Innovation means going where others have not yet gone.
Back when we started ThirdLove in 2013, we were determined to innovate in a space that hadn't innovated at all in the past 20 to 30 years. At the time, "DTC" wasn't even a mainstream term. Selling bras and underwear to women over the internet, shipping directly to their homes, hadn't been done before at scale. More important, very few lingerie brands seemed open to being inclusive to all body shapes, sizes, and colors. Conventional wisdom said what worked, and most businesses followed suit.
But what's interesting is that if you look at where ThirdLove as a company is today, all these things we built our original brand and company around are now table stakes. In 2020, brands have to be inclusive. Brands have to have DTC strategies. Even the concept of the company having a female CEO back in 2013 seemed unconventional. Today, it's more common than ever before.
When you are a successful innovator, you eventually transition from being the underdog to being the leader. And to remain the leader, you have to start innovating against yourself. You have to keep innovating your products and business model to stay ahead of the competition--even when you were the one who created that category to begin with.
Here are a few ways industry leaders continue to be innovators long after they've established themselves in the market.
1. "If I was hired tomorrow as the company's new CEO, what new and different decisions would I make?"
Jeff Bezos calls this "day-one mentality."
It's this idea that the business is always just starting, just beginning to find its footing, just now making customers happy--and pressure is on the line. Because it's very easy to get wrapped up in doing what you've always been doing. It's very easy to fall into the habit of repeating what has worked in the past, as opposed to questioning what might work better in the future. And so a way of forcing myself to think about how to keep innovating within the company is to imagine I am brand-new to the business:
"If I were hired tomorrow as the new CEO, what questions would I ask?"
"What data would I look at?"
"What hard decisions or radical changes would I make?"
"What would I strive to do differently in terms of organization structure and processes?"
2. "Is this idea crazy? Or is this idea different, and it will take time for people to understand?"
Every innovative person on the planet has heard someone tell them, "That will never work."
When we first started ThirdLove, we had this crazy idea to create half-cup sizes for women's bras. At the time, all our manufacturing partners said, "This is crazy. It's going to be too expensive. The customer won't even know the difference." But we emphatically felt, and had seen from the testing we did, that half-cup sizes mattered. It was a crazy idea, but one we knew mattered.
Today, half-cup sizes is one of our biggest differentiators as a brand, and a massive signal to customers that we mean what we say about being inclusive to all types of women.
Of course, not every crazy idea works. But that doesn't mean you should ignore the crazy ideas altogether. Instead, allow yourself to think outside the box. When someone comes to you with a "crazy" idea, listen to what they say and don't immediately discount it.
Push boundaries. Gather feedback from people you trust, listen to your customers, and if enough signals light a compelling path forward, then explore it. Because the truth is, most crazy ideas aren't really "crazy." They're just different from what has been done before--and it takes time for people to understand them.
3. "Are we avoiding innovation because we are afraid to fail?"
Finally, you have to continue to question whether you are making decisions out of a place of fear--not wanting to lose what you've worked so hard to build.
This is another Bezos-ism I think about often. He has said in many interviews that Amazon's Fire Phone was one of the company's biggest failures. Immediately after that, he explains why that's a good thing--and how he would much rather the company try something new and fail than never try at all.
To stay on the growth edge of innovation, you have to be comfortable taking risks and knowing that not all innovations, not all new features or new products or new business models are going to work. In fact, many of them might fail. But being open to failure, open to the learning that can come as a result of these attempts to challenge the status quo, is what makes all the difference.