measuring spoon to wash nor losing track of how many scoops I’d counted out. Just hit the same line each day with the water in the pot and the coffee in the filter and get the same brew, no matter how sleepy I was as I made the pot.
What does this have to do with business? A few things. First, coffee filters are commodity items. Not much distinguishes one filter from another and anything which can do so will remove price as the only variable. In this case, I don’t see evidence that these filters even cost any more than those without lines.
Second, this is clearly a change made with the consumer in mind. After all, it must cost a little something extra to print the lines on the filters as well as to implement a step in manufacturing that wasn’t there before. Based on the filters without measure lines, I don’t think anything had ever been printed on them, so this might even have involved purchasing new equipment to provide a customer benefit. It would have been very easy to say let’s charge more to maintain our margins or to forget the “new” product altogether but some smart manager didn’t.
Finally, it shows us that even something as simple as a coffee filter – literally a folded piece of paper – can provide room for innovation and a better product. All that’s required is to keep the focus on customer benefit and to think outside of the box (or inside the filter!). Those are things any of can and should do.
Let’s start today with something written by someone significantly smarter about business than yours truly:
In spite of the extraordinary outpouring of totally and partially new products and new ways of doing things that we are witnessing today, by far the greatest flow of newness is not innovation at all. Rather, it is imitation. A simple look around us will, I think, quickly show that imitation is not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits.
Right? That wasn’t written recently, however. It’s from a piece written in 1966 for The Harvard Business Review by Theodore Levitt. If you’re a businessperson and you don’t know who he is you might want to do a little research. His classic piece Marketing Myopia has been one of the foundations upon which I base my business thinking. It argues that businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products. Amen.
That’s not our topic today, however. What caught my eye was a piece about how What’sApp was imitating Snapchat‘s disappearing content feature that lets users share photos, videos, and GIFs that disappear after 24 hours. You might be aware that Instagram – also owned by Facebook – did the same copying last summer with Stories. Facebook itself is doing the same thing. In Snapchat it seems as if we have a company who innovates beautifully but does so in a way that simply blazes a trail that others follow shortly thereafter. Facebook, in this case, is the imitator. Apple is a classic imitator. They will let others innovate and learn from the success or failure of those innovations, refining them and making them better. One could argue that for a while, the entire Japanese manufacturing economy was based on that principle – innovative imitation.
As Professor Levitt wrote, there is nothing wrong with that. While every company needs to do some innovating, “no single company can afford even to try to be first in everything in its field. The costs are too great; and imagination, energy, and management know-how are too evenly distributed within industries.” The question for any of us is when do we need to dig deep and innovate vs. when should we be looking to what others are doing nicely and make it better? You might surprise yourself if you can put your business ego aside and focus on solving customers’ problems better than anyone else can, even if it’s just by doing innovating on top of imitating someone else. Clear?
Foodie Friday, and today we’ll start with a word that may be new to some of you: portmanteau. A portmanteau is a combination of the most recognizable parts of two words. We have many of them in the food world and use them to label a host of new things – utensils, dishes, even fruits. You probably use them all the time without knowing what they’re called.
Ever ordered a cheeseburger? Portmanteau – cheese and hamburger. Ever used a spork? A spoon and a fork. Cronuts, frappuccinos, Clamato, even Tex-Mex all qualify, as do pluots, tangelos, and turduckens. So stop petting your labradoodle (see what I did there?) and think about what those food creations can show us in the broader business sense.
Many of these things were evolutionary. Adding cheese to a hamburger or putting some tines on a spoon (or was it enlarging and rounding the center of a fork?) was something I’d call part of a gradual change and more of an adaptation than an invention. We do that a lot in business and it’s a smart way to address the ongoing needs of your current customer base. The flip side of that is revolutionary change, something that’s entirely new and probably unexpected – the cronut falls into that category. When we create revolutionary change we run the risk of alienating all of those who love what we’re doing but it’s probably the best way to attract a customer base that has ignored us thus far. In my mind, great businesses do both types of change – evolutionary and revolutionary – because stasis isn’t an option and consumers are always looking for new and better.
