Innovation doesn’t always make you a winner in business. In my role as an angel investor in startups, almost every pitch I see highlights some real innovation in technology, business model, or market opportunity. Yet only a few of these get funded, and even fewer become dominant players in their chosen space. The rest fail quickly, or struggle for years to get real traction.
But don’t get me wrong. Innovation is necessary to get you into the game, but even a disruptive technology won’t assure you business success. These days, it’s all about harnessing your innovation to get an advantage in a business. Or as Steven S. Hoffman asserts in his new book, you have to “Make Elephants Fly,” and that requires getting outside of conventional thinking.
Hoffman should know, as an icon in the Silicon Valley, having educated and trained hundreds of startup founders as the CEO of “Founders Space,” designated by Inc.com as one of the top ten incubators and accelerators in the world. I like his list of Seven Unfair Advantages, at least one of which is required to make you a dominant player in your space, which he calls radical innovation:
Offer a solution that is exponentially better than any other. If it’s not an order of magnitude better or cheaper, customers usually conclude that the risk and cost of change are simply not worth the potential payback over what they have today. You may attract early adopters, who love everything new, but the mainstream market will be elusive.
Create an entirely new market space or new category. If your product or service is so unique and compelling that it’s able to define a whole new category, then you are the winner by default. This isn’t easy to do, but it happens. Just look at Nest, who is leading the IoT wave, and Oculus Rift, the company that put virtual reality on the map.
Be the first to disrupt an existing market space. Being first is always important. It’s amazing how many proposals I see that are “me too” with only slight or abstract differentiation from other social media sites, ride sharing, or collaboration tools. Examples of being first include Netflix for movies and TV and Redfin for real estate.
Ride the network effect to more users than anyone. The network effect is where the value of your business increases exponentially as your user count goes up. Look at competition for the numbers to beat, but in the consumer space, it usually takes millions to be the dominant player. Users can be advertisers, consumers, sellers, or passengers.
Establish exclusivity as a high barrier to entry. Prove exclusivity with whatever methods and relationships you can use, including patents, distribution channels, government support, or name-brand customer contracts. A startup with innovation and high entry barriers is the most attractive candidate for investors and acquisition partners.
Lock in customers with loyalty and high cost of change. Billion-dollar businesses are seldom about a single transaction with any customer. They’re about building long-term relationships, where the longer the customers use the product, the harder it is for them to leave. Great companies tend to build great ecosystems to provide added value.
Find a pent-up need and build a strong brand early. Brand building is costly and difficult, but making your brand a household name has the power to differentiate your product from everyone else’s. If there is a real need, people pay more for a brand-name, and perceive a higher level of trust and value, as well as an emotional attachment.
The message here is that just because you have an innovative new technology doesn’t mean it will rise above the competition and make money. You have to analyze each innovation early and continuously with a critical eye. Hoffman’s seven rules, paraphrased here, will tell you if you are likely to be become a dominant player. If not, it may pay to pivot now before your money and energy are gone.
*** First published on Inc.com on 11/14/2017 ***