A couple of days ago, a Wall Street Journal article appeared online with an attention-grabbing headline: We're Out of Big Ideas.
Innovation, wrote reporter Greg Ip, is in a slump. The standard of living is in a rut. And "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold," as a great poet wrote 100 years ago. Where else have I heard such a gloomy reckoning lately?
Oh yeah. An economist named Robert Gordon -- who's preached this same sermon for ages -- published a hefty tome about it early this year, and it topped the charts. Some pundits cited it as the trump card in the argument that "making America great again" can't be accomplished by Trump or anyone else, because we've reached the end of the line for revolutionary innovation and productivity growth.
Since it's the holiday season I'll forgo my first word choice and just say, I think it's all a bunch of malarkey. Gordon's graphs of GDP and "total factor productivity" are as reliable an indicator of what's really going on as the New York Times' predictions were for the presidential race -- in other words, they miss a lot. I wonder exactly how Gordon would interpret something that happened at our workplace just this week, for example.
By way of introduction, I'll confess that in the past I'd never placed much stock in the crowdfunding concept. I saw it as an opportunity for backers to get shortchanged when projects went nowhere. And because we're an established company, I didn't view it as a platform that applied to us. But this week for the first time we launched a product campaign on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, and it reached its goal in less than 36 hours. Suffice to say, I've seen the light.
The product is a different kind for us -- essentially the world's biggest, brightest, toughest portable light. It was the pet project of one of our salespeople, who'd worked as a car mechanic for years and saw the need. Our lighting engineers soon got involved, testing materials, fitting the electronics into a comfortable handle, finding LEDs that delivered the brightest, most efficient light and designing a battery that would power the light non-stop for days. Creating the prototypes required heavy use of our 3-D printers (an innovation that in less than 10 years has changed the way we work).
Product development went on for more than two years. During that time we got positive feedback about the concept from sales reps in the field, but before we invested more resources we wanted a way to test consumer interest that went beyond their simply "liking" the idea on Facebook. The same salesman suggested using Indiegogo to gauge commitment and help fund the final stage of development. If people responded as we hoped they would, then we'd go ahead with production. The approach fit in perfectly with our company's whole customer focus. Now, with a month to go on the campaign, we're at 200% of our goal. There's no question that we'll make the light, confident that it will sell.
As a manufacturer, I see this as an incredible advance. In fact, it directly addresses something cited by the WSJ reporter as a cause of the so-called "innovation slump." By being able to take a prototype directly to thousands if not millions of people and see if they'll, essentially, put their money where their mouth is, we can hugely reduce the "hurdles for transforming ideas into commercially successful products."
Most people don't realize how difficult it is to manufacture in volume and acquire all certifications. And then there's marketing. Making a new product is very expensive, and it carries a lot of risk. Previously, we would make decisions and hope a product would sell. Now, with the help of Indiegogo, we can quickly and effectively test the waters first, reducing risk. This allows us to be much more productive in a way I couldn't have dreamed of when I started the company in 1999. Yet I doubt that it appears in the tea leaves that academics read before telling our fortunes.
We may not have had inventions comparable to airplanes or indoor plumbing in the last 40 years. And as another WSJ article this week pointed out, several Silicon Valley companies that are trying to branch out beyond software have met their match in the laws of physics. But a slowdown in life-changing inventions is merely an indication of humanity's triumphs in the last century, not a reason to be glum about the future. There's likely to be more great inventions in the decades ahead. Meanwhile, innovations keep coming faster than we can track them in new and unexpected ways -- like a portable light that solves a workplace problem, or Indiegogo.
I wish Robert Gordon would come pay us a visit. I'd love to show him a thing or two.