Some food portmanteaus are just bad marketing. The P’zone – a pizza calzone – is a freaking calzone and neither revolutionary nor evolutionary. Tofurky (tofu and turkey)? Really? If you’re foregoing meat, why label a product as if it is the very thing the customer is avoiding? That said, those things represent the notion that we constantly need to innovate. The most successful companies often do nothing more than execute a new twist on an existing product or service better than their competitors. It might be revolutionary, it might be evolutionary and it might be called a portmanteau. I call it good business. You?
Filed under Consulting, food
For our Foodie Friday Fun this week, let’s start with a movie. Oh sure, there have been plenty of foodie movies over the years (Big Night is my favorite) but I want to start with the 1982 Michael Keaton classic Night Shift. I know – not really a foodie movie but in it Keaton offers up a food-oriented line that I thought of yesterday:
What if you mix the mayonnaise in the can, WITH the tunafish? Or… hold it! Chuck! I got it! Take LIVE tuna fish, and FEED ’em mayonnaise! Oh this is great.
What prompted the thought was someone mentioning that they’d recently tried smoked salmon vodka. My immediate response probably mirrored yours: YECH! Then I thought about it for a second. How often have you gone to a nice wedding or similar function and there’s been chilled vodka put out alongside the platter of salmon? The two really do go together when you step back and think about it. Or take the idea of making doughnuts in a muffin tin. They’re not muffins and they’re certainly not doughnuts but is there a way to get the texture and flavor of a donut in the easier to make form of a muffin? There is, and someone figured out exactly how. Which is the business point.
Tuna and mayonnaise, salmon and vodka – normal combinations presented in a different way of thinking (I’d tweak the tuna notion a bit but he’s on the right track). Often in business we’re presented with ideas that seem ridiculous on the first pass but when you stop thinking “bad idea” and start thinking “interesting notion – what does it need to be a great idea” you just might end up with a better mousetrap.
Pushing ourselves to think differently is the only way we grow our businesses People get bored quickly these days and if you’re not innovating you get left behind. While I’m not sure that smoked salmon vodka is going to be my drink of choice, the thinking behind it is very much what I like to order up. You?
One topic that’s near and dear to me is innovation.
(Photo credit: cambodia4kidsorg)
Throughout my time in business the issue of how to do or produce something in a new, better way has always been front and center. That’s why when I read that the Economist Intelligence Unit had conducted a survey of senior executives to explore the characteristics of companies that are adept at promoting innovation, I checked it out. You can read the entire study here. The study was sponsored by the Oracle folks, and not surprisingly it found that most companies struggle with innovation. The report says it’s really hard to keep coming up with new ideas, particularly ones that people will pay for. I know what you’re thinking – any of us could have told them that without a lot of research! It’s what follows that I find of interest.
It turns out that the most innovative companies not only permit failure, but welcome and harness it to come up with more successful ideas. Yet nearly half of the respondents to the survey say their companies have no system in place that helps them learn from failures. Highly innovative companies also actively gather feedback and ideas from everywhere they can. Fifty-four percent of the top innovators they surveyed said they pour over customer comments, whether gathered in direct interviews or on social networks, and scrutinize customer data for clues to effective future innovations. They recognize that collecting many ideas is the first step to identifying the great ones.
There’s quite a bit more in the study but those two points are of most interest. How many of us can truthfully say we work in an environment where failure is welcomed much less have a system in place from which to learn from those failures? Nearly half (49%) of the companies in the study said their company had no system to deal positively with failure. Among companies that do have such a system (38%), redeploying employees involved in a failed innovation from one business unit to another has been a successful strategy. Contrast that with the reports we read each day of companies jettisoning employees or products rather than making a pivot of some sort.
We’ve touched on the notion of feedback quite often here on the screed. I’m a believer that a company can never have enough and we ought to look at every opportunity to get it. The study confirms this as a key to innovation.
Help your folks to be free to fail. Encourage them to get feedback in great quantity and with increasing frequency. Do so and you’re well down the road to innovation, which becomes more important each day. Make sense?
I got a note from a former colleague of mine the other day. They were kind of ticked off because they felt as if someone had ripped off an idea of theirs and the thief got the proverbial pat on the head from the powers that be. I guess I’m not painting myself in a very flattering light here because I know they wanted a lot more sympathy from me than I gave them. I mean, I wasn’t a total d&*k about it – I did let them know I knew how they felt – but having had my fair share of ideas ripped off over the years I learned a few things which I’d like to share with you as I did with them. Continue reading