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INNOVATE

Innovation, Ninja-Style
 

Consumer Electronics Association head Gary Shapiro says small tech companies, when they're at their best, act like ninjas.

Gary Shapiro

Courtesy of CEA

Gary Shapiro

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Being president of one of the largest trade organizations in the world comes with a number of privileges. Just ask Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, which holds the annual International CES in Las Vegas. For 30 years, Shapiro has been able to watch an extraordinary number of small tech companies as they try to make it big. He wrote about what he's learned along the way in a book out last month called, Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses. Shapiro recently spoke to Inc.com about the ninja ways of entrepreneurs.

What is "ninja innovation" and how can start-ups use it?
The ancient Japanese warriors overcame great odds to beat enemies who were bigger and better-equipped. In the corporate world, large companies are at a high risk of becoming stagnant. While the big companies are mired in bureaucracy, small businesses can be ninja innovators by being more agile. They can and should adapt quickly, change strategies when necessary, think outside the box, create something different, and outwit the established competition.

What are a few concrete examples of ninja tactics?
Accept failure, learn from it: Failure is what makes us strive harder and innovate better... and it's what makes our American culture so great. We accept and embrace failure, and encourage innovators to keep striving for victory.

Mentor others and be mentored: It's rewarding to mentor younger entrepreneurs and innovators... but learning from others is also crucial for growth. You're never too old or too successful to be taught yourself. [Mentoring] is both an obligation and a joy for anyone who has succeeded or wants to be successful.

Reject the top-down solution: Successful solutions can come from anywhere in your company, from the president and CEO to the interns. Ninja innovators create a culture of openness and creativity where everyone is encouraged to think outside the box and propose solutions. I challenge my employees never to come to me with a problem. Think of ways to innovate and bring solutions to the business, instead of dwelling on roadblocks.

What mistakes do you see small companies making when they try to innovate?
Going it alone. There's a myth that most big successful start-ups start with one guy in his garage toiling away in solitude. But the truth of the matter is that every start-up will at some point find itself in a place where it needs more resources and other perspectives. This is when one needs to find the right individuals to come in and work as their strike force. In Ninja Innovation I use the example of eBay, which faced a turning point in 1998. Founder Pierre Omidyar recognized that he wasn't the right person to shepherd the company to a public offering, so he brought in Meg Whitman. At the time Whitman seemed to clash with eBay's corporate ethos, but her success there was undeniable.

Let's talk about Apple. An example of ninja innovation, or a company that's slipping?
I don't think they are slipping. I think expectations for new breakthrough products are too high. Steve Jobs was one of the greatest ninja innovators ever, and his death is a huge loss to the company. Larger companies need to be able to adapt, adjust, and take risks to account for slipping sales or unforeseen problems that may arise. Apple knows its customers and is known for producing revolutionary products, so we'll have to see what comes next.

Can you give our readers one piece of advice that's core to start-up success?
Be flexible and try something new. This is a core principle of ninja innovation. Whether you're building your team, devising a strategy, or mentoring your colleagues, keeping the status quo is a doomed strategy. All of the principles of ninja innovation rely on the mantra of "innovate or die."

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Feb 20, 2013

JOHN BRANDON is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.
@jmbrandonbb




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