I've always admired the engineers at Mercedes-Benz for many reasons. But their most consistently admirable quality is restraint. By and large, for at least the last decade or two, the folks at Benz never "gilded the lily" or added technology purely for tech's sake. Maybe that's because they have the maniacs at the AMG high-performance division to add that kind of crazy stuff for them. But I like to think that it's because they reject the "too much is never enough" attitude of so many of the other car manufacturers. (The only notable exception I can think of is the utterly useless touchpad on its nav/infotainment console.) Anyone who has suffered through the multi-year nightmare of BMW's iDrive system knows exactly what I'm talking about. The only thing the oxymoronic iDrive system wouldn't try to help you do was drive the damn car because you could never figure out the controls.

The simplest example of doing things the right way and the overdesigned way is the rear view mirror. At one time or another almost every luxury car group - except Mercedes - felt it absolutely essential that the rear-view mirror be powered and remotely controlled for adjustment purposes, just like the side mirrors. The engineers at Mercedes thought that it was stupid to add a feature like that when you could simply reach up with your hand and make whatever adjustments were needed. Quick, easy, and accurate with no time wasted trying to find the right button or control. Now, with the advent of the rear-facing cameras in almost all cars, some of the utility of the rear-view mirror has gone away, but it's still the first thing that a smart driver adjusts in an unfamiliar car so some things never change.

The moral of the story for startups is simply this-- it's increasingly possible when you're building new products and solutions to overshoot the need, utility and demand for a certain degree of technical support and assistance, and end up with simply too much technology for your own good. This can add complexity, cost and confusion to the equation without increasing the value or the utility for the end user even a little bit. Think of this as the vehicular version of Occam's razor: the simplest solution is most often the smartest. And, as I wrote recently (See Don't Slow Up Your Startup.), it's always easiest to go with the flow. And, when you add long-standing consumer behaviors, habits and preferences to the calculations, the case for building easy-to-access and even easier-to-use solutions becomes more compelling. The best technology disappears into the solution.

As I have watched Amazon (with the amazing Dash buttons) and others (like Samsung with its new "connected" refrigerators) increasingly establish beachheads in the kitchen for ordering and replenishing just about anything, I've been struck by two facts: (1) they are building off what they have and the systems and equipment they've already invested in instead of looking for the best solution for the end user. Think of it as an inside out "Steve Jobs" focus: "we'll tell you what you want" rather than outside in--finding out and designing what the customer really wants; and (2) they all seem to have overlooked a most basic fact of life and a relatively primitive tool that we have all pretty much taken for granted for years now. I'm talking about the bar codes that appear on virtually every non-perishable product in the world. None of these high-tech systems takes advantage of the decades that the food and consumer products industries have spent in building massive databases and a ubiquitous classification and identification system even as we - the world's consumers - are being re-introduced to this very fact by virtue of the self-service checkout aisles, counters and machines that are being deployed in almost every major retail chain. I made very similar observations just recently (See The Most Underrated Planning Tool in Business) about how smart it is to use something as simple as a calendar to manage your business and how often we overlook that tool. So, you might ask, why don't we have a simple and similar solution in our homes. Tens of millions of folks are still using pen and paper to make their shopping lists and praying that they won't forget the list when they hit the market.

But if you want to take a small step toward the digital future, what could be a simpler way of building your grocery store list (or reordering commodity goods on the spot) than swiping that empty can, package or container past a simple bar code reader that lived in your kitchen. It beats the daylights out of the best phone app because you don't have to stop doing whatever you're doing while you wash your hands and find your phone and open the right app and - sorry Alexa - the simple barcode also has all the detail and specificity that you really need for this kind of order built right in so that you don't have to spend time teaching Siri or Alexa the entire taxonomy of the Safeway snack aisle. Swiping takes a few seconds and is virtually flawless. And, as you might imagine, the retailers and marketers would love nothing better than (and be happy to pay for) up-to-the-minute demand reports from millions of homes on exactly what consumers were purchasing without having to wait for the largely-antiquated in-store POS systems to crank out the data.

The good news is that--here at 1871-- it's just a matter of time before someone walks up to you with just the solution you're looking for. One of our current WiSTEM companies, Lyster Technologies  is building exactly this gadget right now. And it's a bifurcated solution as well: you can swipe any barcode or, if you wish, just speak to the device and the product will be added to your smartphone grocery list. It's clean, relatively tiny (no one needs another clunky anything on their kitchen counters), and it's pretty much foolproof. I'm excited to see just how long it takes for all the major grocery chains to stop by our place to check this baby out, because it could be a down-and-dirty Amazon killer that the bricks and mortar guys are clearly dying for.

And, by the way, there's no reason that every restaurant in the world wouldn't think this is a no-brainer as well. Stick it in the pantry, store room, cooler or back of house and train the entire kitchen staff to keep track of what's 86'd from day to day so your supplies and inventory are always current. Hospital supplies-- pretty much the same deal. In fact, any organization that regularly uses disposables should get on this kind of a program.

It's not "high" tech, but it beats the heck out of running out of essentials when you need them or forgetting half of what you need when you run to the store. Just sayin'.

Published on: May 9, 2017