Why It Pays to Take the Path Less Trodden
Gallup says creative thinkers imagine beyond the boundaries of what exists now, constantly dream up new products or services, and explore options and think their way through problems.
When you hold more than 100 patents, no one is going to question your innovator cred. But that intellectual property trove is just one small part of what makes Mike Feldman, founder and CEO of T1Visions in Charlotte, North Carolina, so interesting.
Feldman's early innovations--in diffractive optics, a way to manipulate light--emerged from his research as a graduate student and then a professor at the University of North Carolina. Feldman spun those inventions into Digital Optics Corp., which made the Inc. 500 in 1998 and 1999. Feldman sold that business in 2006. Then in 2007, he beheld the iPhone.
Instead of thinking "I should build an app for that!" Feldman went in another direction. "I saw there were all these people with devices that were designed for individual use," he says. "You know how you go to a restaurant and see a bunch of people not talking to each other, just texting away? I thought this technology is great. But it isolates people. I wanted to come up with something that would bring people together. Technology for group use."
Feldman's solution: large-format touch screens installed in public places. Users could share their photos with one another--or with the rest of the room--in large scale. They could play games or collaborate on art. The screens could be split into separate panels--imagine several giant iPads assembled into a rectangle--so people could launch a different app in each screen and then rotate those screens among themselves.
But how do you develop, test, and showcase something so large and distinctive? "The conventional thing is to develop a product and see if there's someone who will buy it," says Feldman. But Feldman wanted to first find users who would like the product and supply input on features and usability. Restaurants were the company's initial target market. So Feldman opened his own restaurant, installing T1Visions' screens in the tables and walls.
"It was a tapas place, farm to table, good wine and beer on tap," says Feldman. "But it was small. I didn't want to spend a lot of money on the restaurant. I wanted to get people in so we could get feedback and spend the money on the technology."
For five years, T1Visions operated the restaurant, testing new features on diners and soliciting ideas. It began selling screens to other restaurants as well. Universities, corporations, and retailers soon became the company's dominant markets: the Chico's apparel chain is among T1Vision's clients. But the company still sells to restaurants, including Cowfish, a neighborhood sushi and burger bar that recently opened a branch at Universal Orlando's CityWalk.
"For Cowfish, we created tables with a build-your-own fish game," says Feldman. "You pick out your fish's body type, the fins, hair, hats, things like that. Then it swims off to a giant screen--like a virtual aquarium--where everyone in the restaurant can see it. For the Orlando restaurant, T1Visions also designed an app for getting on the waitlist. Diners are assigned a fish, whose size automatically changes as the wait time diminishes.
"I have the ability and vision to come up with a lot of different ideas and see them realized," says Feldman. "But I love to do things in groups. I love to say to people, 'Here's the problem.' And then we brainstorm."