April Dunford is CEO of Sprint.ly, a project management tool used by startups and custom software developers
Those of us in technology and innovation are in the business of creating amazing things the world has never seen before. We are creating a future filled with products and solutions our parents never even dreamed about. But too frequently our efforts fail because we fail to help customers understand just exactly how awesome our awesome new things are.
Because we invented and perfected our offerings, we understand exactly why they are exciting. For customers, however, our new products can be perceived as baffling, scary, or worse, just plain boring. For our innovations to become successful, we need to go beyond simply creating new products and focus on creating the new ways of thinking that go with them.
Every new product comes from an idea to improve something we have today. We want something to exist – a faster database, a better search engine, a cheaper way to do a video conference – and then work on bringing it to life. What frequently happens, however, is that the end result is often so far from the starting point, it's transformed into something else entirely. Our "faster database" behaves more like a question-and-answer tool, our "better search engine" acts like an assistant, our "cheap videoconference tool" seems like a broadcasting platform.
As innovators, we are often blind to this change because it has happened gradually over time. Our definition of "database," for example, has been slowly stretched to include our new awesome invention. Our customers, on the other hand, are often left utterly bewildered when we present them with a database that doesn't match their definition of one at all. Instead of trying to define our products by where they came from, we need to reframe them for where they are going. If we want customers to understand our amazing new products, we need to give them an amazing new way of thinking about them.
Here's an example. Clearpath Robotics was founded by a group of friends with a shared love of robots. The business began providing solutions that made it easier to do robotics research, a pain they felt themselves in university when messing around with robots in the lab. They eventually came up with a new idea – a robot that could be used in industrial facilities that could move around intelligently, picking up and delivering materials.
Having stretched the idea of what a robot in a manufacturing environment could do, Clearpath's next challenge was to create context for their customers to help them understand it. "Our systems go way beyond those of a traditional manufacturing robot," says Simon Drexler, director of product. "Traditional robotics are stationary and complete repetitive tasks. Our products move around using mapping and mobile sensor technology. Concepts like 'dispatch' and 'fleet management' are not associated with stationary manufacturing robots."
Starting a conversation with a buyer involved explaining why their "robots" were nothing like the robots manufacturers were used to, explained Mr. Drexler. Positioning themselves against other robot vendors only left customers confused or making incorrect assumptions about the products. Clearpath needed to create a new way of thinking to help customers understand what was so special about their offerings.
Clearpath's innovation was their ability to autonomously navigate around a space in an intelligent and dynamic manner. For most people that sounds like what a self-driving car does. Clearpath decided that there was a new way to think about what they do. They were creating self-driving vehicles for industrial uses. To drive home this positioning, they created a new division called "OTTO Motors" and enhanced their industrial design to add white "headlights" and red "tail lights" to their vehicles. Their website and sales materials look more like what you would see from a car manufacturer than a robotics tech startup.
This shift in thinking had a big impact on their business. It made their unique strengths – mobility, mapping, dispatch, fleet management – central to their positioning and completely obvious to customers. Not only did their sales accelerate, but investors took notice as well and they recently raised $30-million to accelerate their growth. Last year, they were also named a Silver Winner of the prestigious Edison Awards for Innovation.
As innovators, we won't be successful by inventing new products that are tied to old ways of thinking. If we want customers to be as excited about our innovations as we are, we need to invent innovative thinking to go along with them, one that puts our uniqueness at the centre.
April Dunford will be speaking at TechToronto's Best of #TechTO event at Toronto City Hall with Mayor John Tory along with Mike Katchen, Ben Zifkin, and Jaclyn Ling on Monday, Feb. 27. More information at TechToronto.org.