When Gmail landed in 2004, it completely disrupted the email market--it offered 1 GB of space, which was hundreds of times more than Hotmail and Yahoo mail. Nothing else like it existed. If felt like Gmail arrived out of no where, but that's not true. A lot of behind-the-scenes work at Google led to Gmail.
I asked Kristen Craft, Director of Business Development atWistia, about what she thinks companies have to do to encourage innovation like Google did with Gmail. Here's what she had to say.
Kristen Craft, Wistia
Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder and overall excellent advice-giver said "There are no quick wins in business--it takes years to become an overnight success."
In our "move fast and break things" world, we forget that the big innovations like Facebook and iPhones aren't flash-in-the-pan moments of genius. They take a lot of testing, making mistakes, and re-calibrating. It took nearly a decade for Gmail to go from its first versions to its final launch in 2004. And now we can't imagine sending email without it.
Gmail actually wouldn't have happened at all if it weren't for the way Google built a system of support around Buchheit while he worked-- reportedly, he regularly met with Google's founder Larry Page to get feedback on iterations of Gmail.
To have big breakout hits like Gmail, or even smaller innovations that streamline your workflow and make you better at doing what you're doing, you need to create a habit for innovation. It's a process, not a lightning strike. Here's how you do it:
1. Find Your Area Of Focus
Before you can create life-changing products that turn the whole market upside-down, you need to figure out what you're going to focus on. You can't feasibly kill it at everything, but you can kick butt in a specific area.
At Wistia, we're a customer-centric company and we really value the community we've built around our product. So we take customer feedback seriously. Once, a group of teachers approached us about creating an add-on to our video platform--they already used it for teaching and they wanted to use it for making tests as well. They asked us to include a feature that would provide interactive test questions at the end of a video.
Their suggestion gave us pause--this was an interesting idea that would allow our platform to be used in new ways. It inspired fevered discussion about what extra features we could build in to our product. We get a bunch of requests like these, customers asking for small additions and tweaks that wouldn't take long to implement. But we had to really consider what our goals were with these add-ons.
Then our CEO Chris Savage spoke at an all-hands meeting and underscored the unique competitive advantage we had in the video marketing space. This was where we had to focus our efforts. After this talk we knew our innovation would be tailored around expanding our video marketing platform.
Ultimately we didn't make the add-on our customers requested but their suggestion made us think critically about our goals and what we wanted our product to do. We ended up coming out much stronger and more focused for it.
2. Invest In Your Staff
When you're looking around for geniuses to create your next industry-disrupting innovation, there's a good chance you're missing the talent you already have in-house. It might even be hidden in process-oriented people with an eye on routine, as we saw at Wistia.
I am always looking for people within Wistia who have an entrepreneurial mindset. I like to think of them as intrepreneurs because they're already in our company. When it comes to locating these folk with intrepreneurial talent, it's not just a matter of promoting people or selecting the quirkiest employees you have on staff. It's about honing in on people who are looking to the future and have the passion necessary to improve the present. We've concluded that three key traits determine talented intrepreneurs:
Once you find your intrepreneurs, you have to nurture their skills.
We try to schedule a lot of one-on-one time with people at our company who have said they want to take on new capacities. We sit with them and figure out ways of expanding their genius and developing their flatsides. This is how we learn about their goals and we can help them plan to reach them.
Regular one-on-one meetings are a great way to get in the habit of listening to your employees and looking for ways to help them be better at their jobs. It sets them up to create cool things and push your company to the next level.
3. Create And Cement Incentives
Even when you do get the ball rolling on innovation, your most amazing ideas can fail because you didn't create a solid base of incentives and trackable goals for actually accomplishing them.
We saw this with our own side-project 50 Grove. We aimed to create an online marketplace for video production to complement our video platform. But since we never tracked the revenue the site produced for us or even the referral traffic, we couldn't hone in on real incentives to working on the project. So it fell to the bottom of our to-do list. We ultimately had to close it down.
Learn from our mistake and develop a solid set of incentives that will help you throw momentum behind your project.
Even if your goals are small like "gain X amount of new customers" or "get traffic from Y part of the world" it'll help you track the viability of your project and spur more energy for it.
Innovation Is A Long Game
Innovation is a habit that any company can develop. By looking to your customers, honing in on in-house talent, and creating a solid base of incentives for your company's side-projects, you can develop a company culture that encourages innovation and experimentation.
It's all about dedicated focus, not flash-in-the-pan genius.