When Google launched Gmail on April Fool's Day 2004, a lot of people thought it was a joke. Most email services at the time offered about 2MB to 4MB of storage space. Google's 1GB just didn't seem possible in the age of Hotmail and Yahoo Mail. Once it sunk in that Google was for real, excitement around it exploded and its private beta became the hottest ticket in tech, with some invites going for thousands of dollars.
The Google team had kept tight wraps over Gmail, so it seemed like a lightning flash of innovation. But this massive disruption to the email market didn't come out of the blue.
It came out of one engineer—Paul Buchheit—who had focused on the email problem for a decade. It came out of a company culture that allowed innovation to flourish from within its ranks. Gmail came together because the innovator and the company met and found themselves in perfect alignment—search, meet email.
Innovation isn't just a shower idea that comes out fully-formed. To innovate and create great products like Gmail, companies have to ruthlessly focus their priorities, identify and invest in the right people, and build structures that will allow them to succeed.
Good companies recognize this is a process, and they work to encourage it. Great companies go a step further and turn it into a habit.
1. Talk to customers (but know when to say no)
When you start developing your innovation habit, your first stop should be your customers. They use your product and might have great ideas for innovative add-ons to your current products, or they'll inspire you to create brand new products entirely. But, at the same time, you need to be picky with the suggestions you take on board.
Crossing the Chasm, organizational theorist Geoffrey Moore notes that you will often even have to say no to your early adopters. Though they're your most vocal and dedicated customers, they don't necessarily represent the majority of the people that use your product—and their requests often don't align.
Wistia is a customer-centric company. From Day 1, we've made All-Hands Support a regular practice as a way of getting everyone in the company to interact and learn from customers. We always want to take into our customers' feedback into account. But sometimes it just doesn't make sense for us.
For instance, we had a group of eighth grade teachers and Wistia users who asked us a few years ago if we could build a quiz feature into Wistia. They wanted to play videos in their classroom and ask students questions at the end.
We ended up saying no, because as Chris explained so well in an all-hands meeting, we do business video. It's what we do really well. It's better for us to double down on business video and not pursue stuff outside of it.
You need to ask yourself what you do best, and then stick to it. Even if it means saying no to your customers. We realized after a while that we should be committed to building an exceptional business video company. Customer feedback helped us hone in on this, making it a lot easier to choose where we focus our innovation.
When you're focused on exactly what your goals and values are, you can find people who will act on them and take your company above and beyond.
2. Invest in intrepreneurial talent
You'd think that innovators are quirky people who hate rigidity and love change. But at Wistia, we've found that innovation comes from all kinds of personality types, including more process-oriented people.
When it comes to innovation, adaptability and flexibility are always traits to look for in new hires. But employees who are process-oriented and set on routine are crucial too. Innovators have to be both rigorous about process and rigorous about improving processes if they want to make a difference.
One of the most powerful ways we nurture intreprenuerial talent at Wistia is by setting up one-on-one meetings. The main purpose of these meetings is to identify what people want to learn while they're at Wistia and what they want to do with their lives, and in turn, what kinds of experiences we can offer them from our end.
Through one-on-one conversations, we find the kinds of people who will take us to the next level—smart, with a lot of hustle, but who are also relentlessly optimistic.
These conversations also give us the opportunity to listen to ideas and encourage our employees to combine their work and their passion. If someone wants to build something, we want them to mock it up or build a prototype. If they want to get better at writing, we want them to write for the blog.
The goal is to simultaneously advance their genius and round out their flatsides, or places where they have less experience. In this way we can build a structure of support around our innovators.
3. Restructure to encourage creativity
You might have the best and brightest intrepreneurs on your staff, but without the right company structure around them, their talents will be underutilized. You need to prioritize their projects as much as possible. And the best way to prioritize projects is to create real incentives and goals for them.
When Wistia launched a side project called 50 Grove, an online marketplace for companies to find filmmakers for their video projects, it seemed like an idea tailor-made for us: our customers needed not just a place to host their videos but people to help make them. So we opened up a place for our customers to meet filmmakers. There were two main problems:
- We wanted 50 Grove to be free, so we didn't collect any revenue
- We didn't set up a system to track referrals from 50 Grove to Wistia or vice versa
Because we had no way to tell if 50 Grove was working, it was always the lowest priority on our list. And, as early startups know, nothing that is explicitly low priority is ever getting done, because there's always some new high-priority project coming just over the horizon.
When thinking about structuring your company for innovation, it's important to remember to create incentives to keep going with your projects. This means tracking your success through reachable goals like revenue and referral traffic. This will help you stop thinking of the project as an experiment and communicate to your staff that it's the new direction your company is moving in.
It's exciting and nerve-racking to start with a greenfield project, but you can move quickly if you create opportunities for a lot of small wins that build on momentum. If you have a good team in place, then that momentum will build until your experiment is a fully-fledged side project of its own—or a whole new business, as 50 Grove could have been.
Innovation isn't a flash in the pan—it is a habit that develops through honing in, nurturing talent, and prioritizing projects. By carefully taking suggestions from outside your company and fostering talent within your company, you can improve your product and expand your company's reach.
Once you create a habit for innovation, disrupting the market is the only next logical step.