What is Technology?
(I’ll be the first to admit my knowledge of technology isn’t as good as it could be) When I was a kid I spent more time in the library than anywhere but college (and I was a history major). The library was full of books on computers and the World Wide Web, and even then I remember being entranced by the idea that anyone could do anything with software.
If you were a little older, you probably know what it feels like when you see someone writing code for one of your favorite books or movies. You sigh, roll your eyes at their nerdy typing speed — and just as quickly as they started that little project, they’re done.
This is where we are now: in 2019, most people have access to the latest version of their favorite software. We don’t have to wait for someone else to provide us with something we already have (like our beloved Charles Dickens), because there are lots of other people who want to do it too. They just need help getting there:
A lot of these new apps aren’t available on Android; they come from Microsoft or Apple only because they make more money from those platforms — but that doesn’t mean they won’t work well on other platforms too; quite the opposite: cross-platform apps are getting better all the time. If we look at how much more data is being harvested by Google Analytics over Facebook (which just happens to be my favorite social network), we can see how many people use Google Analytics and how many use Facebook — yet both serve different needs and so do different sets of users.
This is why it’s important to stay out of “market leadership” wars between companies; this is why startups should be building new products for new markets when there already exists plenty for which existing products are already oriented (it can take years before an existing market becomes unprofitable for any reason whatever). This is why R&D funds shouldn’t exist solely for protecting incumbents — this is why open source should continue to grow: if everyone can build something from scratch, there will still always be something better than what has been built before (and vice versa). Because this isn’t a zero-sum game — if someone else has an idea that takes off, then that means someone else can build something new too — so long as two ideas come up with sufficiently similar solutions.
What is Innovation?
Innovation is simply a change in the direction of a product or service, either for its recipe or for the way it performs. It is the result of the interaction between technology and human invention (or vice versa). An idea that is not innovative is not necessarily bad. Sometimes, it can be an extremely brilliant idea. Sometimes, it’s just plain good luck.
Many people assume that innovation takes place on a straight line: one step forward, two steps back and you are back where you started. This is only true under certain conditions; if there are three steps forward and two steps back, then there’s no innovation. Innovation can be subtle, or even invisible and generally slow (and sometimes both at the same time).
For example: when I started this blog I had no idea how to write a blog post; I had no clue what format to use or how to structure my posts so they are easier to read and easy to share with others. When I tried writing a post with WordPress it wasn’t intuitive for me to use some of its features so I didn’t do it (I also didn’t have time to learn). Now that I have learned more about WordPress’s features (like built-in code snippets) I have learned how to structure my posts better and am able to more easily share them with others! It took me about 18 months but now my posts appear in WordPress which means they are easier for me to share with others. These are examples of ideas that have been transformed from pure innovation (where technology meets human invention) into utility in the real world (where humans collaborate together).
Another example of this kind of transformation: when Google launched Google Reader we gave people access through RSS readers where they could read our articles without having to install anything themselves because they were already installed on their websites or blogs/blogs running within Google Reader. We called these “Google Feeds” because we were giving people access through RSS readers powered by Google products like Adwords and Doubleclick. In doing this we changed our product from pure innovation into utility: feed readers were designed specifically for our product(s) which was not possible before we created them!
What about technological innovation?
In order to understand what you want to do and how you want to do it, you need to understand why there is a need for it in the first place. And when you can answer that question, then plans and investments are easy. We believe that technology is at the heart of innovation, but that we cannot afford not knowing what is going on.
If we look at a new product today, it has been built with one specific goal in mind: make a better coffee pot. The plan of action is clear — we have to build a better coffee pot…
But let’s take another look at it. What was the original vision for this product? What was its purpose? What did it do? In practice, it may be very different — maybe it can serve as an alarm clock or as a remote control for your TV…but still fulfilling the original goal of making better coffee pots. To identify the needs and problems specific to your customers you need to ask them these questions: (1) How do I go about doing this? (2) Who else is doing this? (3) Which other products are similar in some way or others? And then answer key questions like these: (4) How does this fit into my business model? (5) What does this cost me?
That’s where technology meets innovation comes in. You get insight into which features are important for your customers and what additional features would add value for them; and you can offer those features as complementary solutions which bring your customer closer to where they want to be and further from where they don’t want to be, with measurable results faster than ever before. That doesn’t mean that every idea becomes an application — but every idea that gets implemented will help progress the company towards its goals faster than ever before, if done right.
Why doesn’t tech innovation ever happen often nowadays?
Let’s say you’re a startup that is trying to figure out how to make money on your product. It’s not easy, and it certainly doesn’t happen very often. So what is the best way to go about it? The most obvious answer is to seek partnerships with big companies that can offer you visibility into the market and their research capabilities. But this misses the point:
You don’t need big data or analytics to be successful in this space — you just need a great idea and passion. You do not need big data to be successful in this space — you just need good ideas, testing, and better communication skills. You do not need big data or analytics to be successful in this space — you just need a great idea and passion.
All of the above is true for any product innovation project, but especially for a startup. This is why we always go out of our way to meet with small startups (anonymously) at conferences and events, learn from them, help them get their ideas across (even if they have no desire for us), and then bring them back when they have something we can learn from: “You have found your next customer!”
This is a seminal text on the idea of product-market fit, written by Marc Andreessen, a co-founder of Netscape and now an angel investor in a number of companies. His basic premise sets the stage for much of what we are going to say as we discuss this topic:
A product is a thing that people use to do something they do not already do.
A market is a place where people who want to do something they don’t already do can find those things.