What can “big tech” learn from startups? A lot — including patience, ironically. Or at least that’s the thinking of Scott Kirsner, CEO at Innovation Leader, the bulletin and digital magazine geared towards corporate innovation and R&D executives at companies, large and small. Kirsner’s own media resume reads like a “Who’s Who” of tech outlets — Globe, Wired Magazine, Fast Company, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, BusinessWeek. He is one of two brains behind Boston.com, launched with Scott Cohen, who would later join him at Innovation Leader. For Grit Daily’s audience of startups looking at opportunities to “science” their own innovation, Kirsner is worth listening to.
Grit Daily: You had your own adventures before Innovation Leader. Can you tell us a little about your background and how it led you to launch Innovation Leader?
Scott Kirsner: I spent about 15 years as a journalist covering startups and emerging technology, for Wired, Fast Company, the Boston Globe, Variety, and lots of other publications — mainly working in Boston and San Francisco, but getting to travel the world. (Yes, I got paid to go to the underground lair beneath Disney World, the Summer Olympics in Athens, and the Sundance Film Festival – it was a lot of fun.) I also spent a lot of time covering startup companies from their earliest days, like Dropbox, Indiegogo, and TripAdvisor.
One of the things I noticed was that when I went to visit big companies like General Motors, Disney, Coca-Cola, Dell, and Sony Pictures, the culture and attitudes about innovation and how fast the world was changing were very different from how startups saw them. Those big companies were really attached to the approaches that had made them successful in the past, and they believed that their well-known brands and really excellent marketing teams would keep them relevant. But around 2010, we saw a lot of new disruptors starting to appear, and suddenly they were creating lots of new challenges and pressures for these bigger companies. They were also attracting a lot of the best talent. So we wanted to create Innovation Leader as a resource for the people working to keep those big companies relevant and competitive in the 21st century, when the world is suddenly getting more digital by the day, and consumer expectations are rising exponentially.
My two co-founders, Scott Cohen and Frank Hertz, had done both bootstrapped and venture capital funded startups in the past. With Innovation Leader, we decided to bootstrap it.
Grit Daily: What’s behind the Innovation Leader name?
Scott Kirsner: We picked it because it has two meanings. The first is the actual individuals who are responsible for making new stuff happen in these big, established companies. And the second is the company itself — often these big, established companies are trying to figure out how to be the innovation leader in their industry.
Grit Daily: For the uninitiated, how do you “measure innovation?”
Scott Kirsner: We think that if a company is trying to “be more innovative,” you need to have some stats you’re tracking to see whether you’re succeeding or failing. So, one stat to track might be, are we getting lots of ideas from our employees, and are we actually putting some money behind those ideas and acting on them. Are they becoming new products, or new ways of doing things inside our company? Another stat could be, how well do we do at monitoring outside trends, or important startups, and responding to them? Or if we’re launching new mobile apps, how long does it take us to launch it, and what’s the rating they get on the Apple and Android stores. Unfortunately, a lot of companies like to say the word “innovation” a lot, in meetings and in press releases, but they don’t do a great job of measuring whether their employees or their customers actually feel they are delivering on that
Grit Daily: What can large organizations learn from startups about innovation? Should innovation be measured differently at startups vs. large companies?
Scott Kirsner: The biggest thing is customer feedback and cycle time. Successful startups gather input from customers all the time; it’s like breathing for them. They also tend to iterate and release things more quickly than big companies. Since startups have no “trophy brand” to protect, they can put stuff out there even if it’s imperfect, and see if people buy it, if they like it, and if not, they make adjustments and try again. That’s what the whole lean startup methodology is built on. When you go into big companies, those processes — talking to customers and releasing new iterations of a product — happen much more sporadically and slowly. Things are touched and changed and reviewed by so many people before the customer has a chance to weigh in.
Should innovation be measured differently? I think ultimately both startups and big companies care about revenue, or cost savings, or customer satisfaction — as measured by Net Promoter Score, for example. I just think that sometimes big companies get impatient to see those quantitative results really soon, and startups actually have more patience, and they realize that anything truly new takes time to build momentum and start generating significant business results. Big companies sometimes expect something to blossom into a billion-dollar product in a year or two, but startups are willing to put in the hard work over a decade.
Grit Daily: Once you measure “it” what comes next?
Scott Kirsner: I think if you’ve got some metrics in place, and you’re getting better at how your organization responds to and acts on good ideas, you’re basically building up a muscle that gives you a real competitive advantage over time. It helps you attract the best talent in your industry. Other companies want to collaborate with you. Customers sense it, because we’re delivering value to them and responding to their needs more quickly than other companies they deal with. That’s true whether you are a startup or a Fortune 500 company.
Grit Daily: What should readers know about your June 9-11 “Charting the Future” event?
Scott Kirsner: We are trying to make it the most high-energy and interactive online conference of this summer for innovators in big organizations. First, we lined up amazing speakers from Alaska Airlines, Disney, REI, and Ford to talk about what they’re doing that’s really leading edge in their businesses — like merging digital technologies with real-world experiences in Disney’s theme parks, for example. Second, we’re making every session a split between learning something new about these companies, and also getting advice and input on your own issues and challenges. So, sort of like a professor having office hours — there will be a lot of time for discussing participants’ own specific situations and getting guidance and ideas. We’re also using a new-ish platform called Remo for networking sessions where you can actually move around a virtual space and chat with different groups of people.