Your secret dream is to disrupt your industry.
To be another Uber. Another Airbnb. Another Tesla.
So, what is holding you back? Technology. You lack the technology, you lack the wherewithal to develop the technology, you lack even a basic understanding of how AI or Machine Learning works.
Well, here is some good news.
Uber and Airbnb didn’t start with technology.
They started with recognition of a need. An unarticulated need.
The seed for Uber was planted when Travis Kalanick and Garret Camp stood outside in a snowstorm in Paris and could not get a cab. The many empty cars whooshing by gave Garrett Camp an idea: What if you could convince ordinary drivers to take on passengers?
An observation of the unarticulated need of millions. An insight into a solution.
It is late 2007 in San Francisco. Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia just moved from New York. Unemployed, they were having trouble paying their rent and were looking for a way to earn some extra cash. They noticed that all hotel rooms in the city were booked, as the local Industrial Design conference attracted a lot of visitors.
They saw an opportunity. They bought some airbeds and quickly put up a site, “Air Bed and Breakfast,” offering a place to sleep and breakfast in the morning. They charged $80 a night. The first night, they had a 35-year-old woman from Boston and a 30-year-old Indian and a father of four from Utah sleeping on airbeds on their floor.
The unarticulated need of frustrated travelers. An insight into a solution.
Did Uber and Airbnb just take off to incredible IPOs? No, there were many hurdles, and yes, technology was required.
But the seed for them came from the human mind. Technology was instrumental in making it happen.
The lesson – identify an unarticulated need, identify a solution – has always been basic to innovation in any industry, starting with the first wheel. But in today’s hyper-technological world, idea seedlings are often never planted because they are simple and lack the buzz of a technological marvel.
Ideas that turn into IPOs, or just hyper your company’s growth, come from observation and insights. Insights into ordinary unarticulated problems confronting ordinary people every day.
Back in the ‘80s, Bernard Sparrow was struggling hauling two heavy suitcases through the airport in Aruba. He saw a porter without any effort pushing heavy equipment on a flatboard with wheels. Voila! The idea of wheels on luggage was born.
How many millions of travelers trying to lug heavy luggage saw the same porter equipment in airports, train stations and bus stations around the world and never saw the solution? How many never thought of patenting the idea as Sparrow did?
You snuggle under a blanket to keep out the chill. But to read that book or newspaper or talk on the phone, your arms are out of the blanket, the blanket does not stay put, and you are back to uncomfortably chilling out. Why not a blanket with sleeves? Why not Snuggies, which has already sold 30 million blankets and is going strong? The idea of a blanket with sleeves had already existed, but it was never promoted. The people behind Snuggies seized the opportunity and are now snuggled up with a very profitable bottom line.
Ever hear of Doggles? Probably not, because you do not own a dog. But Roni Di Lullo did, and she noticed her dog squinting. Why not sun goggles for dogs? Besides the sun, dogs have eye disease, and Doggles were the solution for those problems, too. Doggles are sold in all the major pet chains like PetSmart, plus 3,500 pet stores worldwide. A simple observation of a problem and an idea for a solution has made her a millionaire.
The point is that innovation of any kind in any field of endeavor, technological or not, starts with observation and insight into the unarticulated needs of your target audience.
The success of Weight Watchers is not due to its Weight Watcher meals. It is due to an insight into the psychology of dieters – the fear of failure.
Weight Watchers understood that those with weight concerns hesitate to start on a diet because of their fear of failure, and their fear of being humiliated in front of others and being disappointed in themselves.
Thanks to this insight, WW offers a life plan that provides a flexibility of foods through points, so that an indulgence does not feel like failure. The ongoing group meetings provide the support and encouragement needed to sustain a diet through the hurdles of holidays, vacations, business lunches, pregnancies and more. The WW insight is not to simply provide a diet, but to provide a lifelong sustaining program. Fear of failure is no longer an option.
Tom’s Shoes was founded on a single premise: donate a pair of shoes with every pair sold. It took off, but it was not long before sales stagnated. Though their intent truly was to do good and help the underprivileged, doing good did not seem to be doing any good for Tom’s Shoes.
The executive at Tom’s went back to the drawing board to understand who their core audience was and why Tom’s was losing their support. They identified their core audience as Benevolent Believers of both genders, ages 18-34, who wanted to do good. The executives realized that Tom’s was promoting its shoe fashions first, its cause second.
The solution that came from this insight: switching from a shoe company that had a cause to a cause that starts with a shoe company. That insight changed the trajectory of Tom’s sales and profits.
Insights require a stepping back from what you know, what you see happening every day, stepping back from the reams of information that cross your desk every day.
Insights require seeing deeper than the surface. Seeing beyond the routine. Uber and Airbnb and luggage rollers came about because the initiators were confronted with a problem and sought a solution. But those problems existed long before Garret Camp could not find a cab on a snow night, long before Chesky could not pay his rent and found people who needed places to rent, and long before Sparrow could not haul his luggage. Millions had experienced those same problems.
Insights seek to answer the whys behind the actions. Are there needs still being unsolved that are unarticulated? What benefits do your customers want that are not being expressed? Luggage manufacturers never asked what more did their customers want beyond a mobile container for their clothes. They never asked, “How mobile?” No one thought to ask car owners if they want to earn extra money, nor asked homeowners the same.
Insights mean asking a simple question: What more can I do for my customers? What is their unarticulated problem?
In LA, as creative director, I helped develop the campaign for an airline, AirCal, that was owned by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. The problem was that Mr. Allen started a regional airline along the West Coast when there was an airline, PSA, that had dominated the market for 35 years. It was the go-to airline for business travelers. When Paul Allen came to us, AirCal was $40mm in debt and, as he said, “had one foot in the grave.” In three years, we turned it around and it was sold to American Airlines for about $250mm, and PSA was on the border of going into chapter 11.
We achieved that by asking, “What more?” Airline executives operated with the expressed understanding that business travelers wanted to get from point A to point B on frequently scheduled flights to meet their schedules and at a fair price. The articulated needs.
We identified a series of unarticulated needs and made recommendations that went against the traditional operations of the airline industry. An example: Business travelers most often need to make a flight at a specific time. They or their travel agent must “dial an airline” until they find an airline that can book a flight at that specific time. Too time-consuming for busy execs and harried travel agents. An unarticulated need.
Identifying this need, we identified the solution. Airlines then shared the same software program that listed all the flights, bookings, etc. Call an airline, and if they did not have an open flight at the desired time, they could reserve you a seat on another airline (you pay the other airline, of course). Airlines could do that – but naturally they would not.
AirCal did with its One Call Service. Call us, and if we do not have a flight for you, we will put you on another airline. AirCal lived up to its promise. This is one of the many AirCal unarticulated needs we solved. Result: Paul Allen’s disaster in the making resolved. AirCal was sold to American Airlines for about $250mm.
AI technology creates the opportunity to acquire and interpret data that gives a long look into the future. Software creates the technological process that makes ideas happen.
But the ideas that give you that competitive edge or even disrupt industries begin with the human mind.
Shouldn’t it be your mind?